There is something happening on television now that is affecting me viscerally.
In a commercial that seems to air once every 15 minutes on every single television channel, assaulting its way into omnipresence, Oprah Winfrey stares into the camera—nay, our souls—and speaks emphatically, passionately, with certitude: “I. Love. Bread.”
This commercial speaks to me.
It’s an ad for Weight Watchers, the nearly 53-year-old international weight loss company that the Queen of Media and Patron Saint of Being Your Best Self purchased a 10 percent stake in last fall, in addition to becoming their latest celebrity spokesperson.
Those three gorgeous, soul-stirring words of hers—“I love bread”—come at the beginning of a pitch in which Winfrey claims that, using the program, she has been able to lose weight while still indulging in the forbidden love of the well-publicized diet no-no—bread!—every single day.
The appeal of the commercial is quite obvious.
Here we are, we bread enthusiasts, having endured an age in which the havoc carbohydrates wreak on our waistlines has been drilled into the fiber of our being. The importance of carb-free and gluten-free diets eternally hovers over our heads as we weep over the bread basket taunting us at the dinner table.
And here is Oprah Winfrey, our most trusted confidante, telling us that not only is eating bread OK, but that, with the help of Weight Watchers, she managed to lose weight without sacrificing it. Glory be to God. Glory be to O.
The reveal that she lost 26 pounds using Weight Watchers without forsaking bread was met with social media rapture. Because of her ownership stake in the company, Winfrey was estimated to have made roughly $20 million when Weight Watchers shares skyrocketed after she tweeted the commercial. Benefitting from “the Oprah effect,” the long-struggling company saw new members spike 35 percent while sales beat analyst predictions.
So Oprah wins. Weight Watchers wins. We, those who like eating bread and also not being fat, win. But you know who really wins? Bread!
“It was a nice boost, psychologically, that wow, somebody of Oprah’s stature decided they were going to sing the praises of bread,” Robb MacKie, president and CEO of the American Bakers Association, says. “It’s a nice change, if you will, from some of the environment we’ve been dealing with the past few years.”
That environment. The gluten-free environment.
It’s a climate in which nutritionists, doctors, dietitians, and your insufferable co-worker who won’t shut up about it keep trumpeting the health and weight-loss benefits of stripping gluten from your diet, basically turning bread and other grains into harrowing menaces to society that anyone who purchases a baguette is complicit in aiding and abetting.
The ABA lobbies in Washington, D.C., for the interests of those who produce bread, rolls, crackers, bagels, tortillas, and other such mainstays in your sweetest dreams. Among those issues it monitors is volatility in the bread market and messaging about its nutritional value.
“We’ve seen different low-carb and gluten-free diets emerge over the years,” MacKie says. “They’ve had an impact, which is a shame, because bread really is the carrier of 10 or 12 essential vitamins and minerals.”
This isn’t the first time bread as we know it has been threatened.
Back in 2003, more than 100 relevant organizations, including the ABA, came together for what was ruled the “bread summit,” gathered to address what was labeled a crisis in the industry: The message that bread was bad for you was being propagated by popular low-carb diets like Atkins, Zone, and South Beach, and was having a catastrophic effect on sales.
The gluten-free hysteria of today is “similar and it’s different,” MacKie says, conceding that there’s been a softness in the market because of it. Having Oprah Winfrey proclaim to the world in the context of a diet commercial that she loves bread has, then, been an unexpected godsend.
But bread and Oprah are not in cahoots. No one in the bread industry knew about Winfrey’s ad ahead of time.
There’s been a spike in bread sales, MacKie says, since the commercial began airing but he can’t decipher Winfrey’s influence from that of the winter weather across the country, which causes Americans to horde bread and other groceries like deranged squirrels. Anecdotal evidence from bakers, though, suggests a noticeable change.
And no one should really need to explain the power of an Oprah endorsement. Whether it’s her book club, her Favorite Things specials, or a shill on Instagram, she has proven dictatorial-like power over our consumption and spending habits.
The food industry certainly knows this, having seen the other end of the spectrum: the power of an Oprah diss.
