Aubrey tells Mike about the diet that took over New York City (and its bathrooms).
Thanks to Doctor Dreamchip for our lovely theme song!Support the show
Michael: What is going on outside? Sorry, there's like-- is that a car alarm or just someone honking rhythmically? [Aubrey laughs] Sometimes there's a pedestrian that bothers you and you just do it in time to the music or whatever. God damn it, I have a joke and I can't do it because it's beeping.
[Maintenance Phase theme music]
Aubrey: You are tagging us in. Yeah?
Michael: Yes, but it's another surprise episode. So, what can I do?
Aubrey: It's about a diet. That's your hint.
Michael: Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast where the only thing that's thin is the research. Wait. [laughs]
Aubrey: It sounded really good and then I was like, “Wait a minute. Check for content.”
Michael: I did a bad one.
Aubrey: Fat research. That's what we traffic in.
Michael: Yeah, fat research.
Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon.
Michael: I'm Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: If you would like to support the podcast, you can do that at patreon.com/maintenancephase. You can also get t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, all kinds of stuff at TeePublic. And you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts. It's the same audio as the Patreon. All of that is linked for you in the show notes. Michael.
Aubrey: Over the last couple of episodes, we have had some rough content.
Michael: It's been dark.
Aubrey: I thought today we had a little change of topic. My other topic was also going to be more intense stuff. And I wanted something that wasn't a full existential bummer.
Michael: I don't believe you that this one won't be a bummer. But you know what? I'll let you take me there.
Aubrey: I mean, it's not going to be not a bummer, but it's not going to make you like, hopeless for the state of the world.
Michael: Level four hopeless. We need like a level four, level five hopeless episode.
Aubrey: So, today we are talking about the F-Factor diet.
Michael: The F-Factor.
Aubrey: I take it from that you have not heard of the F-Factor.
Michael: Nothing. My mind is empty.
Aubrey: So, you don't know what the F in F-factor sounds like?
Michael: Is it fit?
Aubrey: Keep going. Keep guessing things. Let's actually just do this for a little while.
Michael: The first 15 minutes of the show is Mike going through the dictionary.
Aubrey: Mike guesses F words.
Michael: Phenomenon [unintelligible [00:02:05] powder.
Aubrey: No. The F in F-Factor is for fiber. The diet was first introduced in 2006. That's when the diet book came out initially. It was created by a registered dietician named Tanya Zuckerbrot. And I'm actually going to just let her introduce the diet. We've got a little ad clippy clip thing to watch.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Tanya [Advertisement]: F-Factor is like no other diet out there. It is based on four disruptive principles that are counterintuitive to everything that we believe about the weight loss phase. We're told to cut out carbs, don't drink alcohol, don't dine out and work out harder. And where that leave us? We are fatter than ever as a nation. Fast forward 15 years, tens of thousands of clients have benefited from our F-Factor method. If something your life feels mediocre, you don't have to accept that if you're willing to do the work.
Michael: Why is the music so loud? It's like watching Dawson's Creek. This is a very thin, very conventionally attractive woman with long black hair. And halfway through the clip, we get a graphic that says four disruptive principles, and they are eat carbs, dine out, drink alcohol, workout less. These are disruptive principles. I got to say, if she's going for counterintuitive, like Freakonomics style, you thought it was this, but it's actually that. She nailed it. I mean, these are things people tell you not to do if you're trying to lose weight.
Aubrey: Yeah, I mean, it sounds wild. She has a bunch of these little sayings, like, "These are four disruptive principles." She says, "Fiber and protein at every meal makes losing weight, no big deal."
Michael: If the glove doesn't fit.
Aubrey: She's saying all these things about disruptive principles and you don't work out and you do drink and you do go out to eat and then you get into the diet. Wherein you are supposed to get a minimum of 35 grams of fiber per day.
Michael: Is that a lot? I don't know grams.
Aubrey: In the USDA's gendered categories, they say that women should get 25 grams of fiber a day and men should get 38 grams of fiber.
Aubrey: So, this diet is 10 grams over USDA recommendations. That's a 40% increase in daily fiber for women if you're getting the recommended amount already, which most of us aren't.
Michael: Should we talk about what fiber is?
Aubrey: So, fiber is also known as inulin, is sort of its nutrition name. Fiber slows down your digestion, which helps manage blood sugar. That's especially important for people who have elevated blood sugar, like people with diabetes or sometimes people with polycystic ovarian syndrome or insulin insensitivity, all of that kind of stuff. Fiber also famously sort of keeps you regular.
Michael: That's all I know about it.
