This article originally appeared on VICE US.
“The Shepherd’s Diet,” a Bible-inspired nutrition program marketed to Christian conservatives, was always an unlikely success story. Launched in 2016, it ranked among Google’s most-searched diets for two years, despite being essentially Keto or Paleo with an evangelical twist.
The marketing pitched the diet to a holy trinity of older Americans, religious people, and the heart of MAGA America, with ads that sold it as “Donald Trump’s Plan to Make America Thin Again,” advertorials on sites like Teaparty.org, and spots that warned of “leftist food corporations” that are “terrified” of consumers taking up the diet.
Other pitches clearly targeted Christians with pop-up ads and “one weird trick”–style offers touting the program as a secret technique “hidden in the bible” that “burns fat overnight.” One bit of ad copy claimed “2,000-year-old nutritional scrolls that biblical scholars recently uncovered are bringing new hope to Americans who struggle with knowing what to eat.”
Also marketed with alternate brand names like “Biblical Belly Breakthrough” and “The Truth About Fats,” at one point the program was seemingly renamed, switching from primarily “The Shepherd’s Diet” to “The Shepherd’s Code.” (In Spanish, the plan goes by “La Dieta de Jesus.”)
According to FlowActiv, the Medellin, Colombia-based direct marketing company behind the program, in less than three years it’s sold tens of thousands of copies of “The Shepherd’s Diet.” The $57 package includes the book, entry to the group’s Facebook group, and bonus literature such as “What Would Jesus Eat Grocery Field Guide” and “The Moses Secret Fat Loss Protocol.”
When Google released its 2018 Year in Search list and the Shepherd’s Diet was among the top 10 diets for the second year in a row, media outlets expressed puzzlement. In a Yahoo News story titled “There’s Something Called the Shepherd’s Diet and… Wait, What?”, one nutrition expert warned, “Details about the plan are hazy.” Refinery29 wrote, “It's unclear if this is actually a real thing.”
Less than a year later, the Shepherd’s Diet, was gone, leaving a trail of misleading ads, questionable charges, and broken weight-loss dreams. Some fans of the diet say it helped them lose weight and get in shape. But other customers told VICE News that it’s a “scam” targeted at Christian consumers. Either way, its story is a glimpse into the growing online landscape of unaccountable businesses hawking shady products to Christians and conservatives in the Trump era.
Despite its patriotic branding, the strange tale of the Shepherd’s Diet began in Medellin, where the CEO of FlowActiv came up with a plan to sell diet products to Christians.
Aaron Brabham, a copper-haired American expat, had dreamed up what would later become “Sacred Origins,” a line of Christian-themed supplements, according to the people he ultimately collaborated with on the Shepherd’s Diet. He had all the marketing tools, sales leads, and business contacts in place. But he needed an actual diet concept, a book to explain it, and a guru to sell it.
Then Brabham met Joe Bovino, another American living in Colombia.
A publisher, lawyer, and fitness model, Bovino is also the author of dating books like “Field Guide to Chicks of the United States,” which according to HuffPost “may be the worst book ever,” and “Chicaspotting: A Field Guide to Latinas of the United States,” which Vibe accused of fetishizing and dehumanizing women of color. (Bovino says his books are intended as humor and points out that despite criticism, they were Amazon Best Sellers.)
Bovino’s publishing company, the Book Counselor, functions by interviewing new authors and then essentially turning those conversations into a book. He had recently developed a kids book with a Colorado nutritionist and personal trainer named Kristina Wilds. Wilds was devoutly religious and had experience with writing, food and fitness; Bovino told Brabham she was perfect for his Christian diet. “She’s about as cool a born-again Christian as you could ever meet,” said Bovino, who added that he wasn’t involved in the diet after the book was published.
When Wilds got the call, FlowActiv’s offer to be the face of a Christian nutritional program seemed like fate. Her husband had died from ALS two years earlier. Suddenly a single parent, she taught fitness classes, gave piano lessons, and wrote on the side, but she was struggling to make ends meet.
In just a couple of months, Bovino helped her develop “The Shepherd’s Diet.” It launched in late 2016, and quickly became a surprise hit online.