When Winfrey made disparaging comments about beef on her talk show in the wake of the mad cow scare, representatives of the beef industry sued her for libel, arguing that her comments contributed to millions of dollars in sales losses after she scared her fans off the product.
We reached out to Cactus Feeders, a beef foodlot operator whose founder Paul Engler was a main plaintiff in the notorious case, to discuss how Winfrey and her endorsements can tangibly affect the food industry. Our request for comment was not returned. So back to bread!
While bread sales are one thing, the greater effect of Winfrey’s commercial is a shift in the conversation around the product and its nutritional value—a narrative the industry worked hard to control 13 years ago during its summit.
“I think there is misperception that eating bread makes you fat, when, if you look at it from a calories perspective, it’s actually a great carrier from a calorie return-on-investment for the amount of nutrients you’re getting,” MacKie says. “I think, rightly or wrongly, bread has been mischaracterized that way. It’s an opportunity Oprah has given to reconsider it and maybe give people permission to look at it.”
Of course, god giveth and god taketh away. Perhaps our enthusiasm has been a bit overblown. There’s more to Oprah’s message—and her diet—than her bread endorsement is telegraphing.
“You can’t eat bread just because Oprah says it,” says dietitian Keri Glassman, founder of the Nutrition School. “Nothing has changed to bread. Oprah just says she eats it.”
Glassman isn’t discounting Winfrey’s claims. Far from it. You can absolutely incorporate bread into diet, remain healthy, and, with portion control and exercise, perhaps even lose weight.
“But the majority of the people, the type of bread they’re eating is a highly processed, refined bread, like eating a bowl of jelly beans,” she says. “And it doesn’t keep you satisfied, like protein and fiber.”
In other words, “It’s not like if Oprah eats it something changes bread.” Bread can be part of a balanced diet, just like it always has been. But it can also be a trigger for weight gain if not managed correctly, just like it’s always been.
“Bread has not changed,” Glassman says. “It’s just as bad and it’s just as good for you as it was yesterday.”
While Glassman’s opinion is that Winfrey’s commercial should be taken with a grain (heh) of salt, gluten-free activists—yes, they exist—and other health experts’ reaction to her endorsement of bread as a component in a diet plan veers more toward outrage.
“It is dangerous and it is misleading,” says Dr. William Davis of the entire Weight Watchers campaign.
Dr. Davis is a cardiologist and author of the Wheat Belly books, which encourage the removal of wheat from diets. He also calls himself a “health crusader,” on a mission to not only expose the destructive nature of grains but also the agencies and powers that are doling out what he calls dangerous advice on their consumption.
You can imagine, then, his reaction to the most powerful person in media, who has an ownership stake in a weight-loss company, giving the impression that diets that embrace bread are great.
Dr. Davis, in a phone interview, carefully elucidates the science of grains, their chemical structure, and their effect on your body, all of which boil down to: They trigger your appetite. You’re never satisfied, and therefore need to snack and eat more—two things inarguably counterproductive to weight loss.
“When someone says, ‘I eat bread! I eat bread every day and this is part of a successful weight-loss program,’ it only works if you exert monumental willpower,” he says. “What she’s proposing, in effect, is to ingest an appetite stimulant and then fight it with willpower.
“Imagine if I said to you, ‘Take this appetite-stimulating drug and then reduce its effect with willpower,’” he goes on. “You’d have a lot of miserable people on your hands.”
What is actually happening, however, is the exact opposite. People are ecstatic! Their lord and savior Oprah Winfrey has brought bread back into their lives, literal manna from heaven after years of being told the consumption of grains is a cardinal sin.
“I think the very first thing we would do would be to say thank you, again, for taking a new look at bread as part of a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle,” MacKie says, when asked what he would tell Oprah if he was given the opportunity.
It’s still, Glassman continues to stress, paramount that people realize that this isn’t an invitation to an all-you-can-eat bread buffet. But she understands the excitement, especially given the reputation of gluten that’s been, um, ingrained in us.
“You know what I think it is?” Glassman says. “I think it’s a really good commercial.”