Aubrey: Okay, that is just the pooping part. You just know the--[crosstalk]
Michael: All I know is the poop stuff, which is why I've never learned anything more than that about fiber.
Aubrey: Good, good, good. It's genuinely very good for you.
Michael: My understanding is that, yeah, try to get more fiber. It's genuinely good advice because lots of things have fiber. You're not starving yourself or doing any weird diet behavior. It's just like, "Oh, try to eat stuff that isn't broken down and reconstituted."
Aubrey: Totally. Most of us have wrong ideas about where there is and is not fiber in foods.
Michael: This was going to be my next question because I have no idea. If I was going to get more fiber, I don't know what I would start doing.
Aubrey: I have run headlong into this because some of my favorite foods in general are very high in fiber, and I have absolutely had instances where I have overdone it on fiber.
Michael: I will not be asking you for any further specifics about that.
Aubrey: No one needs details.
Michael: What are the foods?
Aubrey: I eat a lot of pecans. Pecans are super high in fiber. Most berries, raspberries in particular, and blackberries are super-duper high in fiber.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: Beans and seeds high in fiber. With fiber, as with so many other things, the dose makes the poison. To quote every toxicologist ever, too much fiber is known to cause abdominal pain, bloating and gas pain, constipation or diarrhea. Roll the dice and dehydration. If you're eating a lot of fiber, you have to drink more water because fiber really is sort of a sponge. That's the lowdown on fiber. It's a good thing to have. Most of us get way, way, way not enough. And this diet recommends way more than the USDA.
Aubrey: The thing that this diet has that other diets don't reliably have is it is hella fucking confusing. [Michael laughs] The diet is clear that you shouldn't track calories. This is repeated in the book multiple times, just macronutrients plus fiber. And you're also instructed to keep a food journal and track your protein and fiber and carbs and make sure that all of those are staying where they need to stay.
Aubrey: But the reason they say you shouldn't count calories is that there is, “An inherent calorie cap built into the diet.”
Aubrey: They're telling you essentially the levels that you should be operating at each day in terms of your macronutrients.
Michael: Oh, so, basically, if you're eating X grams of fat and carbs and protein, you naturally will be eating a set level of calories.
Aubrey: Yes, absolutely. So, for a couple of reasons. One, fiber is indigestible. Your body doesn't absorb it. It just moves straight through you. So, the idea is you're filling up on fiber so you feel full.
Aubrey: A number of news stories cited this. I checked it on some of their recipes. It is very much so true that if you eat three meals a day, the ones listed on their website, the recipes that they provide, you're eating around thousand calories a day, maybe less.
Aubrey: It is extremely low calorie the way that they do it.
Michael: But I can eat carbs, dine out, drink alcohol and work out less. That sounds much more appealing.
Aubrey: It does. Then a thousand calories a day, you have to eat more fiber than you could even conceptualize.
Michael: Yeah. I'm just sitting at a Denny's all day having pancakes and an IPA.
Aubrey: Yeah, except those pancakes are being made with fiber plus protein powder.
Michael: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: Like, there's definitely a lot of. You can eat waffles and then they have the recipe for the waffles and it's just like, protein powder and egg whites, and you're like—
Michael: Oh, yeah. So, it's like waffle shaped muscle fibers.
Aubrey: It's like waffle that's like chicken with an apostrophe n where you're like, “Okay, so it's not chicken. Got it.” It's like WA F-F-Y-L or something.
By 2018, F-Factor launched its own line of high fiber diet foods. They refer to these as fiber supplements, which will become important later on. And they have energy bars, essentially with 20 grams of fiber per serving. That's more than most Americans get in a full day in one bar.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: It's worth noting this is not the first high fiber diet, nor is it the first high fiber diet to catch on. There was the Pritikin diet, released in 1979.
Michael: Of course.
Aubrey: There's also the F-plan, which came out in 1983. It also focused on increasing fiber intake. It became a bestseller in the US. They published a reboot of that diet book called F2 in 2006, which is somehow not a Vin Diesel vehicle. And 2006 is the same year that the F-Factor came out. And it just got totally trounced by the F-Factor. There was only room in this town for one high fiber diet, and F-Factor absolutely took it.
Michael: This is how I open all of my Grindr conversations. What's your F-plan?
Aubrey: And then they get a worksheet.
Michael: What's your F-plan for us?
Aubrey: We're going to talk a tiny bit about the founder of this diet, Tanya Zuckerbrot. She is currently in her 50s. She's originally from Long Island. She is a registered dietitian. A 2010 piece in the New York post said that at that time, she was charging $4,500 for six meetings.
Aubrey: By 2013, it was $10,000 for 10 sessions.
