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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Inside This Overweight Woman…

Oprah, you are better than this.

I’m not the first (this was the first I saw and my inspiration for this post. And it’s awesome!), or anywhere near the last, person to be ticked off at Oprah Winfrey for her Weight Watchers ad in which she says, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” As though literally everything Oprah has already done in her life – hosted a long-running talk show, launched careers, empowered girls in Africa to go to school, become a media mogul with her own network all while probably dealing with racism, sexism and sizeism along the way – somehow isn’t totally awesome because she wasn’t thin while she was doing all those things.

But it’s Oprah’s choice. She can feel however she wants about herself, her career, her body. She can go ahead and diet for the millionth time, as though Weight Watchers were some well-kept secret that she just hadn’t caught wind of while she was busy failing at weight loss with her personal trainer and chef.

What I must completely object to, however, is Oprah’s insistence on speaking on behalf of “every” overweight woman. As an overweight – actually, obese, according to my BMI! – woman, I simply disagree that what is in me is a thinner woman whose life is better than my current fat one. I know because I already tried that.

When I discovered my thinner woman inside, I found she came with a deep insecurity about measuring up to others’ standards. I found a thinner woman who probably could have earned a PhD for all the time she spent adding up points and obsessing over food and weight. This woman may have had other interests outside of food, but she couldn’t fully cultivate them because there simply was no room left after food, exercise and worrying about how she looked.

Despite what Oprah said about looking in the mirror and not recognizing your own self because you’re buried under all that fat, this thinner woman, at her thinnest and hungriest, frequently looked into the mirror and didn’t recognize herself at all. She felt a strong sense of disconnection from herself, as though this was not in fact her own body but some borrowed, alien body with which she was not entirely familiar or comfortable. As though she knew the ephemeral quality of it already.

Oprah could not possibly know what is inside every fat woman. She only knows what’s inside herself and if she chooses to view all her amazing accomplishments as less than amazing simply because she was not thin, that’s her choice.

Because inside this fat woman is someone whose worth is not determined by her appearance, and knowing that, is just fine with the way she looks, and even more excited by the things she is. This fat woman dared to not diet, dares to take care of herself in a nourishing, not punishing, way, and dares to have her voice heard. She had the guts to start a blog and a podcast – things the thin woman never would have dared to do –  and to reject the anti-woman, anti-fat culture that is ever-present.

Oprah’s weight journey has been so public and I feel for her. She doesn’t know that her size really doesn’t matter to the amazing person she is. But, Oprah, please speak for yourself only. Because didn’t you hear? It’s okay for us to feel fine about ourselves without having to turn into something we’re really not. It’s okay for each of us to reach inside and see that the woman there is already the woman we want to be.


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When They Tell You When to Eat

Mmm…snack time.

I finally got around to reading my July/August copy of Food & Nutrition Magazine, the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics publication that I enjoy immensely for the bite-sized tidbits of information (more corny dietitian humor. Corny! Ha!).

When you’re a dietitian, everyone wants to tell you their theories on what they think is the best diet (one of my nutrition instructors told the class this is why she won’t tell people what she does for a living at parties. Don’t I know it!). Often someone will say to me, “I’ve heard that eating (5, 7, 9, the number varies) small meals a day is better than eating three.” So it was with great interest that I read the article “What Science Says About Snacking.” Well, what do you think? Three squares or nine mini-meals a day?

Turns out the evidence supports…both. Huh!? So says the article:

“Snacking may help control appetite, or it may contribute to recreational eating and excess calories. Research supports both opposing views. Beginning in the 1960s, studies noted that people who ate the fewest number of times during the day had the greatest amount of excess body weight, leading many health professionals to recommend frequent eating as a weight-loss tool. More recently, researchers have challenged the idea that eating frequently aids weight control…[Studies] suggested that the more often someone ate, the higher his or her body mass index would be.”

The article sited several different studies which supported both sides of the argument. One study compared men who ate identical diets as either three square meals a day or as 17 daily “nibbles.” The nibblers had better cholesterol at the end of the study – but would you want to eat 17 times during the day?! You’d better have a very flexible job if you decide to go this route!

Ultimately, the article admitted, “Both the Evidence Analysis Library of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and experts at a 2009 symposium on eating frequency and energy balance concluded that scientific evidence pointing to an ideal eating frequency for weight control doesn’t exist at this time” (emphasis mine).

