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#cyberbullying | #cyberbully | F-Factor is using legal threats, denial amid controversy | #parenting | #parenting | #kids

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  • For weeks, people have come forward on social media and to Insider with claims that they experienced health problems while following the F-Factor diet, including hives, hair loss, gastrointestinal distress, and eating disorders.
  • The company’s founder, Tanya Zuckerbrot, a dietitian, told Insider she welcomes people’s complaints directly. But many of the women who have come forward say that is at odds with the company’s history and recent behavior.
  • Zuckerbrot’s legal team has sent cease-and-desist letters to people who they say have made defamatory statements, stoking fears in women about speaking up.
  • Until the controversy, F-Factor didn’t include negative reviews on its website or respond to concerns on social media, leading some women to believe their allegations of health issues on the diet were not sharing by others.
  • Zuckerbrot denies that F-Factor may have caused many of the health problems raised, saying those who have complained may be interpreting her book incorrectly or have preexisting conditions.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The F-Factor diet has been around for 14 years, offering the vision of sustainable and easy weight loss without giving up your life. The company, run by its creator, Tanya Zuckerbrot, touts the slogan: “Eat carbs. Dine out. Drink alcohol. Work out less.”

But the program has come under heavy fire, as some former adherents previously told Insider that they experienced health problems — including eating disorders, hair loss, hives, and gastrointestinal distress — while following the diet diet and consuming its branded products, high-fiber bars and powders.

The controversy came to a crescendo last month, after weeks of fashion influencer Emily Gellis Lande sharing anonymous complaints about the program on her Instagram Stories. As Gellis Lande gained followers, the volume of screenshotted testimonials — many now sharing their names — grew to hundreds of posts a day, holding Zuckerbrot to the flame.  

Zuckerbrot, a registered dietitian in New York whose 2006 book about the diet landed her glamorous features in The New York Times and on the “Today” show, told Insider that in her 20-year career, she’s never heard complaints like the ones screenshotted and shared on Gellis Lande’s Instagram stories, and wants women to report them directly to the company.

But that message seems at odds with the brand’s history of deleting negative reviews and comments on its website and social media, and its response to the recent backlash — sending cease-and-desist letters to people they say “slandered” the company on social media and repeatedly denying women’s claims that the diet has led to health problems.

Zuckerbrot is “saying one thing and doing the complete opposite,” said Sami Miller, a 24-year-old who believes that her use of the F-Factor diet contributed to gastrointestinal issues and an eating disorder.

The company’s denial is angering, Anne McCall, a 60-year-old in California who said she developed rashes and facial swelling after introducing the products to her diet, said. 

“It’s like, ‘Hey, a lot of women are saying something’s happening. Why don’t you take some responsibility, at least look into it?’” McCall told Insider. “That’s all I wanted. I just don’t want anyone else to get hurt.” 

Zuckerbrot has repeatedly contested the social-media campaign against F-Factor, saying that people are just trying to destroy her career, despite Gellis Lande’s claim that she’s received thousands of complaints. Zuckerbrot says that adverse reactions to the F-Factor diet and products indicate that a person has a preexisting allergy or health problem. A spokesperson for F-Factor said the company couldn’t respond to anonymous complaints on Instagram.

F-Factor is sending cease-and-desist letters to some users, stoking fears among women about speaking up

One woman, 35, told Insider that just knowing F-Factor sent cease-and-desist letters to people who the company claims made “defamatory or disparaging” comments about Zuckerbrot or the company has made her afraid to use her name in interviews.

“People keep telling me I need to be careful about speaking out,” the woman, from California, told Insider, adding that she “might be in danger if I do.” 

Citing Gellis Lande’s reports of online harassment (the influencer has shared a deluge of harassing messages she’s received on Instagram since she began her anti-F-Factor campaign) and seeing posts about cease-and-desist letters, she said “lawsuits and cyberbullying are a concern” for her.

A former F-Factor employee who spoke with Insider said fears about legal retaliation are also driven by Zuckerbrot’s perceived wealth, a key part of her public image and brand.

“We can just Google how much money they have, and so I think that’s what scares people: They would eat you out in court because they can just go longer and harder than anybody,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

An F-Factor spokesperson said that the cease-and-desist letters were mostly sent to people who were part of a “smear campaign” against Zuckerbrot and claimed that the recipients of the cease-and-desists had biases against the company.

In the recent cease-and-desist letters, all of which have been reviewed by Insider, the company warned against defamation with the threat of legal action. At least three were sent to former employees of the company, and several others were sent to people who have no previous employment with F-Factor but posted remarks on Instagram that Zuckerbrot and her attorneys deemed libelous, according to a spokesperson for the company.