Aubrey: By 2016, according to Grub Street, that was up to $15,000 for 10 sessions.
Michael: But at least she's giving the extremely unique advice of eat more fiber and try to eat less food overall.
Aubrey: You're paying because you're getting something you can't get anywhere else, which is someone to tell you drink more water and eat more fiber. Great. She is also extremely wealthy. For much of this story, a number of reporting outlets report that she lives in a Park Avenue apartment in New York that is worth $22.5 million.
Michael: Whoa. Where's her money from?
Aubrey: She is, I think, from a wealthy family, and also she married a dude who is a real estate magnate kind of a guy. She has two origin stories for the creation of the diet. One of those origin stories is that she says it came out of her private practice treating people with diabetes and heart disease, that she's like, "I was just trying to manage their sugar. I was just trying to manage their cholesterol. Then, lo and behold, they lost all this weight. I thought, what if other people could lose weight this way?"
Aubrey: Then the other one is an origin story where she talks about thinking that she might be the kind of person who could eat anything and just stay thin, like her first husband. She tries an experiment where she just eats what she wants and she gains 24 pounds and then she loses it by eating a bunch of fiber. And she's like, “So I get it, guys.”
Michael: This is your favorite thing, where it's somebody who lost an extremely modest amount of weight that they only gained very temporarily, and then for the rest of their lives, they're like, “I've been there.”
Aubrey: Believe me, I had all the excuses. So, the last thing to know about Tanya is that she has been appearing on TV as a talking head dietitian for well over a decade. So, when there are stories about the “teen obesity epidemic” is one that I saw from her, when there is like, "Congress is coming for our French fries and school meals," she'll show up around that kind of stuff. Many of her appearances have been on Fox News, and this diet was written about in a memoir called Settle for More.
Michael: Oh, that's good.
Aubrey: About losing post baby weight by Megyn Kelly.
Michael: Oh, man. Her first appearance on the show. God.
Aubrey: Yeah. It's amazing that it's taken this long.
Michael: God, I just got such a chill up my spine just remembering the existence of this person. My hands just got cold.
Michael: So, the F-Factor has a slow and steady rise for a solid 10 or 15 years. It gets a good review in Publishers Weekly, which says, “Decrying fat diets. Board certified dietician Zuckerbrot, devised a diet that emphasizes fiber consumption without worrying much about carbs, fats or calories,” to which I say, did we read the same book?
Michael: Yeah. Decrying fat diets. This fat diet is totally different. What do people think fat diets are? It's very weird to me.
Aubrey: There is also a New York Post story in 2010. The headline is "These women want to make you skinny." And then it's just a picture of a bunch of the F-Factor dietitians in skirts and stilettos, looking like hot, thin ladies. And the whole story is basically like, “They're dietitians but conventionally attractive?”
Michael: These librarians want to give you books that's not like, a counterintuitive.
Aubrey: This chef wants to cook a meal.
Michael: Yeah, [crosstalk] that's what I would expect them to be doing.
Aubrey: Okay, so the F-Factor has this steady rise over about 15 years. It gets more and more popular. Particularly, it gets popular in New York. Many folks outside of New York that I have talked to about this don't have any idea. And then when I talk to people who are in New York, they're like, “People won't shut up about it.”
Michael: It's like Dale Chihuly if you live in Seattle. [Aubrey laughs] I never get to say this, Aubrey, but I'm proud of my internet usage that I never came across this in 15 years.
Aubrey: It's incredible. I took a quiz at the end of last year that was like, “How extremely online were you this year?”
Aubrey: Mine was at the medium level, and I was like, [laughs].
Michael: Thank you for not sending that to me because I would have taken it and would have scored 100 out of 100 and felt bad about myself for the entire day.
Aubrey: So, Michael, we’re getting to the point that we've all been waiting for, which is the fall of this diet. In the spring of 2020, an Instagram account starts posting about F-Factor and about negative reactions that people are having. The Instagram account is called DeuxMoi. Have you heard about DeuxMoi?
Michael: Yes, I was involved in the subreddit because of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard stuff. It was the only subreddit that was like, "Ah, this seems to be a very obvious misogynistic attack on a woman who is very credibly, alleging abuse." And that was a super controversial opinion for six months last year.
Aubrey: And still is if you say it too loud now.
Michael: Our inbox is already filling up with people mad about what I just said.