Not surprisingly, most of the studies looked at the effects of snacking or not snacking on weight, likely because many researchers remain hooked on the idea that weight=health. We know this is not true and there is ample evidence supporting this. But what about the effects of snacking on other metabolic parameters? The evidence is just as inconclusive. In the end, the article said, “While there is considerable interest in eating frequency, there is no consensus regarding an ideal pattern.”

Many diet plans have touted the effects on metabolism of many vs fewer meals a day, but once again,

“Although some dieters snack to boost their metabolic rates, research suggests these efforts are in vain. Studies that examine data for up to 48 hours after eating find that the jump in metabolic rate or the thermic effect of food is not dependent on meal frequency. Rather, overall metabolic rate is similar when a specific amount of food is eaten during few or many occasions.”

So even your metabolism doesn’t care if you snack or not.

How many diets have advised ideal meal patterns over the years as part of their foolproof weight loss schemes? More than I can count. And in the end, since science can’t agree, the best meal pattern is probably the one that you like the most – not for health reasons, but because it suits your life and appetite. Letting others dictate how often you should eat isn’t a guaranteed path to health or weight loss and might even be destructive to your body’s own intuitive internal regulation.

When I’m at work (and not on my own natural schedule), I tend to need snacks to quell hunger between meals because I eat breakfast earlier than I normally would. But at home, when I’m truly eating according to my own natural rhythms (waking up later, eating breakfast later, lunch a bit earlier, and dinner at my usual 7 pm), I find I don’t need snacks at all. So both methods work for me depending on my situation.

If you aren’t already in tune with your hunger and satiety signals, it’s worth it to invest some time in getting to know them well. Truly recognizing these cues from a weight-neutral perspective will help you best determine the eating pattern that is right for you. And don’t let the latest weight loss gurus tell you otherwise.

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What’s Your Life’s Masterpiece?

you're awesomeSomeone left a message on my Facebook page along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing because I deleted it toute suite) “This comment probably won’t be appreciated here [correct!] but this page seems like a big excuse for people to be overindulgent and lazy. You don’t have to do crazy fad diets or anything but people should try to eat better and be the best they can be.” It was left by a gentleman who was very muscled and shirtless (and notably, headless) in his FB photo, so based on that and the general negative tone of his comment, I’m guessing he disapproved of my message to love our bodies as they are through a Health At Every Size® approach.

I deleted the comment because of the negative, accusatory tone – I intend for my Facebook page and blog to be safe, positive spaces for people practicing HAES®, body positivity and Intuitive Eating. People of size, people who have suffered from eating disorders, even people with “normal size” bodies who want to step away from dieting – we all hear enough pro-diet, negative body talk in the world every day. I don’t owe anyone a platform for their thoughts, and there are plenty of places on the internet where those kinds of comments will be appreciated. But one thing I do want to address here is the particular sentiment of “People should try to be the best they can be.”

First of all, while I would love to encourage people to be the best they can be, the word “should” is troublesome because who are any of us to tell anyone what they should do? People can do what they want and they don’t need anyone’s permission.  But say some folks decide they want to be “the best they can be” (if they feel they aren’t currently at their best)? Great! Does that necessarily have to mean our bodies??

Maybe my commenter’s version, based on what he said and how he’s choosing the represent himself in his online persona, involves doing what it takes to have a body shaped similar to his: lean, large, muscled. Perhaps his body is the masterpiece of his life and that is his idea of being his “best.” That is absolutely a-okay because that’s what he wants. That works for him.

But does that mean improving one’s body is the universal meaning of “be the best you can be?” Not for me, it isn’t. I tried for many years to make my body the masterpiece of my life, and all it ever did was leave me unhappy. Even with all the societal approval that I “won” with my acceptably-small-sized body, I was simultaneously profoundly unhappy with my body and fearful that I would lose what I had created. My masterpiece left me wanting so much more out of life, not the least of which was peace of mind.

I realized my body did not have to be the culmination of my life’s work, that there were other things I could be “my best” at – like loving myself without judgement and then learning how to stop judging others for the thing I had agonized over in myself.

I learned I could learn things – like chemistry! – that I never thought I could when I was so busy creating my “best” body. I learned that when I did learn new things – microbiology, ho! – I felt much better about myself than when I had dutifully eaten like a dieting all-star all week. Sadly, I could have earned two PhDs for all the unhappy time I had spent thinking about ways to maintain my societally correct body.

The “best” me can have vigorous conversations about politics, science, pop culture, sociology, religion, fashion – things that don’t even involve my profession, nutrition (but I like talking about that, too) or my body (a topic which, frankly, bores me). The “best” me want to read books that bring me a new understanding of the world. And – unlike my body-shaping efforts of years past – doing these things actually makes me happy!