People who’ve received such threats are “definitely afraid,” said a lawyer who is consulting with some former employees who have received cease-and-desists and spoke with Insider on condition of anonymity.

“They’re terrified, frankly,” the person said.

A spokesperson for F-Factor said that the company would not stifle complaints from former adherents who did not spread “lies.”

Danielle Hamo, a registered dietitian who used to work for F-Factor, received a cease-and-desist and said in an Instagram story broadcast to her 17,000 followers that she’d never made a “false statement” against the company. The letter, reviewed by Insider, demanded that she “cease and desist from making any false, defamatory or disparaging statements or comments” about F-Factor or Zuckerbrot, or else she’d be held legally responsible for damages.

Danielle Hamo, a registered dietitian who’s received a cease-and-desist letter from F-Factor, reacted about it on her Instagram stories.

Screenshot by Insider

When asked why Hamo received a letter, an F-Factor spokesperson said she had “been involved in slander” against Zuckerbrot and the company, but did not elaborate.

Zuckerbrot said she’s been the victim of harassment on Instagram, which prompted some of the cease-and-desist letters. Insider has reviewed screenshots depicting some of these interactions, which included profane language about Zuckerbrot and her husband.

Cease-and-desists can be considered abusive if for the purpose of intimidation, but they are often helpful in deterring legal action 

A cease-and-desist letter is not a notification of legal action, but a warning that legal action may be taken if the receiving party doesn’t end their alleged misconduct, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School says.

When a cease-and-desist is used for the purpose of intimidating the recipient with a threat of legal action, the act can become abusive.

“There aren’t (currently) many real downsides to sending out abusive letters,” Leah Grinvald, a law professor at Suffolk University, told Insider in an email. “There are few incentives to stop the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality that some senders of cease-and-desist letters have.”

But the letters can often be productive, said Rebecca Roiphe, a law professor at New York Law School and an expert on lawyers’ ethics.

“You want somebody to be able to respond and back off before you have to engage in expensive litigation,” Roiphe said.

F-Factor has hired Lanny Davis — the former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who recently represented Michael Cohen in his trial related to the Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels scandal — to assist in handling this fallout. Davis told Insider in a statement that the lawyer for one of the cease-and-desist letter recipients “admitted that his client was involved” in a “targeted smear campaign” and would stop her social-media activity related to the controversy. 

lanny davis

Lanny Davis, who is representing F-Factor, was also the attorney for Michael Cohen.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Davis said that as a result of sending out the letters, F-Factor has had success in thwarting what they say are false allegations about Zuckerbrot’s personal life.

“We also want to clarify that Cease & Desist letters are not abusive or threatening, they are merely legal letters telling the recipients that if they continued making ‘false, defamatory or disparaging comments’ that they would be held accountable for any damages caused by their conduct,” Davis said in an email.

The letters, Davis said, were “asking for personal scurrilous, false and misleading statements to cease.”

Zuckerbrot says she’s not a “litigious person” and began sending cease-and-desist letters only amid the recent Instagram drama. Otherwise, she said, she’s never been involved in legal action. A search of public court records showed only one case involving Zuckerbrot, related to an overtime-pay grievance from a former employee who sued the company.

Issues of bullying and harassment on Instagram continue to surface as women speak out against the company

Other people on social media who have called out the company say they’ve experienced online harassment and bullying from F-Factor supporters.

Gellis Lande told Insider that when she refused requests from Instagram users, who were apparently F-Factor dieters, to end her run as the most prominent anti-F-Factor account, anonymous Instagram accounts threatened “to expose my past and tell stories about me.”

Gellis Lande said she started being harassed on Instagram, through comments and direct messages. 

“Be careful what you do in life. Your kids may pay for it later if you have any,” one user commented. “Wow!! I don’t know what’s worse YOU or COVID-19.”

“Keep it up dirty Jew,” a direct message read. “All of you, your all crazy, your all Jewish. The world is laughing at you.” 

Emily Gellis harassment

A screenshot of a direct message that Emily Gellis said was sent to her.

Screenshot by Insider

Miller also told Insider that she’s received angry direct messages from people she believes to be showing support for F-Factor and Zuckerbrot. 

F-Factor has previously deleted negative comments and delayed in posting negative reviews 

Five women told Insider they never thought their health issues might be connected to the F-Factor diet until the current controversy emerged. Before that, negative reviews, comments, or concerns about the plan appeared to be largely absent from the public eye, so they blamed their problems on themselves or sought other answers, they said.