Aubrey: So, you know then DeuxMoi, for any listeners who don't know, is mostly an Instagram account. That's sort of where it started, but it has branched out to be a podcast. There's a subreddit. There's a lot more going on with DeuxMoi than there used to be. So, DeuxMoi starts posting stories from their users about very rough side effects that they're having when they use F-Factor products.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Aubrey: Many people are experiencing bloating, gas pains, constipation, diarrhea, plenty of the gastrointestinal side effects that appear on lists of too much fiber all at once kind of side effects.
Michael: Ah, okay.
Aubrey: But some of them go a lot further than that. Some folks reported hair loss, like their hair was coming out in clumps. Some people reported rashes or hives. A couple of people reported that their tongues swelled or their eyes swelled up.
Michael: These are like witch's hexes.
Aubrey: These are wild as fuck. And amenorrhea, which is losing your period if you had one before and you stopped getting it.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: One of the more sensational claims that came out of that is someone who said that they miscarried while they were on the diet.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: It is also worth noting that none of these have been verified or fact checked at this point. It's just a flood of personal experiences with the diet. Or I should say, if DeuxMoi is doing some vetting, I haven't heard about it or read about it.
Michael: It's like, "We're getting reports. We're publishing the reports," basically.
Aubrey: Absolutely. DeuxMoi is like, a huge account with millions of followers. Like, it's a big deal. One of the people watching those DeuxMoi stories is someone named Emily Gellis. Now Emily Gellis Lande. She is a fashion influencer. She's currently in her late 30s. She has about 230,000 Instagram followers. So, a really significant following. She's not done the F-Factor, but she's seeing these experiences and it really seems to be riling her up.
Aubrey: According to Wondery, she tells them her father is a lawyer. And I will say this, she has extremely big my-father-is-a-lawyer energy. “You'll be hearing from my dad about this,” is absolutely the vibe with that lady.
Michael: Yeah, we had a kid like that in my Boy Scouts troop. He's always trying to sue people.
Aubrey: Yes. She is also from Long Island, like Tanya Zuckerbrot. She starts looking into this diet and finds two Instagram accounts that appear to be anonymous accounts making allegations about F-Factor in April of 2020 is when she finds those accounts. Shortly thereafter, she starts posting about F-Factor herself and asking people about their experiences on the diet and starts sharing those out.
In August, after months of posting about this, Emily goes on DeuxMoi's podcast and talks about the allegations about F-Factor so far. Two weeks later, F-Factor releases a response statement on Instagram where they say their customers are their top priority. They say they're going to release something called a Certificate of Analysis. Is that something you've heard of before, Mike?
Aubrey: It's usually delivered with shipments of ingredients for supplements. So, like a supplier sends something to someone who's going to custom mix their supplements.
Aubrey: And says, “We can verify that this pearl powder we're sending to Moon Juice really is pearl powder and doesn't have these dangerous things in it. We've analyzed the ingredients, and it really is what it says it is,” blah, blah. That is an industry practice, not a requirement, because as a reminder, the supplement industry is entirely unregulated.
Michael: Right. They're just saying stuff.
Aubrey: They're just saying stuff. This is like a courtesy that people provide. But there's no state agency that's like, “If you don't have a lab analysis of your supplements, you're done.”
Michael: Are the protein bars supplements? Wouldn't they fall under the FDA's jurisdiction because they're food or are they not for some reason.
Aubrey: They are marketed as supplements.
Aubrey: They are marketed as fiber supplements. Yes, yes.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: F-Factor releases this statement, but within a couple of days, it seems like things were already in motion. So, two days after the Deuxmoi podcast, Perez Hilton posts about it.
Michael: Oh, God.
Aubrey: This is the most cursed path for a diet story to take.
Michael: A yearbook of people I have not and do not want to think about, [laughs] years on end.
Aubrey: The day after Perez Hilton posts about it, Page Six has a story about it. Tanya Zuckerbrot gives them a quote and says, “In over two years, we have received less than 50 complaints asking for refunds. This rumor that somehow I created a product that's harming people's health is so malicious and frankly, unfounded.” She's fully like, "This is all lies. We haven't gotten complaints about this. It's bullshit."
Aubrey: As press attention grows, that really seems to fan the flames of the Internet speculation about this. So, people start advancing theories about what's going on with F-Factor products. Some people say there's got to be a bunch of lead in them. Some people say the symptoms are probably the result of heavy metals in the products.
Michael: Yeah, I honestly feel pretty uncomfortable with sort of the internet sleuth culture around this kind of stuff too, that you basically just have a ton of speculation based on what are fundamentally like anonymous internet accounts. Anytime there's internet users, like, solving mysteries, I just get like constitutionally uncomfortable.