Wilds said the job initially seemed like a good fit. Even when she began to see signs something was amiss, she didn’t ask questions at first — she didn’t want to “rock the boat” or endanger her newfound income.
“I was naive,” said Wilds, now 54. “I had no idea where it would lead.”
But for a program of its ostensible popularity, the diet’s online footprint is sketchy.
Internet searches produce enthusiastic but vague “reviews” of the Shepherd’s Diet by paid supplement review sites or accounts with no posting history outside of a Shepherd’s Diet testimonial.
The user reviews you can find are decidedly polarized: There’s a scattering of satisfied customers, but reviewers on Amazon, Facebook, and deals site Highya, for example, claim they never received their book at all, or were automatically signed up for a monthly subscription add-on and charged a recurring fee with no notice.
The toll-free number listed on the Shepherd’s Diet site reaches a call center in the Philippines. The operator who answered called himself “Al”, but in follow-up exchanges, his emails were signed “Maria Oaks,” a name not associated with the Shepherd’s Diet anywhere online. Al’s Google profile picture is a stock image of a smiling call center employee.
Asked about online complaints of recurring charges, Al said book purchasers are automatically signed up for a free month of the private group and bonus literature, after which they’re charged $19 every month unless they opt out. (While “negative option billing” is legal in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against businesses that don’t adequately disclose future charges.)
It’s hard to reconcile the product’s status as one of 2018’s most sought-after diets with its sales strategy and opaque online footprint. In a way, the diet feels like a bit of ingenious marketing, lining up neatly with the growing market for products that suit a new American conservative identity in the Trump era. Like the Paleo diet, which proposes a better way to eat gleaned from our caveman ancestors, the “biblical breakthrough” of the Shepherd’s Diet suggests an ancient wisdom lost to the excesses of modernity, a past that can be made great again.
It’s also a classic clickbait tall tale, a Christian spin on the Joe Schmo who discovers a cure-all, and “now doctors hate him,” or a “single mom” who finds a secret income tax hack that baffles experts.
In the case of the Shepherd’s Diet, at least the down-to-earth single mom is real, though she didn’t uncover any ancient scrolls and there’s no evidence Trump, famously fond of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and milkshakes, is aware of this particular diet.
The Shepherd’s Diet family
Wilds is tall, lean, and muscular, a model of fitness in middle age. She said when she really wants to cut loose, she lifts weights. She struggled with a serious eating disorder in her youth, but these days, she said, “I’d rather look strong than skinny.”
Her book, an oversized paperback peppered with stock images of food, mixes nutritional advice, recipes, and autobiographical passages. Like the Keto diet, said Wilds, her program uses a metabolic process called ketosis, in which one’s body, without carbohydrates to burn for fuel, begins to burn fat.
Wilds quotes Scripture in “The Shepherd’s Diet,” but the “biblical” part doesn’t mean the recipes were first whipped up by Jesus, or discovered in some dusty Vatican vault. Rather, she says, its presentation and practice suit a Christian lifestyle, showing dieters how faith can help them stick to health and exercise commitments.
Wilds said she isn’t involved in marketing or sales decisions. She’s seen the ads claiming the diet has specific biblical origins and finds them “ridiculous.” She complained about “corny” ads once, said Wilds, but a FlowActiv manager told her “we did the research and we know what works. That’s what people grab onto. And you’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Asked if she’s familiar with the diet’s political come-ons, like the advertorials labeled “Make America thin again,” Wilds winced visibly. “Nooooo,” she said, drawing out the word slowly. “I certainly haven’t seen that one. I would never say something like that.” She said she felt “shocked” at being presented with those ads.
“My book is not political,” she said, seemingly frustrated. Wilds said she “hates politics,” and she “doesn’t know why” the ads included such language.
The private Shepherd’s Diet Family Facebook Group for verified purchasers, she said, is her domain, where “we share experiences, inspiration, and pain.” In the group, which has more than 15,000 members, “we exchange recipes. If they have questions, I answer them,” said Wilds. “I love these people. I pray for them. I know who's losing weight and who’s struggling.”
