Dear Penn Jillette: Your Diet is BS

Penn_Jillette_in_Denver_2015I read last week that Penn Jillette went on a crazy diet and lost a lot of weight.

Penn Jillette is a professional magician and used to have a show with his magic partner, Teller, called “Penn & Teller: Bullshit,” on which they debunked various “pseudoscientific ideas, paranormal beliefs, popular fads and misconceptions” (thanks wiki!). Oh the irony, amiright??

He said he was inspired to lose weight (ultimately 100 lbs in all) because he had been sick, and diagnosed with very high blood pressure. I agree that something like that could indeed use a nutrition intervention, but instead of making some reasonable, sustainable changes to diet and exercise, he dove in headfirst to dietland.

First he went on a diet for two weeks that consisted of only 5 potatoes a day, which provides around 800 calories and 20 grams of protein, not enough for most active hamsters. Unsurprisingly, he lost 18 pounds after two weeks. This is called a monotrophic or mono diet. It’s apparently also featured on many pro-anorexic websites according to this article.

He then switched to something called a Nutritarian diet by Dr. Joel Furhman (look it up yourself, no way I’m linking to this diet page) that he described thusly: “Turn on the TV, look at the billboards, read magazines — see all that food? I don’t eat any of that. I eat no animal products, no refined grains, and extremely low salt, sugar, and oil.” By the way, the text at the bottom of Furhman’s diet website: “There is no guarantee of specific results. Results can vary.” He’s required to put that there by law because by now it’s well-established that diets don’t work to produce sustainable weight loss, results cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy, and within 3 to 5 years most or all weight is regained…and because his diet is no different. This is Penn’s moment to pull the curtain aside and expose who the Wizard really is, but no. Instead he just goes on the diet.

Anyhoo, the rest of the article in which Jillette talks about his new transformed way of eating reads like the most disordered of food journals. Here’s an especially concerning excerpt: “I had a handful of unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts with Tabasco sauce….I guess I had two handfuls. I love eating spicy in the middle of the night. The peanuts were very filling so I didn’t eat the rest of the day. One thing I learned from my lifestyle change is that I don’t have to eat all the time. When I don’t eat, I get focused and clearer and … well, happier” [italicized emphasis mine]. That focused, clear feeling? A lot of us have had that in the early stages of dieting. I have a theory that this is your brain readying you to look for food because you’re basically starving. I had a lot of energy at my thinnest, but it was reserved only for thinking about food, looking for food, scrounging food and quickly scarfing food. I was the most ambitious and effective office-hunter-gatherer you ever saw. I may have been happier, but I didn’t really have time or emotional space left to recognize if I was since FOOD! WAS THAT FOOD I JUST SAW?! GIVE ME THAT FOOD! ME WANTY FOOD!!!

More tidbits from the Sad and Curious Food Ramblings of Penn Jillette with a little of my own interpretations thrown in:

“It had been about 36 hours without food, and I wanted to eat.” (extreme restriction)

“I had watermelon. Usually when I eat watermelon it’s a joke amount, like a whole watermelon, cut up and very cold. Watermelon is magic. It’s like candy but really good for me. There seems to be no limit to the amount of watermelon I can eat.” (binge behavior, food moralizing)

“My dessert in the middle of the night was the idea for which I will win the Nobel Prize. I invented this. I took a lot of blueberries, like four big containers (this one is expensive), rinsed them off and then put way, way, way too much cayenne pepper on them. Way too much. Lots. I shook that around and then added way too much cocoa powder, no fat, no sugar. It’s like a Mexican flourless chocolate blueberry cake. It’s my favorite food. I went to bed with my mouth on fire and my belly full.” (okay, I just included this one because it’s weird as hell, but also a bit bingey)

“…I was hungry after our Vegas show at the Rio… I got up and had a hummus wrap with Tabasco. This was store-bought and a bit too salty. That wasn’t enough, so I had a bunch of spoonfuls of peanut butter. This is my downfall — too salty, too sugary, too high fat, oil, and salt, but so good. I ate so much it would make you sick. It made me happy.” (binge and then guilt. Serious fucking alarm bells for disordered eating going off for me right now)

“I was full, but I still had some peanut butter for bedtime.” (finishing off with some superfluous eating)