I learned that “the best I can be” is different for everyone, and that there was a better “best” inside of me than out. You get to choose what your best is, and it will involve your body, whether you want to conquer a sport or have a better understanding of constitutional law or become an ace quilter.

So I’m sorry I couldn’t let your post roam free on my Facebook page, dear commenter, but my followers don’t deserve to be shamed for choosing different paths to the best they can be.

*edited from original to add a link I had forgotten to add!

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Good Nutrition isn’t Rocket Science

kaleJust as I had been thinking this week about how I was going to write about what good nutrition is and isn’t, I stumbled across this (somewhat dubious) article about kale and how it is an accumulator of heavy metals which, if eaten in excess, could potentially cause harm (in theory).

Does this mean you should stop eating kale? Probably not, since this article is a far cry from showing an actual harmful effect from normal kale consumption. More importantly, I think the article underscores how our society’s relationship to food is so completely out of whack. (For a wonderful debunking of the recent kale-panic, check out this page)

Kale fell under the “superfood” category (a term I despise heartily) somewhere in the last decade, and since then I’ve seen kale popping up everywhere in many forms: dried as “chips,” chopped up raw in bagged salads, mixed with grains, presented as the star player in soups. I enjoy kale, but I’m so totally kaled out right now from its ubiquitous presence that I’m about ready for a long vacation to Aruguland (hardy har).

Kale is merely the current symbol for what I’m going to call Superfood Syndrome: a food’s nutrition profile is found to be especially bountiful, and suddenly everyone is eating that vegetable AND ONLY that vegetable.

Except they’re totally missing one of the fundamentals of good nutrition: variety is key to getting everything we need. Yes, kale has a lot of thisthatandtheother nutrients (to be specific, beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium; the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin; and sulforaphane, which is known to have anti-cancer properties), but it cannot possibly have everything we need in it.

I think Superfood Syndrome is not about people worried about getting good nutrition. I think it’s about people trying to find the silver bullet that will ward off the inevitable end. I’ve got some sobering news for everyone: no one’s getting out of this thing alive. Even if eating kale (or other superfood) relentlessly every day for the rest of my days added another 10 years to my life, I’m not sure I’d want it if it involved eating the same thing every day. Thankfully, good nutrition doesn’t require you to do that!

Here’s all you really need to achieve good nutrition:

  1. Have a good relationship to food.  A healthy relationship to food means you aren’t thinking about it 24/7, you don’t fear your next meal, you don’t need to document everything you put in your mouth, and you feel relaxed, never guilty, about eating. Without this healthy relationship, your eating may end up out of balance at some point, eating either too much or not enough of what your body needs.
  2. Eat intuitively. Your body’s signals for hunger and satisfaction are the best guide to let you know when and how much you should eat. Listen to them, not some article or corporation or book or website that purports to know exactly how much you should eat.
  3. Eat a variety of foods. Eat every kind of food, from fruits and veggies all the way to fun foods like cookies and cake. You might argue that there is no nutritional value in those treat foods, but I argue that they satisfy other needs in our body, such as the need to eat really yummo foods from time to time. Psychological needs are easily as important as physiological needs when it comes to eating, and there are many different foods that satisfy both. The bottom line is that eating from a wide variety of foods ensures that we will get all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that we need for optimum health.
  4. Eat fruits and vegetables. At least some every day, if you can. That these foods are really good for you is at least one part of nutrition science we can say we’ve got figured out. Aim for an average of five fruits and vegetables a day; for me that means some days I might not eat more than one serving, and other days I might eat 10. If you have a hard time including fruits and vegetables because you don’t like them, experiment with them slowly and introduce them to your palate a little bit at a time. I was never a veggie lover as a young person, but experimentation over the years has opened up that world to me, and oftentimes I’ll crave some veg like Brussels sprouts (which I upchucked when I was 5 years old) or rapini (which I didn’t even know existed till my early 30s).
  5. Enjoy what you eat. We’re designed to enjoy food, so enjoy it! Why spend time eating food you don’t like? Overall, I like including fruits and vegetables and whole grains in my diet not because they are “healthy” for me but because they make me feel good and I like the taste. I just can’t eat foods I don’t like (sorry, quinoa).

Experimentation. Variety. Enjoyment. And that’s pretty much it. You don’t have to be extreme or restrictive in your eating to get the best of food.

So put down that superfood you’re having for the tenth time today and see what else is out there!

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