Rex Lones, a disabled Vietnam War veteran in Tennessee, is a Shepherd’s Diet success story. Before he found the program, he was overweight, had high blood pressure, and used painkillers to cope with lingering injuries from a car accident. Now, he said, he has lost 38 pounds, is healthy and off medication, and has reframed his personal relationship with food. Lones has posted before-and-after pictures in the Shepherd’s Diet Family Group, which he describes as “a place to share honestly.” Wilds, he says, is welcoming: She has “overcome a lot, and that just shows how to trust God.”
Colorado hair and makeup stylist Carley Dankert, 32, said she lost about 20 pounds on the diet. When she posts on the Facebook group, she gets “tons of support” from her fellow dieters. Dankert said she’s “more spiritual than religious” but likes how Wilds weaves faith into the program in a down-to-earth way.
Concentrating users into a private Facebook group and limiting engagement in other online areas allows the Shepherd’s Diet to build a community where the conversation is controlled, and a tight-knit fan base that can be targeted for additional purchases without a middleman.
But while that approach might enable making more money from each consumer, it also makes the diet look less popular than it is, ceding the consumer feedback areas of sites like Amazon to the negative reviews that dominate public user discussions.
Jerri Durham, a Tennessee retiree, learned about the Shepherd’s Diet from a friend’s Facebook post. She was intrigued by the idea of following biblical dietary advice and shelled out $62.40 in January 2018. She said she never received the book, nor a refund; instead, she started getting multiple marketing emails every day. One email hawked FlowActiv’s line of “Sacred Origins” supplements, referred to as “Jesus Magic Minerals.” Others, which were sent from Shepherd’s Diet email addresses but presumably sent through partnerships with outside merchants, promised to teach readers how to “get paid every time your song gets played on the radio” and “squeeze as much as an extra $6,840 per year out of your Social Security benefits.”
She eventually blocked the sending address. “I got ripped off,” she said.
Other consumers said they received a PDF despite ordering a paperback, complained the book didn’t reflect the biblical sourcing promised in the ad, and echoed Durham’s complaints about sales emails. One purchaser complained about spelling and editorial errors in the book, adding that the whole Shepherd’s Diet operation seemed “half-assed.”
The path of least resistance
Before starting FlowActiv, Aaron Brabham worked in investment. He did stints with the now-defunct GunnAllen Financial, and co-hosted a podcast with Porter Stansberry, a financial publisher who reportedly used racial slurs and spread political conspiracy theories on his shows. Brabham also once hosted a podcast called “The Millionaire Anywhere,” which promised to help listeners “feel like a millionaire.” His Facebook photos show him drinking wine on a boat, exercising, and posing shirtless in seemingly luxurious locales.
Wilds said Brabham, whom she’s never met in person, is “very charismatic and persuasive,” but she added that she hasn’t spoken to him in months and “he’s sort of off the grid.” She said last year she wanted to send Brabham a Christmas card and he refused to tell her where he lived. Emails sent to Brabham requesting an interview weren’t returned.
FlowActiv’s website describes the business as “next-gen e-commerce that transforms lives” but offers no contact information or specifics about what the company does. Phone numbers associated with FlowActiv and the number used to register the site are not in service.
After weeks of inquiries to FlowActiv representatives, VICE News got a call from Azeem Ahmed. The London-based admin on the Shepherd’s Diet Facebook page said he “just helps out with the business.” On his LinkedIn page, he’s listed as a founder of FlowActiv. Wilds describes Ahmed as alongside Brabham, “the other head guy.”
Ahmed said FlowActiv is “just a holding company” and has no significant business outside the Shepherd’s Diet. Asked about the complaints from buyers who said they never received the book, Ahmed said FlowActiv struggled to keep up with demand in Shepherd’s Diet’s early days. He claims he never wrote any of the ads, but says the era of controversial messaging and people not getting their books is “in the past.”
The program, he explained, had generally been sold through affiliate marketing, in which “affiliate” salespeople run their own ads around the web — like the pop-up spots and thicket of paid Shepherd’s Diet reviews — for a cut of any sales they refer. Ahmed says FlowActiv recently stopped using affiliates because they were “bad for the brand.”
Now, he says, the Shepherd’s Diet will “focus on longevity and just running the ad campaigns ourselves.”