I get that getting diagnosed with high blood pressure and other metabolic-type conditions can be scary and they are something that can be helped with improvement in eating habits and exercise. But look around; do all the “healthy” people you know eat even remotely like this? (Gawd, I hope not). We don’t need to become diet addicts and emotional slaves to food to drop pounds in the name of “health.” We don’t need to miss meals for 36 hours and slather hot sauce on everything because we’re not eating what we want, not really, or enough to satisfy our appetite. We really don’t need to eliminate sugar, fat and salt from our diets. Most of these changes, I’m predicting, will not be sustainable for him, as they usually aren’t for most people. So far he’s maintained the weight for 17 months; a lot of us ex-dieters did that too. It’s too early to know how this will play out for him, but based on statistics alone, he will regain that weight between 3 and 5 years after he lost it. But most significantly, what Penn has done here is conflate weight and health, and that is the ultimate bullshit.

Penn Jillette can do what he wants with his body, that’s his business. But now he’s writing a book to tell us how we, too, can lose a third of our body weight by developing an eating disorder. Penn, you didn’t find the cure to obesity, and statistically speaking, your weight loss has a 95% chance of failure by year five. If you do manage to become one of the elite 5% who maintain your weight loss longer than this you will probably have to do it by developing a sub-clinical eating disorder that everyone will applaud and will make you secretly crazy. Again, that’s your choice, but your book makes you part of the $60+ billion diet industry which fails just about everyone, and that’s just wrong.

We don’t need another diet book from someone with extreme disordered eating habits that has only maintained his weight loss for 17 months, so I’m calling bullshit on you, Penn Jillette.

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16 thoughts on “Dear Penn Jillette: Your Diet is BS

  1. Sabrina August 22, 2016 / 11:19 am

    As a longtime vegetarian (for ethical and environmental reasons, as well as simple preference– I never really cared much for meat), I unfortunately am acquainted with the full range of so-called “whole foods plant-based” diets, of which Fuhrman’s is one. All of them eschew oil, sugar, and salt, and prescribe extremely bizarre eating patterns. Each new rendition of this diet type is more disordered than the last, as the diet book authors try to create a diet that will produce weight loss (not just improved health– somehow this just isn’t good enough) for everyone. I used to follow a blogger who follows this style of eating (though I never did myself, I do enjoy dishes with lots of veggies, beans, and whole grains, and I found some of her recipes creative and tasty, once I added a little salt and oil to them), but she fell down an eating disorder rabbit hole. When she began writing about bringing her own food to social gatherings or not eating at all if there wasn’t anything available that meets her strict criteria, as if this were “healthy” behavior, I could no longer remain silent and pointed out in the comments how disordered this behavior was. For my efforts, of course, I was flamed. My only hope is that there was somebody reading those comments who thought about what I wrote and decided to walk away from these disordered eating habits, but I will never know, because needless to say, I don’t follow the blog anymore.

    I completely agree that the last thing we need is another one of these diets out there in the world. Blueberries covered with cocoa powder and cayenne? 4 containers of them? No thank you, and that is nothing like a Mexican chocolate cake. I’ll keep eating my blueberries with my morning yogurt and having chocolate cake when I want it. I might not be as skinny as I can possibly be, but I won’t feel the need to binge on weird combinations of food in the middle of the night. I’ll be well-nourished, satisfied, and therefore able to sleep in the middle of the night instead.

    • GlenysO August 22, 2016 / 11:28 am

      Thanks for the insight on that diet – it sounded fairly disordered to me (as all diets are) despite being cloaked in “whole foods” lingo. And yes, that blueberries/cayenne/cocoa powder dessert sounded HORRIBLE to me – of course you’d have to eat 4 containers of it because you never actually feel satisfied from it. Good for you for standing up to disordered eating with that blog – and by protecting your sanity by dropping it. Thanks for your comment!

      • Sabrina August 22, 2016 / 12:32 pm

        Another thing that often comes up in that “whole foods plant based” diet culture is that its adherents claim that they now only need 4-5 hours of sleep a night, ostensibly because they are so “well nourished” on their “nutrient dense” diet that they now have boundless energy. We know from scientific research that calorie restriction can cause insomnia and disrupted sleep, so I believe that this is what these folks are actually experiencing. It’s not that they are now somehow superhumans who don’t need sleep, but instead they are starving humans who can’t sleep. Perhaps this is behind Penn’s middle-of-the-night bingeing behavior (which I noticed he mentioned at least twice). Sleep is such an important indicator of overall health. I know my own sleep suffered quite a bit when I found myself snared in the diet trap. Now that I’m out and working on long-term habits that nourish the health of my body, mind, and spirit, I sleep so much better. My trip to dietland was not a long visit (I’ve been very lucky) but still I need to read blogs like yours to keep me from getting back on that train. So thank you for all you do!

