I Was A Follower Of Gwen Shamblin Lara's Christian Weight Loss Workshop & Met The Infamous Cult Leader

A new Jennifer Grey movie depicting Gwen Shamblin will unearth an experience I lived firsthand.

Actors Vincent Walsh and Jennifer Grey, Gwen Shamblin Lara and Joe Lara @jennifergrey, @gwenshamblinlara/Instagram

Gwen Shamblin Lara was unique in the pantheon of cult leaders—and not just because of her infamously absurd hairdo.

She spun a persona as a "Biblical weight loss" guru into a slickly manipulative religion, and it made her a millionaire several times over.

Now, Lifetime and the legendary star of “Dirty Dancing” Jennifer Grey have made a campy dramatization of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s rise and fall with the movie “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation," airing February 4.


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Gwen Shamblin Lara, a registered dietitian from Memphis, Tennessee, founded the Weigh Down Workshop in 1986 and later founded Tennessee’s Remnant Fellowship, a church former members call a Weigh Down Workshop-based cult that claims Shamblin was a prophet.


Shamblin Lara died in a mysterious 2021 plane crash, along with her second husband, former actor Joe Lara.

Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop was a combination of “intuitive eating” and evangelical Christian fundamentalism—and even fanaticism.

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I know because I was a loyal follower of Gwen Shamblin Lara's Weigh Down Workshop.

The basics of the program were simple enough—eat only when your stomach is growling, eat whatever you want, and stop when you’re comfortably full.

But Shamblin’s program was also a religion-within-a-religion. She preached that food was a gift from God, and that the notion there were good foods and bad foods was "spiritual bondage" from Satan.


Better yet, Shamblin claimed thinness and her eating method were also a way to rid yourself of sin, to find God and salvation.

And as a teenager who’d been bullied for being fat all his life and whose efforts to “pray the gay away” were emphatically failing? Well, a path that claimed to lead to both thinness and righteousness was everything I’d ever wanted.

So when a Weigh Down Workshop chapter opened at my Michigan church, I was instantly sold.

Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop taught that eating when you were not physiologically hungry was a temptation from Satan and a sin punished with fatness.

And being overweight—to any degree whatsoever—meant you were disobedient to God and your relationship with him had run aground.


Conveniently, everyone can see the evidence of your disobedience on your body, so there was no evading Shamblin Lara’s brand of accountability.

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Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop also encouraged adherents to not eat at all if necessary in order to lose weight, and this sort of disordered eating was celebrated as “obedience to God.”

I remember more than once my mom not eating for as long as five days while “waiting for God’s hunger,” as Shamblin instructed. 

And if you committed the grave sin of gaining weight, fasting was recommended in order to be able to “listen to God instead of the pull of the refrigerator.”


As an active teen at the time, it never took me long to feel hungry, so fasting was never part of my Weigh Down experience. But eating punishingly little was.

One of my greatest so-called triumphs on Shamblin’s program was something my mom proudly named “The Oreo Day.” 

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One day I ended up not eating all day because of the way my summer job shook out—when I was hungry there was no time to eat, and once I got a meal break, I was no longer hungry—and to eat would have been a sin.

When I finally got home I had one food and one food only on my ravenous mind: Oreos. Following the Weigh Down protocol, I began with one tiny bite, which I savored like it might be my last.

I then checked to see if my stomach was still growling. It was, so I had a second bite. And a third. But then, my painfully growling stomach stopped.

I’d only eaten half the damn Oreo, but obedience is obedience. So I threw the rest in the trash, and that was my meal that day. Half an Oreo.


"Hallelujah!" people at church would exclaim, clapping me on the back for my piety and discipline. But my friend Rose had the opposite reaction. 

"This is absolutely insane and this woman is a false prophet!" she exclaimed, making a cross with her index fingers as if warding off the devil.

Rose’s instincts were on the right track, and it did make me consider for the first time whether Shamblin Lara’s program might be a little… off. 

But it didn’t stop me. Nor did my hip bones jutting so much it kind of hurt to wear a belt. Nor did my father one day exclaiming in shock, “My God you’re getting too thin! You have to stop this!”

