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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What Non-Diet Nutrition Might Look Like

food collage
All foods fit. YES THEY DO.

One day last week, I found myself mentally running through what I ate that day – not for any reason other than as a memory exercise. I started tallying the different fruits and vegetables I ate just out of curiosity: peach, banana, green pepper, red pepper, onion, tomato, tomatillo, green beans, mushrooms and scallions. Wow, that seemed like a lot of fruits and vegetables – even for me! Yet I barely noticed it till I took the time and effort to remember.

I’m not trying to brag; rather, I just want to illustrate a point about what “normal” eating – aka, eating not-on-a-diet – might look like. I probably didn’t eat a whole serving of each of these vegetables – that’s a little too much volume for me. I may have made it to the recommended 5 servings, but I rarely count so I don’t know for sure. And not every day looks like this; some days I eat less produce (or food in general), others more. I’m convinced, however, that providing oneself reasonably balanced, varied and, most importantly, tasty meals on a regular basis will provide all the nutrients you need over time, and listening to our internal signals of hunger and fullness to guide our eating will ensure we get the right amounts. Good nutrition really isn’t that hard.

And yet, I didn’t eat like this when I dieted because I would have had to prepare the vegetables in such a way that they didn’t taste very good. In fact, when I dieted early on I ate very few vegetables and almost no fruit because I wanted to save every calorie for food I liked since I got to eat so little of it.

Since embracing a Health at Every Size® philosophy toward health, my diet quality has improved immensely from those days of restriction. How, then, I do I include fruit and vegetables so easily now? First and foremost, I make everything taste good. The peppers and onions came in a cheese quesadilla in a flour tortilla cooked in some oil I had made the night before, then topped with roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (with some cilantro in there too). The banana may have had peanut butter or Nutella on it (or not). The other vegetables were cooked in a stir fry with pork in a sauce of soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry and sesame oil and served over white rice (because I don’t like brown) by my partner. And yes, it was cooked in oil and NO not some small diet amount, but enough to lubricate the dish and make it taste good.

But just as important as making food taste good, my relationship to food is such that I have the pick of all the foods available to me that I like. I’m also not going around in a state of chronic hunger because I feed myself according to my hunger and fullness. That means I’m not jonesing for something I can’t have simply because I feel like I can’t have it (a scientific phenomenon), and I don’t go around looking for the most calorically dense food I can find to fill a bottomless pit of a stomach. And in getting to choose any food I want, I choose foods that both taste good and make me feel good, which includes a variety of “whole” foods (a term I’ve come to dislike thanks to diet culture and healthism, but it is useful here nonetheless).

To be quite frank and not very dietitian-like, I am not a fan of using serving sizes to guide our eating. Like registered dietitian Ellyn Satter states in this article, I feel strongly that government-issued dietary guidelines take away permission to eat and leave people with disordered eating and probably a dislike of a lot of foods that are good for us. This especially rang true to me:

“The 2005 Dietary Guidelines…raised the recommendation for fruits and vegetables from five to nine a day. That is 4 1⁄2 cups of virtually naked fruits and vegetables—with only the smallest amounts of salt, fat or sugar. The intent, of course, wasn’t to satisfy nutritional requirements—four or five well-chosen vegetables and fruits a day and a similar number of breads and cereals is enough. The intent is to get us to fill up on relatively low-calorie food so we don’t eat so much. Such tactics defeat consumers’ best intentions. Well and interestingly prepared fruits and vegetables are tasty and rewarding. However, as any experienced dieter knows, trying to fill up on them— particularly when they are unadorned—is quite another matter. I have worked with far too many recovering dieters who have tried to do just that, and after a while they say that they simply can’t look at another pile of vegetables.”

Nailed it. When I was at Weight Watchers, vegetables were not recommended as a tasty, satisfying part of your diet – rather, they were something to be eaten to take up space in your stomach, to prevent you from eating other potentially high calorie foods that might actually satisfy you. I could not stand unadorned vegetables and mostly I just skipped them unless a particularly good recipe called for them. Fruits – why bother? You had to count those as points. My weight loss was not about health – it was about weight and societal approval. I did what I could bear, and while I could bear to be hungry, I could not bear to eat foods I didn’t like (although later on I would do this, too).

Fast forward six years after declaring my freedom from diets. I found out that a “well and interestingly prepared” vegetable is a thing of beauty, especially when I feel I don’t have to eat it. My diet rebel has a loud voice when it comes to “shoulds”, especially around food. I could experiment with foods to see what I truly liked.

Eating a balanced and varied diet that we like, aka eating competence does make us healthier – at least in terms of having better diets, physical self-acceptance, activity levels, sleep, medical and lab tests. ( And can you also imagine the wonderful by-products of people getting totally normal with food? No more boring conversations about what people can’t or won’t eat, about being “good” or “bad” with food, about having to punish themselves later for something they’re eating now. I mean, seriously, YAWN. We could talk about so many smart or interesting or fun things instead!)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what you eat isn’t nearly as important to your health and well-being as your relationship to food is. When you heal your relationship to food and eating, you’re free to experience the variety that is available to you without stress and drama. Let’s call a definite moratorium on food rules, get curious with our appetites and start exploring with gusto!

