Inside Gwen Shamblin Lara’s creepy weight loss cult

In the 1980s, Tennessee dietitian Gwen Shamblin might have seemed like just one of countless purveyors of schemes to lose weight. But her program, the “Weigh Down Workshop,” had a religious connection that would electrify her followers — and propel her to start her own creepily insular and dangerously restrictive church, according to a new docuseries. As her power and influence grew, so did her hairstyle — into a vertiginous tower of frosted blonde.

HBO Max‘s “The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin,” the first three episodes of which debut today, follows the rise and fall of Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship Church, which has been called a cult and implicated in the death of at least one child.

Gwen Shamblin Lara speaking at a microphone
As a writer and lecturer, dietician Gwen Shamblin Lara gained a devoted following in the 1980s.

According to the film, Shamblin had begun preaching stringent discipline in all areas of life, not just eating — including reportedly encouraging parents to beat their children with glue sticks, which didn’t leave marks, if they misbehaved. (The church issued a statement saying it “categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary.”)

Shamblin — who became Gwen Shamblin Lara when she married in 2018 — was not around to be interviewed for the doc, as she and several other church members died in a small plane crash this past May. But footage of her deposition in the case of 8-year-old Josef Smith’s death is shown in the documentary’s first episode, which then rewinds to explore the beginnings of Shamblin’s rise to cult leadership. 

Raised in the ultra-strict Church of Christ, Shamblin struck gold in the early ’80s when she linked a fairly unsophisticated weight-loss scheme — basically, that you shouldn’t eat food until you hear your stomach growling, and then control your portion sizes — with Biblical teachings.

Audiences listening to Gwen Shamblin Lara, who can also be seen on screen.
Shamblin Lara held her adherents rapt at the Remnant Fellowship Church, a religious congregation that grew out of her weight loss teachings.

“Honor God with your body,” she’s heard saying on one of her early motivational tapes. “I teach people how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator, and how to bow back down to Him.” But soon, as ex-members of the group claim in the series, she was shaming those who didn’t lose weight fast enough, or keep it off, and insisting they do extreme fasts or stop eating altogether.

Still, Weigh Down Workshops spread like wildfire to evangelical churches around the country. Shamblin decided God wanted her to start her own church, which she called the Remnant Fellowship Church, as it was the only “remnant” of the true Christian faith; unlike the weight-loss plan, this religion was controversial, partly because it rejected the Holy Trinity favored by most Christian religions and partly because it was led by a woman. In this religion, there were two deities: God, and only slightly second, Gwen Shamblin, according to the doc. “I have good news,” she told her followers. “I have found God’s church.” She founded the church in 1999 in Franklin, Tennessee.

Gradually, ex-members claim in the doc, church members grew to seem more and more zombified by Shamblin’s teachings, which grew ever-wilder. (In one recorded interview, she praises the effectiveness of prison camps as a weight-loss technique.) The women resembled characters in “The Stepford Wives” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” dutifully following Shamblin’s stringent instructions for living. Their ultra-disciplined children were dressed in strangely old-fashioned clothing: “I would say turn of the century ruffles,” says one ex-member, “and lots of lace. The little boys looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Shamblin’s teachings came to focus increasingly on controlling those children. 

Gwen Shamblin Lara with husband William Joseph Lara
Shamblin Lara married husband William Joseph Lara in 2018, long after she had established herself as a religious leader. The pair perished in a private plane crash in May 2021.

Then in 2003, Joseph and Sonya Smith of Atlanta were convicted of the murder of their 8-year-old son, Josef Smith, whom they had been chronically abusing by locking him inside a wooden box and a closet; the cause of death was a blow to the head. They were sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.

The couple were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church, which defended them against the cruelty and murder charges — while denying any culpability. But Shamblin’s own voice speaks volumes: “You’ve got a child that’s going from bizarre down to in control,” she is heard saying in the doc. “So, praise God!”