Here's a peek at how editor Dana Schuster got inside the toxic work culture at F-Factor

By Olivia Oran

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Olivia Oran: You're known for writing and editing stories that are among the most talked about pieces of the year (such as this profile of The Points' Guy founder Brian Kelly).  What first piqued your interest about reporting on F-Factor? When did you realize it was a massive story?

Dana Schuster: F-Factor has been on my radar for quite some time, as a number of people I know have been devotees over the years. When Emily Gellis, the Instagram influencer, began her so-called Internet crusade against the company, I was inundated with messages from acquaintances and sources who were eager to find out what was really going on at the company and whether or not the products/diet made users sick, as some people were claiming. The New York Times actually beat me to the story I originally planned to write, which was a piece about Emily Gellis and the allegations that the diet caused hair loss, gastrointestinal issues and even eating disorders. But buried in that NYT piece, was a quote from a past F-Factor intern who thought the F-Factor office culture "was a pursuit of thinness at any cost." I realized there was a whole separate article to be written about what it is like to work at F-Factor and Tanya Zuckerbrot as a boss.

Oran: Walk me through your reporting process for the piece. How long did it take to come together?

Schuster: When I report out a piece like this, I like to speak to as many sources as possible. I'll sometimes reach out to 20, 40, 60 people depending on the story. I basically reached out to every single former employee at F-Factor via multiple avenues (cell, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc.) and also spoke to a number of current staffers. I worked on the story for about two weeks.

Oran: Some of the sources in your story are anonymous former employees who say they were "fat-shamed" by F-Factor founder Tanya Zuckerbrot or felt pressure to restrict their eating. Was it difficult to get people to talk to you about these delicate issues? How did you ultimately convince them?

Schuster: Many people were incredibly nervous to speak for this article. Some were spooked by the cease and desist letters Zuckerbrot had been sending out. Some expressed fear and wondered whether Zuckerbrot might have enough money to make their lives miserable if they went on the record. But despite their fears, most were willing to talk and shed light on their experiences, some of which they felt were unhealthy or inappropriate. Many of the anonymous sources were very close to going on-the-record as the publication date neared, but a few still resisted because they didn't want their names potentially dragged through the debacle online. Even some of Zuckerbrot's current staffers asked to remain anonymous for the same reason.

Oran: What gets you excited about exposés like this one? Why is this story an important one to tell?

Schuster: I love the thrill when you realize you have a story. You talk to one person about what they see as an unhealthy office environment, okay, that can be a one-off experience. But when 10 or 12 people tell you similar stories that have spanned more than a decade, then you really start to pay attention.

This was an important story to tell for a few reasons. First, it was in the ether. People were spending hours watching the saga unfold in real time on Emily Gellis' Instagram — this was a topic people cared about. Secondly, some former employees and dietitians whom I interviewed, spoke about the hypocrisy of selling a healthy, aspirational lifestyle at F-Factor and secretly restricting their own eating and hiding popovers under the table from their boss. Not only was the office culture described by these sources antithetical to the carefree image the F-Factor diet touts, but in some instances, sources claimed it was dangerous, as well.

A few ex-employees told me they left the company because they believed working at F-Factor either gave them eating disorders or exacerbated their past issues with food. In an interview with Zuckerbrot, she adamantly denied these claims, saying: "Healthy eating was encouraged, but not policed. I never told my employees what to eat or what not to eat." A former senior executive said she never witnessed food policing by Zuckerbrot and that they celebrated the CEO's engagement with cupcakes and cake. 

Oran: What's been your most rewarding experience as a journalist? 

Schuster: When you write a less-than-flattering article on a person, and the meanest, most aggressive, most threatening publicist/lawyer/representative out there calls you once it's been published and thanks you for being fair.