In 1988, Oprah Winfrey shocked her viewers by shedding 67 pounds and pulling a wagon of fat — representing her weight loss — on stage. Her secret? Winfrey drank herself skinny with a liquid diet program called Optifast. According to a 1988 TIME article, just hours after her show, the diet company fielded more than 200,000 calls from curious viewers inquiring about the weight loss plan.
However, after months on the strict diet, Winfrey transitioned to a normal eating regimen and the pounds crept back on. “Two weeks after I returned to real food, I was up 10 pounds,” she reminisces in her magazine, O. “Since I wasn’t exercising, there was nothing my body could do but regain the weight. As my friend Maya Angelou often tells me, ‘When you know better, you do better.’ Seventeen years after that show, I know a whole lot better.”
In a letter of response, Optifast said: “Although results vary by participant, the typical Optifast patient completing the program loses over fifty pounds in 18 to 26 weeks which can result in improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels. … While Oprah Winfrey featured her 67-pound weight loss on one of her shows in 1988 and attributed the success to Optifast meal replacements, she was not a paid celebrity endorser.”
Rayner argues that celebrities promoting diets is dangerous territory, especially in the United States where obesity is a serious issue. “It can produce a very distorted image for people who follow and trust celebrities,” he says. “In most cases, these celebrities also have personal trainers and special plans. The ‘diet’ they are on can become a ‘celebrity’ too, but it’s not always the best method. There needs to be some ethical guidance about what celebrities are promoting.”