fitness · weight loss

This week in diet fallacies: appeal to Oprah

This week in my introductory logic class I was teaching informal fallacies.  These are, in brief, bad arguments– that is, they are groups of sentences which purport to provide evidence for some claim, but in fact provide no evidence at all.  And they tend to reflect some flaw or vulnerability in our capacities for reasoning.  So we would do well to avoid them.  However, they are taught in part because we see them everywhere, all the time.

I try to use good and timely examples of fallacies in class to help the students better understand how they work and also how bad their effects can be on us.  Of course, politics provides us with a bounteous and 24/7 supply of fresh fallacies, which I have been making use of.

But I just read an article called “The Big Problem with Oprah and Other Celebs Who Tout Diets”, and was struck by how handy the dieting business and dieting approach to health is just chock-full of fallacies.  We of course know these, but in the interests of combining my love of fallacies with my hatred of all things diet-ish, I thought I’d put a prominent one out there:  Appeal to Authority.

What is Appeal to authority?  This fallacy happens when we accept some claim just because some putative authority says so.  Who remembers Oprah coming out on her show, hauling a wagon of fat to demonstrate how much weight she has lost (and of course how disgusting fat is, and how disgusting we who still have the fat are, and how she’s not disgusting anymore because she got rid of the fat– I could go on…)?

Oprah on her show, with a wagon full of fat, demonstrating her recent weight loss

Now, Oprah has a new cookbook out called Food, Health and Happiness, featuring what looks like a thinner version of herself, and a softer message for everyone who yearns for… what?  A more ideal version of themselves?  A slower, more idyllic life that includes time to massage kale, make spelt bread, and gather apples from their own trees out back?  Oprah says you can have this.  Just click here.

front cover of Oprah's new Food Health and Happiness cookbook

In the article I mentioned above, the author points out a few problems with even this kinder and gentler approach to the d-word.  Here they are:

1. Celebrities Don’t Look Like They Do Because Of Their Diets

Stars look like stars because they’re either genetically blessed with high metabolisms and lean bodies, driven to perfection, or both. What’s more, actresses, models, celebrity yoga instructors and the like get paid the big bucks to look fantastic. And a good thing, because it costs a pretty penny to employ an entourage of experts to keep up appearances.

2. Diets Don’t Work

Diets reliably promote weight gain, not loss, thereby increasing the very weight-related health risks they aim to decrease. It’s cruel but statistically true: A five-year study of 2,500 teens showed dieting is an important predictor of both obesity and new eating disorders.

3. Celebrity Diets Are Even Less Likely to Work

Celebrity diets backfire big-time for all the same reasons and more. Diets of the rich and famous tend to be expensive, costing dieters time and money they don’t necessarily have. Some go to wacky extremes, eliminating such an idiosyncratic list of foods that social occasions become stressful events. What’s a restaurant-goer to order on Gwyneth’s 10-day detox, which excludes gluten, soy, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, white rice, shellfish, raw fish, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, corn… ?

Celebrity diets are beyond doomed because of the toxic mix of negative comparisons, shame and self-criticism they inspire. As inspiring as it might be to watch your favorite celebrities diet down to size, the airbrushed photos of celebrity dieters looking like they’re doing better than you tend to make you feel worse and exacerbate the very eating issues their diets are meant to alleviate.

All of these reasons reveal the ways that we fall for the appeal to celebrity authority.  We see in minute detail the path that celebrities take to go from X pounds to X-Y pounds.  We see the splashy photo shoots, the results of the labors of an army of hair, makeup, wardrobe and Photoshop staff. In Oprah’s case, there’s more documentation of her weight gains and losses than probably any other celebrity.

Appeal to authority celebrity diet claims also help us see how diets don’t work– that is, if the goal of a diet is to lose and maintain weight loss over time, Oprah (who arguably has more money than God) is living proof that it’s just not possible for everyone to meet that goal.

Finally, the celebrity diets that are put out there can be expensive, time-consuming and  hard to prepare– all features that make them poor choices for someone who is looking to change their eating habits.  A quick look at the Amazon page for Oprah’s cookbook yielded these comments:

Beautiful book, but the recipes are too time consuming for this working mom and many ingredients are hard to find.

This cookbook is for the rich or for the chefs of the rich, not your everyday housewife or working mom. It is … more a picture of Oprah’s extravagant, pampered lifestyle. If you like recipes with like 25 ingredients, many of which you’ve never heard of, and recipes with like 2 pages of directions, then this is the cookbook for you.

Why are there no serving sizes?

I admit that I love cookbooks– they are aspirational, inspirational, and good (for me) at pulling me out of a cooking rut.  But I’m under no illusions that a celebrity (or any) cookbook will be a sure-fire way to catapult me into a different pattern of eating.

Readers, do you rely on cookbooks to help you with changes you want to make in your eating?  Have you relied on some and been pleased?  Disappointed?  I’d love to hear from you.


19 thoughts on “This week in diet fallacies: appeal to Oprah

  1. I like to use cookbooks if I’m in a rut with cooking, but I don’t use them for health advice because no one cookbook or author is going to have all the answers. I don’t ever want to give my entire way of eating over to someone who may not know what they’re talking about, but if their recipe is yummy then I keep it around.

    Overall, I keep less than ten on hand that have classic recipes without a ton of fuss. I can open it up when I’m feeling uninspired and pick something new to make. When I design recipes for my blog, I make sure that I keep it to necessities and that it’s not a bazillion steps.

    1. Hey Abby– what the name of your blog? If you have yummy recipes on it I’d love to check them out.

      1. Thanks! The website is I also chronicle what it’s like to start learning to cook for the first time. I’m not a professional chef or anything but I will say that I have used many of my own recipes to make stuff for parties and they tend to get a lot of thumbs up. Hopefully one day I can get some classical training!