I couldn’t see my abs yet, which meant I was still fat—which meant I was still sinning. And I knew exactly what “still sinning” meant—yep, still gay.


RELATED: Recovering From An Eating Disorder In A Society That Praises Weight Loss

Shamblin taught you should decline food at parties or social gatherings if you weren’t hungry, with no exceptions—not even for birthday cake or Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

This rule was ultimately my undoing, when my friends planned a going-away breakfast in the cafeteria on the final morning of a music camp I attended in high school.

The problem was, I wasn’t hungry. 

I wasn’t eating, and everyone noticed. “Come on, it’s our last day!” my friends cajoled, digging into their bacon and pancakes.

Bullying at school and church had given me terrible social anxiety, and the feeling of sticking out suddenly felt scarier than disobedience. 


Like some kind of addict, I made a deal with myself and with God—just this one time, I would eat without being hungry. Just this once, and never again.

I got a bowl of raisin bran and after staring into it for what seemed like an eternity, panicking, I took a bite—and it felt like something in me collapsed.

I’d failed. After two years and nearly 100 pounds lost, I’d finally done it—I’d “let Satan win.”

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Gwen Shamblin Lara and her Weigh Down Workshop organization later shunned me when I gained weight.

When I met Shamblin at a book signing and told her I lost nearly 100 pounds on the Weigh Down Diet, she was so pleased she made the crowd at Barnes & Noble applaud me.


When I was invited to speak at her annual convention in Memphis my freshman year of college, I was elated.

Except that I’d gained the “Freshman Fifteen” — really more like the “Freshman Twenty-five.”

When I explained to the coordinator from Shamblin's office who'd called me, her entire demeanor shifted. She put me on hold, and when she came back on the phone, everything had changed.


She rescinded my invitation, and told me they’d be in touch the following year when I’d hopefully gotten back to my “goal weight."

Instantly, I thought of that bowl of raisin bran at the music camp—the moment when it all began to unravel—and felt a profound shame.

It makes me laugh now. It’s like being upset a serial killer didn’t pick you or something. But at the time it felt like a soul-level failure, like I’d let down myself, God, and Gwen Shamblin.

A year came and went, and I never heard from anyone at the Weigh Down Workshop again.

RELATED: The Agony Of Being Spiritually Abused By Religious Narcissists

Gwen Shamblin Lara went on to turn her Weigh Down Workshop into a cult called Remnant Fellowship that former followers say resulted in eating disorders, estrangements, and a criminal investigation.

It’s been decades since I was a devotee of Gwen Shamblin Lara—or Christianity for that matter.


But religious fundamentalism never entirely leaves you, and like all the Bible verses I had to memorize as a kid, Shamblin Lara’s influence lives on in my brain. 

This is how I ended up Googling Gwen a few years ago and finding out the shocking truth about what she became.

Her extreme ideas had metastasized into a weight-obsessed cult in which members were punished for being overweight, forced to separate from friends and family, and shunned.


And her obsession with obedience had gone far beyond just food—in 2003, a child was beaten to death by his parents after Shamblin Lara instructed them to whip him with glue sticks.

Given the grimness of the story, some will surely feel Lifetime’s campy take on Shamblin Lara is in poor taste, but I disagree.

Satire and mockery have been used to critique the abuse of power for as long as humans have existed, and ignominy and derision are exactly the legacy Gwen Shamblin Lara deserves.

I’m reminded of the Bible verse Shamblin frequently cited in the Weigh Down Workshop, Galatians 6:7—“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”


Shamblin Lara may have believed she was God, but the rest of us know better.

Let the reaping begin.

Eating disorders are very common. 

According to the ANAD (Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), eating disorders affect 9 percent of the population worldwide, and 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.

Second to only opioid overdose, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses with 10,200 deaths each year as the direct result of an eating disorder — that’s one death every 52 minutes.

If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline’s toll-free phone number: 1-800-931-2237.


Gwen Shamblin Lara and Remnant Fellowship deny all allegations of wrongdoing.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.