Aubrey: That was also how I felt at this point in the story, and I will say my feelings changed multiple times. So, all this internet sleuthing is going on and F-Factor sort of fast tracks releasing a Certificate of Analysis is what they say. They make another statement saying that they are blaming the whole thing on, “Misinformation generated by a handful of people on social media.” And says, “It is extraordinarily upsetting that some of you have been caused worry by false and malicious assertions, most of them made anonymously.” That's on August 22nd. Two days after that, the New York Times picks up the story. Here is one of the stories that gets printed in that Times piece.
Michael: It says “One woman who said she was underweight paid $20,000 to become Ms. Zuckerbrot's client. The regimented nature of the program exacerbated her issues with food, she said, and after eight months of drinking shakes made with the F-Factor powder, the woman developed excruciating red spots that required a biopsy. Both these women said their symptoms disappeared when they stopped the diet.”
Aubrey: It is worth noting that Tanya Zuckerbrot, for her point, says that she has only rarely accepted underweight clients and usually with the goal of helping them gain weight. The biggest bombshell of the story is that in reaching out to verify these claims, the first people to do, what I would consider to be real shoe leather journalism on this topic. They verify the majority of the claims that they are given. And there's one that turns out to be a hoax. The one that turns out to be a hoax is the miscarriage claim. As it turns out, after sending in that complaint, someone emails Tanya Zuckerbrot and an Instagram executive to claim credit for that false claim.
Aubrey: The email comes from a Gmail account called firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael: It's like a right-wing troll?
Aubrey: It is a former Instagram influencer named Alison Brettschneider. At that time, she was 44. She happily talks to The New York Times and says that she herself had been subject to what she considered an unfair pile on Instagram. A couple of years earlier, Rachel Cargill, who is a public intellectual, posted about Nia Wilson, who was a young black woman who was murdered at a BART station in 2018, and in her post about it said, “I'm waiting for your favorite white feminist to post about Nia Wilson.”
Aubrey: A bunch of white feminists responded, and a number of them were like, “Got it on board.” Alison Brettschneider went fully off the rails. So here is what happened next.
Michael: Oh, God. This is like a weird little Instagram nightmare turducken [crosstalk] precursor scandals.
Aubrey: It really is. So, this synopsis that you're about to read from comes from The Cut.
Michael: It says, “In messages later shared by Cargill on Instagram, Brettschneider called Cargill shameful and a clown, accusing her of alienating women. She also threatened Cargill's followers and according to some, reached out to their employers to complain about them. Her Instagram account was subsequently suspended for bullying and she is now suing Instagram. Brettschneider told the Times that she planted the false miscarriage story because she couldn't stand silently by and watch Zuckerbrot be attacked by people on Instagram.”
Wait, okay. [Aubrey laughs] This woman, Allison, she is basically called out for only focusing on the problems of white people on Instagram. Instead of responding to this maturely, she goes on the fucking war path against the person who called her out.
Aubrey: And her followers.
Michael: And her followers and is eventually kicked off of Instagram. She then stews in her anger for some period of time. She sees people writing on the internet about these gastrointestinal symptoms of F-Factor. So, she makes up an even more extreme version of this food poisoning claim, specifically so that it will be debunked and then discredit all of the other people claiming to have problems.
Aubrey: Yeah, that appears to be the mechanics of this decision.
Michael: Woah. She's doing the thing where she wants to prove how easy it is to lie on the Internet. So, she lies on the internet.
Aubrey: This is the Instagram version of Leopold and Loeb, but not good at it.
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aubrey: But she's like, “I'm going to show how easy it is to pull off this thing.” And then you're like, “No, you didn't show that." This time around in these follow up pieces, Tanya seems significantly less on message. She tells Insider that, “The accusations were an example of anti-diet advocacy gone too far and a harassment campaign to ruin her career.” This is where we get into Ronnie territory.
Michael: Why don't you eat some bread, you beast? How dare you? It's my favorite thing.
Aubrey: [laughs] I'm assuming these are all references to Real Housewives.
Michael: You haven't seen that clip?
Aubrey: I'm not a part of the Real Housewives fan base.
Michael: I'm sending you a clip immediately upon the ending of this episode recording. [laughs]
Aubrey: I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait. She also starts defending in this wave of stories against these accusations about disordered eating. And her response pretty continuously is like, “Well, if you have an eating disorder, you shouldn't be on this diet.” It's like, “Well, Tanya, yeah, that's not everyone has a diagnosed eating disorder. That's kind of a privilege.”
Aubrey: There are a lot more people who have 15.99 in their pockets for a diet book than have hundreds or thousands of dollars for diagnosis and treatment of an eating disorder. And also starting diets is how many people find out that they have an eating disorder or develop one to begin with.
