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.

Dietitians Unplugged Podcast

Time to catch up on all our episodes!


Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

Subscribe and get my free guide, Why you overeat …and what to do about it.

Click here if you just want my newsletter!


Dietitians Unplugged Podcast – Episode 6: Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?

Cover2Check out episode 6 of the Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which Aaron and I discuss the “clean eating” trend. Is this just another way to eat, a diet, or a new religion? And what are the implications for the kids raised in this dichotomous way of thinking about food?

Here is the article that inspired this blog post. Warning: it includes fat-phobic comments and diet talk.

Other links referenced:
Ellyn Satter Institute
The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Wendy Mogel, PhD

Listen on Libsyn or iTunes. Give us a review on iTunes if you like us — this helps to spread the non-diet love to more people. And feel free to like our new Facebook page!

Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

Subscribe and get my free guide, Why you overeat …and what to do about it.

Click here if you just want my newsletter!

I Quit Quitting Sugar

cakeI’ll admit I’m a little behind on new diet fads. I just heard about a “new” one which has been around for about a year now.

The book I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson (no link here due to selling of weight loss) debuted last year but appears to be finally gaining some real momentum in the blogosphere. I haven’t read the book but I did spend some time on Ms. Wilson’s website on which she shares her sugar-quitting origin story. Long story short: Ms. Wilson has Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the thyroid gland, and after she quit eating sugar (emphasis appears to be on fructose) her symptoms improved and she felt better. She also lost the weight she had gained with the onset of the disease (weight gain is a common symptom of Hashimoto’s). She then wrote a book about it inviting others to take her 8-week challenge to quit sugar to “lose weight; boost energy; and improve your looks, mood, and overall health” according to the Amazon description.

If Ms. Wilson’s condition improved because of changes she made in her diet, I think that is awesome. Perhaps this information could also help others with similar problems, although I don’t believe there is much reliable evidence at this time to show how completely eliminating sugar from one’s diet vastly improves various diseases or conditions (in fact we’ve found that even diabetics can incorporate some sugar into their diets while still maintaining good blood sugar control). I am aware, however, that people are highly individual and that some dietary changes will work for some and not for others. Often it is a matter of experimentation on the part of the individual to find out what works best.

What bothers me about this sugar-quitting trend is the emphasis on weight loss. In fact, the short Amazon blurb refers to weight or weight loss no less than three times. So is this diet about feeling better or getting thinner? Those two things don’t always run hand-in-hand. While I’ll never deny that quitting sugar could make some people feel better, its chances of producing long-term weight loss are no better than any other diet – 5% of people will succeed, 95% will fail. There is no evidence that it will do better than this for long-term results.

All of this reminds me of the time I quit sugar. Twenty years ago I had just moved to a big city and worked at a small company that had no problems abusing my time and good work ethic, and I frequently worked 10-12 hours a day. I was living in my aunt and uncle’s basement temporarily and I wasn’t cooking as much as I normally did so I wouldn’t disturb them. More than once I remember eating three cookies for dinner before passing out early for bed. In general I was super-stressed and tired and my diet was lacking. After a few months of this, I started to develop a few unpleasant symptoms that, after numerous visits to the doctor, seemed to have no apparent medical cause.

I turned to alternative medicine to find relief. Based on some books I read, I thought eliminating the sugar in my diet was worth a try. I managed it easily for about a month. I also tried to limit refined grains. Some of my symptoms improved. Some of them lingered longer but eventually went away after a few months. And yes, I inadvertently lost 5 pounds.

Other things changed too. I got faster at my job and didn’t have to spend quite so many hours there. I got my own apartment and cooked for myself more often. I relaxed more. I made more friends and had more fun. Six months later, my original symptoms resolved (and I gained the 5 pounds back). Despite the fact that I was no longer restricting sugar as much, I was convinced sugar had been responsible for my symptoms. And I was secretly thrilled I’d found another way to tip the scales in the downward direction if needed.

Unfortunately, a by-product of eliminating sugar was an intense desire for sweets whenever they were available. In the initial sugar-quitting stages I did not crave sugar at all, but within a month or so, if a sugary treat showed up in my office (as it often did), you can bet I wanted as much of that thing as I could get. Avoiding sugar became a full-time job of fighting my cravings. Because you know what? I like sugar! Maybe not all the time…but yeah, once in a while a well-placed Oreo cookie hits the spot. Eliminating sugar was my first real foray into restricting specific foods, and it would only get worse from there.

I’ve never been able to completely eliminate sugar (or any other food group) for more than a month at a time and luckily I’ve never had to for medical reasons (during my darkest dieting days, I sometimes turned to quitting sugar short term to lose weight). Years later I’ve discovered that those unpleasant symptoms arise when I am – surprise! – really stressed out and exhausted. It turns out I needed more than just a diet intervention – I needed a whole lifestyle intervention! I no longer eliminate any foods, and because of this I don’t overeat on any type of food. I aim for a diet balanced between healthy and pleasurable. I’m under no illusion that sugar is a health food – I am a dietitian after all – but completely eliminating foods I enjoy was not a sustainable action for me in the absence of serious health problems and ultimately lead to worse eating behaviors.

I tell this story to illustrate a point: Sometimes diet interventions help improve health issues. Sometimes focusing on food masks deeper problems. Sometimes eliminating foods results in an inadvertent weight loss (and usually that weight comes back). Of course I’m going to say it: sometimes food elimination ends up being just another diet to lose weight intentionally. And we know about the effectiveness of weight loss diets.

I hope for anyone with a medical problem or health issue that your experimentation with food elimination is fruitful and brings relief. For the rest of us just thinking about weight loss, stop and ask yourself if food elimination is a practical, sustainable model for you and know that one more disguised diet might not bring you any closer to your dream weight or to a healthy relationship with eating.

Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

Subscribe and get my free guide, Why you overeat …and what to do about it.

Click here if you just want my newsletter!