  2. Sadly it feels as if the diet thing and cookbooks from Oprah, is a money-making machine for her. She did start off and was for the longest time, a celebrity who did use her money and time to inspire others –ie. Oprah’s Book Club titles, etc.

    I have several cookbooks and they are mostly in another city, where it’s a 2nd home. Over the years, I just tend to discover 1-2 good recipes every few years, I like that give me creative flexibility to make variations. I add those recipes to my roster of recipes in my head that I’ve learned from my mother. So the way how I cook is Asian influenced and if it’s pure 100% Chinese dish, it tends to be home style –it’s not your greasy thing that you find in restaurants. That’s not really how traditional Chinese dishes are at home. There’s more steamed meat, egg, dishes..which is probably alien to North American palates. 😉

    What I invent are a bit of fusion:

    Stir fried beet greens with tomato, onion and ginger root:

    Schiacciatia –fruit, sweet (but no sugar) pizza/foccocia. Put in fresh blueberries, raspberries, blackberries or lichee fruit. Lace with honey, with smashed finely minced ginger root and crushed anise seeds. It’s very lovely …and fusion. Buy fresh pizza dough.

    My mother’s stir fried butternut squash. No sugar, no honey, no butter. With onions, ginger, garlic and dash of soy sauce. Stir frying naturally carmelizes it. Seriously baked butternut squash boring to me. Be dynamic. This is a fast dish.

    1. HI Jean, and thanks so much for the links to the yummy and palate-provoking recipes. For me, there are a bunch of new or different tastes there, so I look forward to trying some of them. The butternut squash recipe looks especially delicious. And it’s still pretty cold here, so it would be perfect for late winter.

      1. Do let me know of your effort. One can add slice mushrooms with the onions, before adding cubed sq

  3. I cannot begin to emphasize that cooking healthy needs to become…instinctive, yet sometimes creative. Just to view it as fuel is….just boring and one doesn’t motivate a person to pay attention how to prepare food and eat in an enjoyable way.

    As you can see, food for me is: heritage, memory and enjoyment. It naturally influences how and what I cook. Not because I bike or just because I want to remain fit. That’s not good enough for me. Otherwise, I’ll be sticking to oatmeal, kale or avoiding every “bad” food.

    1. Jean– have you ever thought of writing a cookbook (apologies if you actually have one out there already; if so, post a link). I really like your approach to cooking and eating. I’m sure it would speak to lots of us out here. I know your blog is out there, which is great, but a cookbook would be cool, too, along with your reflections on cooking, taste, heritage, adapting one cuisine to another region (e.g. your mom’s cooking of the squash in Canada). I personally would buy a copy in a minute! Just a thought…

      1. I’ll think about it…even though, gosh it means work 🙂 –ie. testing recipes and ingredient amounts.

  4. I could never make anything without a recipe. And yet, every cookbook I’ve ever been gifted remains uncracked.

    1. Hi there– thanks for the honest answer! Yeah, we are all different about what seem like ordinary tasks of life. No one does all of them, and no one does many of them all the time. I love cooking, but with respect to finances, I just work and kind of hope for the best… 🙂

  5. I tend to use old recipe books. I what things to minimize in general, so I’m not too worried about healthy eating advice. I like the older books because the recipes tend to be simpler, with readily available ingredients, and the portions are much more appropriate. My favourite example is my Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie from 1964. It is intended to make 60 cookies, each of which is 1/4 to 1/3 the size of the average cookie at the grocery store.

    1. HI– that’s a great reminder that we all probably have lots of older cookbooks that have great recipes. I love my Joy of Cooking, as it gives me basic guidelines for just about anything I want to make. I can tweak it if I want, and also adjust depending on what ingredients I have or don’t have. Thanks!

  6. As an avid cook, I turn to a few of my favorite cookbooks for technical guidance (how long and what temperature do I roast this vegetable at?) and to get inspired with new combos of flavors. Some of my favorite “healthy” books are Ellie Krieger’s So Easy, Mark Bittman’s VB6, and Williams-Sonoma’s Healthy in a Hurry. These books reflect the kinds of foods I like to eat, so in that regard they’ve helped me maintain a healthy diet, but I’ve never cooked religiously out of one in hopes of seeing a particular outcome. I turn to Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking to make the “best ever” version of classic dishes. Recently, I’ve enjoyed One Pan, Two Plates by Carla Snyder since the recipes are engineered for two people and require minimal effort. More often though, I turn to some of my favorite food blogs (,, and the NYT cooking app to get inspired.

    1. Thanks, Rachel– these are great tips! Some of them I knew but lots of them I didn’t. I just bought the Flavor Bible to help inspire me to try out new tastes; my palate gets bored by what I usually go to. And I love smittenkitchen– it’s also inspirational (and fun reading).

  7. I have some old tried and true cookbooks that have been passed down to me. I use them when I want to know how to make something “Traditional”. Mostly I find new recipes on food blogs, but they also seem to have ingredients that I don’t regularly find in my kitchen. I only seem to go in search of these recipes if I’m bored with what we’ve been eating. I like to experiment once in awhile, but it’s a big turn off if I’m going to have to buy $10 worth of coconut flour to use to make one dozen cookies that no one in my house will eat….

  8. I LOVED THIS. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about fatness, skinniness and diets (mainly because I’m reading Fat is a Feminist issue) and this had never occurred to me. Well, rather it had occurred to me, but as something so obvious, underlying and accepted that I’d never thought to question it… if that makes sense!

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