Michael: Right. It's a very difficult thing to define, too. There's not like a clear line. It's when does someone become an alcoholic?
Aubrey: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: It's really a judgment call.
Aubrey: This all culminates in this story getting so big that Tanya goes on the Today show to release the certificates of analysis and address this growing firestorm. This is normally when we would watch that clip, there's not a lot to see there, honestly. It's clear that she has good PR help. It's clear that she has a good legal team. They're sort of keeping her on track. It's really just like, "Our products are totally safe." You can see from this certificate of analysis, blah, blah, blah.
So, by September 4th, we're now like one month, from the Deuxmoi podcast. All of this has happened in one month. Insider reports that the company appears to be threatening lawsuits against its critics and that it is deleting comments on Instagram. When Insider asks them, “Are you doing this?” Tanya Zuckerbrot says, “We felt were following community guidelines when it was slander. When people say 'your products have lead and are poisoning people,' or 'I lost my period.' We know that there's absolutely zero correlation between our product and those claims, why would you leave that there?” So, they start sending cease and desist to people who were making comments on Instagram.
Michael: Wait, what? Really? You can do that?
Aubrey: Apparently, they did it.
Aubrey: You can tell people to knock it off by way of a lawyer on a lot of different things.
Michael: Can I do that to people who comment on my YouTube videos? "This guy sucks." No, I don't.
Aubrey: Cease and descent.
Michael: My mom says I'm cool.
Aubrey: Not only are they sending them to people who are on Instagram, they're sending them to former employees.
Michael: Running to the mods. Incredible move.
Aubrey: [laughs] Once again, we hear from people who were on the diet and use the products. There's one former dieter named Anne McCall. She's a 60]-year-old in California who had some of the wild side effects from using these products and doing this diet. She told Insider, “It's like, 'hey, a lot of women are saying something's happening. Why don't you take some responsibility and at least look into it?' That's all I wanted. I just don't want anyone else to get hurt.”
Aubrey: "We're at the peak of this thing, and people who've been on the diet, people who've used the products are still saying, 'Can you just acknowledge that this is a thing and maybe say you're sorry?'”
Michael: Do you think that if she had gone on the Today show and been super honest and "we're really concerned about these reports as well. We're looking into it." Do you think that she could have weathered this?
Aubrey: I think that had she done that way earlier, she could have. I think by the time it got to the Today show, things were already in motion. There is a point at which they set up a Google form and they're like, “Hey, submit your stories here. We really do want to look into them,” blah, blah. But it's so far down the line of this stuff.
Aubrey: I think that you're right that they could have managed this at an earlier time, or they could do what they did do, which is that Tanya did a 40 minutes Instagram live to read a prepared statement.
Michael: 40 minutes?
Michael: That's a long statement.
Aubrey: She says toward the outset, “At a later date, I will be able to provide the names of those behind this smear campaign. The smear campaign began with personal attacks against me, my husband, my family. Then they questioned the safety of the F-Factor products. Then they questioned the safety of the F-Factor diet. Now they are questioning the culture of the company.” She previews that she knows an Insider piece is coming out about the work culture at F-Factor.
Michael: Dude, "I don't know that there's a conspiracy against me," is ever the move. [laughs]
Aubrey: No. To my mind, this is my interpretation of what we have read and learned so far, is that this is someone who's just been spending so much time on the internet and is getting internet poisoned.
Michael: Yeah, I was just going to say this seems like some internet brain rot. Many such cases.
Aubrey: This is too much time in the comments, too much time on the subreddit, "everyone's out to get me." I have absolutely been there on spending too much time thinking about what the internet thinks of you. It doesn't lead to good or clear thinking, nor does it lead to sound strategy. It's not it.
Michael: Once you reach a certain level of public figuredom, the most important thing is to not seek out commentary about yourself.
Aubrey: I had a friend at one point send me a celebrity net worth page. That's one of those celebrity facts that was about me. And when I tell you every single thing on it was comically wrong. She's worth $3 million and she's 5'2"." And I was like, "No and no."
Michael: My mom texted me to tell me that someone, I guess, wrote a Wikipedia entry about me.
Aubrey: Oh, God.
Michael: I was like, “I don't want this,” because then I'm going to be tempted to fix it. It's like, “Michael Hobbes is writing his own Wikipedia page,” which is like the biggest fucking loser energy. But then she then texted another day later and she's like, “Someone deleted it.”
Michael: Bless whoever was like, “This man is not famous enough to be on Wikipedia.” Yes, fully agree.