Ahmed added that “a lot of things end up the way they are not out of intent but through following the path of least resistance.” He said the diet’s name changes were attempts to please Facebook ad-targeting tools.
Asked why they decided to sell a biblical diet and market it to conservatives in the first place, Ahmed said the strategy was “definitely not my idea” and came from Brabham.
Brabham has previous experience with Christian diets. In 2015 he was listed as a member of a company called “The Salvation Diet,” which offered “Sabbath Sleep Hacks” and a plan to “Let Jesus Take the Grocery Cart.”
An archived version of The Salvation Diet’s landing page for affiliate sellers says Christians make up a base of “264 MILLION potential customers JUST in the US, all of whom believe in the truth of the Bible and readily accept that the answer to their lifelong struggle with being overweight or obese can and will be found in its pages.” The pitch later adds, “The very concept of the offer focuses it on the TREMENDOUS amount of paid media in Conservative America.”
Ahmed said older conservatives are “just what the customer happened to be,” and that focusing on the Shepherd’s Diet’s marketing strategy and the Salvation Diet’s advertising history misses the point.
“Let's just not talk about the ads anymore,” he suggested. “There's a nice community. They help each other and they change their health. And there's a nice lady who's the leader of this small community.”
Thoughts and prayers
In May, it all came crashing down.
Brabham called Wilds and told her he was shutting down the program over a dispute with Ahmed, she says. It was the 16th of the month; he told her the next paycheck would be her last, Wilds said. A couple of weeks later, the FlowActiv site, the primary Shepherd’s Diet sales site, and other sites associated with the diet went dark. Emails sent to the program’s official accounts bounced back as undeliverable. (VICE News could not get a FlowActiv representative to confirm the cause of the program’s dissolution.)
Wilds says the news felt “shocking” and suddenly left her without the bulk of her income. She’s still working as a trainer and giving piano lessons, but she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
With the diet at an apparent end, Wilds offered more details about her deal with FlowActiv: She owns no intellectual property related to the book or diet, received no royalties, and was paid an annual salary of about $120,000 for the time the diet was active. “It was a good income,” she said, but “the money [Brabham and Ahmed] have made since 2016 is crazy … They sell all those supplements, tons of them.” She guesses they’ve personally made “millions” on the Shepherd’s Diet, but VICE News was not able to verify how profitable the program was, and Wilds says she has no idea how many books or supplements were sold in total.
She says the diet’s demise has forced her to reckon with how the business was run. In the absence of any customer service, she says, “I’m getting all these messages, ‘Ms. Wilds, I never received my book,’ or ‘I can’t get in touch with anyone,’ or [asking] ‘What is this charge?’” She claims she has already personally mailed books to two people who didn’t get them.
Wilds resents that FlowActiv is “not taking the heat. It's not their faces, it's not their names on this thing. It's my name, it’s my reputation.” The company, she says, “tapped into the story of when my husband died to sell books, and they perverted it.”
She says she feels a “sense of responsibility” for FlowActiv’s history of inconsistent service and misleading ads. But Wilds insists she wasn’t aware of what was going on and had no power to change anything without endangering a much-needed job.
Now, she’s speaking with an attorney to feel out her options. “They think I'm just this little woman who's not going to fight back,” she says. “But they’re wrong.”
Though the Shepherd’s Diet sites are down, the Facebook Group is still active. Wilds says Brabham told her she could have it. “I'm going to stay on that page as long as I can,” she says. “I'm going to help these people, and I will pray for them.”
Wilds calls the internet a “mixed blessing.” It’s connected her with thousands and allows her to stay in close touch with distant relatives, but it can also be a minefield of hidden agendas, unexpected complexity — and offers that seem too good to be true.
Before the Shepherd’s Diet, says Wilds, she didn’t go online much, and she was “a little more gullible. I was very innocent in that kind of way.” Now, she says, “I'm online all day long. Now I'm not stupid.”
Still, wising up doesn’t come easy, says Wilds. “It sometimes takes a tough lesson — you get screwed over or hacked, or whatever. And then you learn.”
Cover: A screen shot of an ad for Biblical Belly Breakthrough, a name Shepherd's Diet has also been sold under.