  2. Ocean Bream August 22, 2016 / 12:29 pm

    To a regular person who doesn’t know much about dieting etc that sounds terribly unhealthy. The secret to good nutrition is one that evades many, I fear. Myself included. Why do lots of people have such an unhealthy attitude towards eating!?

    • GlenysO August 22, 2016 / 1:08 pm

      I think there are many forces working against us: ages old sexism that motivated women to keep busy with their “figures” instead of attaining real power; industry that profits from our collective body insecurity; policies that subsidize big food industries but not smaller growers; our lack of priority for feeding ourselves (particularly a US problem)…and on and on. Not to mention we humans have tried to manipulate our diets for centuries for whatever reasons, so it just seems like a natural thing for us. But we know now that if we just go for a variety of foods and don’t worry too much about it, and take the focus off of changing our appearance, we have the best chance at health.

  3. Geniecc August 22, 2016 / 10:59 pm

    That sounds like such a sad way to live. It’s funny, I also used to use blueberries and no-fat yogurt (the sort that is so runny it’s basically liquid, packed with artificial sweeteners to disguise that it is absolutely awful) to have what I called a controlled binge. I got to eat until I was full and had all the same physical symptoms of a binge – the overstuffed feeling, the numbness – but it was healthy (ha). Looking back, it just seems so tragic. Yes, blueberries are amazing, but nobody is eating that many blueberries unless they are actually wanting to eat something substantial.
    I feel bad for him. Those excerpts are really eating disorder-y.

    • GlenysO August 23, 2016 / 8:19 am

      They really are. I agree on the blueberries – they are great, unless you are trying to use them to satisfy a craving for something else. I hope he doesn’t stay on this forever. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really learned any healthy habits that I can see that will last with him when he eventually and inevitably falls off the wagon.

  4. sixmonthstosanity August 23, 2016 / 3:46 am

    What. The. Fudge. Also, a gem from the comment section: “Eh if he’s feeling happy and healthy and losing all the weight he wants, who am I to judge…maybe he’s got more willpower than the rest of us.” AGHHHH. The disorder-y restriction=admirable willpower perception might make me more upset than anything else. It’s so widely accepted and perpetuated that sometimes I fear it will never, ever fall out of fashion.

    • GlenysO August 23, 2016 / 8:21 am

      Right, the willpower thing is SO misguided. Our psychological and biological systems are geared to override our so-called “willpower” so that we don’t starve to death (or to mere bad health). I’m not sure where the idea that good nutrition means disordered eating came from, but I desperately want it to go away!!

  5. Grab the Lapels August 26, 2016 / 6:08 am

    What’s crazy is they did an episode of Bullshit about how unscientific and predatory diets are!

    • GlenysO August 26, 2016 / 2:34 pm

      Aeeeiiii! That IS maddening! But of course, he’s not on a “diet” – he’s making “lifestyle changes!” (said with all the sarcasm in the world) >:->

  6. Joseph Hertzlinger October 1, 2016 / 6:58 pm

    A quote about that “focused feeling”:

    “Have you a lean and hungry friend who thinks too much? If so, he may be thinking about food.” — Richard Armour

  7. Songbirdo January 30, 2017 / 4:28 pm

    “If you take medical advice from a Los Vegas magician, you are an idiot who deserves to die.” – Penn Jillette

    • GlenysO January 30, 2017 / 8:35 pm

      Ha! Did he really say that!?

  8. Matt March 25, 2017 / 1:20 pm

    I think the author of this article has the wrong impression of Penn. He’s one of the most humble guys out there and he did say not to take advice from a magician. The diet clearly works for him, if he says he’s happier why shrug it off? I’m sure he is. When/if it stops working I get the impression he’s the kind of guy to change accordingly. Good on him and good luck to him I say.

    • GlenysO March 26, 2017 / 10:49 am

      Well, he’s written a diet book about his diet, for other people to purchase and read…so yes, he is actually asking people to take diet advice from a magician. If diets weren’t harmful over the long term (and science shows us they are), I wouldn’t care, but what he described as his diet was extremely disordered eating, so I do take issue with the promotion of his diet.

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