Aubrey: So, a couple of days after that, Insider releases their story on the work culture at F-Factor. They spoke with 20 former employees of F-Factor. One of the former employees was a registered dietitian who worked for F-Factor. She said that they were understood to be “selling skinniness” and that any foods you eat in the office should be part of step one. Like, you should always be performing that you are on the most restrictive step of this diet. You should be the most compliant.
Aubrey: Another employee said that they had a birthday celebration and they had had mini cupcakes, and Tanya allegedly told them to, “Take them home. We aren't eating these in the office.”
Michael: Okay, so just like weird mean girl behavior.
Aubrey: She is in this very hard line 80s, 90s diet mindset. This all feels like part and parcel of that. That's like, “I'm doing you a favor by keeping you on track.”
Aubrey: One of them was from an early employee who alleges in this Insider story that Tanya instructed her to come up with a fake backstory about having been fat and lost weight so that clients would feel like she understood what it was like to be fat and try to lose weight. This person was a lifelong thin person.
Michael: You should make up the fact that you were once 10 pounds heavier than you are now.
Aubrey: Yeah. Be like me and say you weighed 24 pounds more once.
Michael: Yeah, my willpower.
Aubrey: And then there is this last one.
Michael: It says, “Sarah, the former dietician who asked that we not include her real name, told Zuckerbrot once jokingly told a male client that if he lost a certain amount of weight, Sarah would perform oral sex on him. Sarah said she was present when Zuckerbrot made the joke. It was terribly embarrassing, and it was so degrading, she said. Another former employee, the one who worked at F-Factor for four years told Insider that she heard the joke and witnessed Sarah's mortified reaction. Insider contacted the male client, who denied ever hearing those words uttered by Zuckerbrot.” So, according to this allegation, Tanya basically said, like, “If you lose enough weight, she'll blow you.”
Aubrey: Yes. My employee.
Michael: Two of the employees heard this, and the client himself says he doesn't remember it.
Aubrey: So, in this Insider piece, Tanya and F-Factor pretty flatly deny almost every experience that folks share, every allegation that is made. At one point, she says, like, “Here's how much I didn't police what people ate." One of the few times that I remember telling someone to eat differently was actually because a staff member was too thin and it made a client uncomfortable.
Aubrey: I get that that's the product that you're selling. But also, I don't know, man, this is wild boundaryless behavior to have your boss tell you what size to be.
Michael: We didn't do a biggest loser competition. We did a biggest gainer competition.
Aubrey: Okay. Congratulations. You did it in reverse. And now it's, like, good, I guess.
Michael: And some sort of weird, yeah.
Aubrey: Around the same time, some Instagram posts that have since been deleted from Tanya's account start recirculating, and I just went ahead and sent you two of those screen grabs.
Michael: Oh, God. They're really ugly memes. Just aesthetically ugly. One of them is just a square with text in it, and it's a weird lime green, and it says, “How to lose weight? Turn your head to the left, and then turn it to the right. Repeat this exercise whenever offered food.” Hey, I see what you did there, Tanya.
Aubrey: It's just such a weird, quippy, dismissive way of talking about something that many, many, many people have deep, hard feelings about.
Michael: It's just really shitty. It's the kind of thing where people say that their moms used to say these awful little aphorisms, like, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”
Michael: Or the horrible Kate Moss thing of, like, “Nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels.”
Michael: It's just like, ah, this is just dick stuff. This is just a mean sort of thing to put out into the world.
Michael: So, that's the left hand one. And then the right hand one is a photo of a very thin woman in a bikini, and it's like her head is cut off, and it's kind of zoomed in on her torso. And then the text again, it's just so ugly. It looks like it's been screen grabbed 50 million times, it says, “So, you'd really rather have a bag of chips than look like this?”
Michael: I don't think boomer memes are the most productive way to have these conversations.
Aubrey: You don't think if they added a minion to these, they'd be more effective?
Michael: I just think these skinny is cool memes are just always just kind of a cursed genre.
Aubrey: So, on October 8th, 2020, Tanya files suit against Emily Gellis Lande.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: Her attorneys say that before Emily's claims, F-Factor was making a million dollars a month, and their revenue is now less than $90,000 a month.
Michael: Yeah, it makes sense.
Aubrey: The ruling goes in Tanya's favor on this. Emily was reposting a bunch of unverified stuff, and there is some legal analysis out there on this that is like, “Ah, we're not sure about this call that the court made."
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: So, Emily is now appealing that decision.