Plus, they said, Zuckerbrot is a health professional they trusted and the products boasted “all-natural” ingredients.

“Had I seen that someone else experienced this, I would have just said, ‘This isn’t for me, tossed the stuff, end of story,” said McCall, who only tossed her products after reading about the controversy and found her rashes and swelling then subsided.  

Zuckerbrot previously told Insider the company deletes some negative comments from its Instagram page. 

“We felt we were following community guidelines when it was slander,” Zuckerbrot said. “When people say, ‘Your products have lead and are poisoning people,’ or ‘I lost my period,’ and we know that there’s absolutely zero correlation between our product and those claims, why would you leave that there?”

Some women told Insider the company has also made it difficult to raise concerns via its social media accounts, with negative comments or concerns ignored while support for the program is responded to with gratitude.

Zuckerbrot’s Instagram page has gone private since the controversy began and, as of Wednesday evening, the ability to comment has been deactivated on the company’s three most recent Instagram posts.

Peter Costello, F-Factor’s COO, told Insider the company can only speak to concerns that come through the company’s official customer-service email address and phone number, and an F-Factor spokesperson added that this is the traditional way companies log complaints.

Both McCall and Fernanda Rodriguez, a 25-year-old woman who says she developed disordered eating and other symptoms while on the F-Factor plan, said they felt they were not welcome in the diet’s Facebook group because they wanted to address concerns rather than praise the program.

Rodriguez said she was removed from the group when she asked if others experienced hair loss, hives, and gastrointestinal distress, as she said she had. McCall’s request to join the group is still pending weeks after she wrote in the Facebook application form that she’d like to join to help figure out if her adverse reactions might be related to F-Factor products.

F-Factor told Insider their only criteria for entering and remaining in the group are guidelines like being courteous, not bullying, and not spamming other members.

Negative product reviews on the F-Factor website have also long been absent, with some dating to 2019 suddenly appearing in recent weeks, the 35-year-old from California said. Insider has seen dated screenshots that corroborate that claim.

Seeing that subpar reviews weren’t always public made her feel “like information is being suppressed that could potentially help women make smarter health decisions.” She said she had experienced extreme discomfort and bloating for about a year before considering that her symptoms might be a result of using F-Factor products, stopping them, and feeling healthy again.

After demands from consumers, the company released a certificate of analysis, a quality-assurance report that includes the results of lab testing on its products, for its chocolate powder on August 27. Costello, the company COO, told Insider more COAs for other flavors will be released in the coming days and weeks.

A post shared by F-Factor® by Tanya Zuckerbrot (@f_factor)

 

Some former F-Factor followers say it’s too late. 

Many of them said they lost time, money, and trust in their bodies, shuffling between doctors, trying different medications, and, in Miller’s case, undergoing inpatient eating-disorder treatment before considering a possible link between their experiences and the diet and its products.

F-Factor’s CEO is begging to hear from complainants directly, but finds allegations that her diet caused harm ‘hurtful’

In an interview with Insider, Zuckerbrot said she wanted to hear from women who have faced health struggles while following her diet.

“I would want to be the first person to know if someone was being harmed by my recommendation, or if they were having side effects,” Zuckerbrot said, adding that these complaints came “out of nowhere” after her 20 years of business. “This all started three months ago and I’m horrified by what I’ve been hearing.”

But she said she does not believe the diet has caused any of the health problems that have been raised online, and that women who have had health problems may not have read the book carefully or have been experiencing issues for other reasons.

As for eating disorders developed by some women who have followed F-Factor, Zuckerbrot said that people with histories of disordered eating may face issues on any diet.

“I don’t think that any diet is for everyone, whether it’s my program or anyone else’s,” she said. “I do stand by the fact that F-Factor is a safe program.”

She said that allegations about F-Factor’s safety were “very, very hurtful, because it goes against everything I believe in and everything I’ve dedicated my entire life and work to.”

In a statement subsequently emailed to Insider, Zuckerbrot added, “I want to hear from our customers and clients if they are having issues to reassure them that our products are 100% safe for consumption.”

“We will always work with our customers to identify and resolve any issue they’re having to ensure they can use our products and program safely,” the statement continued.

Some women getting daily updates on the controversy from Gellis Lande’s Instagram say they still feel that their complaints are not being heard.

Miller — who said she is overcoming an eating disorder that she believes was linked to her time on F-Factor — said it’s now “way too late” for the company to issue a public apology.

“Now it’s been three or four weeks of this, and she still hasn’t come out and said she’s sorry,” Miller said.

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