Aubrey: About two years later, on October 12, 2022, a group of former F-Factor dieters sue Tanya specifically over damages they say were caused by F-Factor products. These are all of the like, internal bleeding, gastric distress, intestinal blockage, all of that kind of stuff. That lawsuit is ongoing. Depositions have taken place, but it hasn't reached a resolution. And then in March of 2022, Tanya sues Emily again.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: The rationale for that suit is basically, "She didn't stop making these claims, so we're suing her again."
Aubrey: Essentially all three of these lawsuits are ongoing. And I think that the thing that makes me sad about this story is that, in all of the who knows who in all of the back and forth and like New York high society Deuxmoi of it all, the thing that feels like it really got lost is anyone figuring out why people had these reactions.
Michael: Yeah, that's what I was just going to ask. Have we ever got any, like, FDA, CDC, whoever investigation of this?
Aubrey: Nobody's stepping in. It's supplements. So, what we know at this point is that a lot of the GI symptoms are likely, potentially due to an excess of fiber or a dramatic increase in fiber from where folks were. Some of the hives and rashes stuff can be explained potentially if people are allergic to whey, the powders and bars both use whey. But then there is this whole other category of, why was someone losing their hair? Did anyone call and check and make sure that that was happening?
Michael: What do you think happened? Do you have a sense of what the actual truth is from all this?
Aubrey: I don't. I don't, in part because there isn't quite enough grounding.
Aubrey: I mean, they've got their certificates of analysis, but they are redacted. Those just say, “Here's what's in the ingredients that we put into the powders, and here's what's in the powders themselves.” F-Factor seems to have assumed that it isn't that people were doing their diet or using their products, that they had these experiences. They're assuming that's because they did the diet wrong or used the products incorrectly.
And dieters assumed that too. When people started having these negative responses, they just assumed it was something else or couldn't be explained or was an existing health issue, or that they were doing the diet or using the products wrong. The sort of start and finish of any stories like these about diets for weight loss is if it didn't work, it's your fault.
Aubrey: And that's sort of everyone's assumption.
Michael: It's also kind of a dilemma to know how to cover stories like this because you have the central problem of essentially an unregulated space that leans toward believing whatever claims that people make about this product harmed me. But then you also really do have real dynamics of like, internet pile ons.
Michael: It's sort of just like a bunch of Internet rumors. But the internet rumors do seem to follow a pattern, and then the response has been really bad. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the underlying claims are true.
Michael: People can respond very badly to false accusations. They can also respond very badly to true accusations. There's basically no one refereeing this and being like, “We're looking into this and actually trying to find out what happened.”
Aubrey: Totally. I feel the core story here, which has been like, “Tanya versus Emily, whose side are you on?” Is how a lot of it has gotten presented. I'm like, “Okay, but what about the 60-year-old lady from California whose eyes swelled up?”
Aubrey: There are people who went through real shit who are not rich people in New York City.
Michael: Yeah, it's a weird sort of information age story because these things end up playing out on social media. You basically just have people litigating things like this “investigating” things like this online.
Michael: Which is just a really shitty way to find out the truth.
Michael: It is just ultimately just like a bunch of people saying stuff at this point.
Aubrey: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right.
Michael: And no actual agency that's been able to establish really basic facts about how many cases of these there are, when it happened, how they resolved, etc.
Aubrey: Right. Did they seek medical care? If so, what did their health care providers say? Have we run any kind of test on everyone or on batches of the product that they were using? Left with no one to run point on getting to the bottom of this, people are going to the company and being like, “Why aren't you getting to the bottom of it?” It's sort of understand, being like, “Well, fuck man, you're the one who sold it to me.” And also, we do systemically need more regulatory muscle than people just individually going to companies and being like, “Can you please tell me?” And companies going, “No, I'm not going to.”
Michael: This is not the way to reduce the incidence of food poisoning in the population. [laughs]
Aubrey: Or whatever this was.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Aubrey: So, the only real coda that I have for this story is that Tanya Zuckerbrot and her husband have moved to Boca Raton, Florida, which I learned from the Boca Observer in a post that was tagged La Vida Boca.
Michael: Okay. They must use that for half their headlines a week.
Aubrey: I'm sure they do. It really tickled me.
Michael: It was either that or almond boca.
Aubrey: She has shifted and reduced her online presence pretty significantly, particularly on Twitter, where she only really seems to post marketing tweets when F-Factor stuff is on sale or whatever and gets very few responses. And when she does get responses, they are responses like the one I just sent you in the chat.
Michael: Oh. It just says, “OMG, you're that woman from the fiber podcast.”
Aubrey: It is one of two responses to this post.
Michael: So, basically, at the end of all this, nobody knows anything. We're no closer to knowing the truth, but one person is spending less time on Twitter. That's a happy ending.
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