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Dietitians Unplugged Episode 5 -Weighing in on the Dietary Guidelines

Cover2The 2016 Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out earlier this year and Aaron and I let you know what we think. Are they words to live by…or just another prescriptive diet? Do we even need the Guidelines?  What drives the rational for how Guidelines are formed? Listen to us discuss these questions and more from a Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating perspective.

 

 

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The Diet Begins Now

Diet Crap with outlineDecember can be a hard time for people. There’s the stress of the holiday season. The cumulative exhaustion of the year weighing down on you. Retail fatigue getting everyone down. Personally, even while continuing to eat intuitively and getting some exercise, I find it hard to feel healthy during this time of year because this is the “end” of the year and I kind of just feel done.

So I understand that need to want to hit the reboot button at the beginning of the new year. To strive to feel better, eat better, be fitter. Maybe even liking ourselves better. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that desire.

And you’re not on a diet now. Of course you’re not; it’s December, it’s the holiday season, there’s yummy food everywhere, you’re enjoying it, it’s the end of the year and not the time to start something new, etc. etc. etc.

But over the year, some unfruitful seeds have been planted. An ad mentioned getting a “beach body.” A workplace had a “Biggest Loser” contest and someone won $500 for losing the most weight. Oprah made a shitload of money from investing in Weight Watchers, and also, she lost a few pounds.

So while most people probably aren’t thinking about starting a diet for weight loss right now…they are planning it for January. In their heads, they are already starting the diet now.

The diet industry counts on this. They are laying low right now, saving their pennies for the weight loss ads that will pour forth from our TVs, radios, streaming services, and social media platforms come the new year. They will make a lot of money by selling a product that doesn’t work and then blaming the buyer for its lack of success. Even though the probability of 95% of people being to blame for a product not working has to be somewhere around zero. They make $60 billion a year and they barely even bother to advertise in December!

There are a million ways to improve your health and none of them have to involve intentional weight loss diets that don’t work in the long term. In fact, probably the unhealthiest thing anyone can do is try to diet for weight loss, because the most reliable long-term outcome of dieting for weight loss is weight re-gain. Is this really what you want? I didn’t think so.

Those things you can do if pursuing better health is your goal for the new year? Here are a few suggestions: You can eat nourishing foods; you can aim for more fruits and vegetables in your diet; you can learn to savor the foods you eat; you can learn to expand your palette to accept new foods. You can heal your relationship to food and your body if it needs healing. You can move more, maybe learn to love physical activity for the first time. You can discover that exercise isn’t just in a gym, sometimes it’s dancing in your living room or walking down the street or cleaning your home. You can broaden your network of social support. You can give yourself a break when you need it. You can realize that you’re already great, just as you are, without having to change your shape and size.

The diet doesn’t have to begin now, or ever. You can do all those healthy things without handing over one cent to the diet industry, who won’t give you a refund if they fail to help you achieve your goal in becoming thin forever. Don’t let those diet seeds leave you with unsavory fruit. Grow something real for yourself instead.

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!

Eating and Exercising for your Future Health Sucks

Feel good NOWPerhaps I am a naughty dietitian for saying so, but I think doing “healthy” stuff now to ward off vague future health threats is a terrible motivation for behavior change.

There. I said it. So sue me. But first let me explain.

I think we humans tend more toward hedonism than toward future thinking in that, most of the time, we just want to feel good in the immediate here and now.

This has been gleaned anecdotally by me in a not-at-all scientific way but I’m standing by it right now because 1. That’s how I am myself and 2. That’s how my clients are and 3. That’s how my friends are. So, with only a few exceptions, that is, like, everyone I know! Yeah, people want to be healthy but more importantly they want to feel good.

Somewhere along the way to feeling good and feeling healthy, weight became the stand-in for both, perhaps because it has immediate, visible results that let you know if what you are doing is working AND you feel good because everyone tells you nice things about how you look. But weight is a poor barometer of health and we know now how poorly weight loss works and so now the thing we implore you to do is “eat for your health.”

But I gotta say, that sucks. Even *I* don’t want to do that. And I’m a great planner. So what to do then?

Well, how about a little something I like to call feel-good-now-nutrition?

Let’s say you’re mastering intuitive eating, dieting is a thing of your past, and now you’re ready to try this business of eating healthier. You eat “virtuously” because you don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease, but then you keep forgetting about your reasons for eating this way because it’s a future thing. And who wants to be scared all the time worrying about conditions you might not – or worse, might – get? It’s too depressing, so you put it out of your mind. And I don’t blame you! Aside from some basic (and, sigh, I’m guessing inadequate) retirement planning, I don’t want to think of a future where I may be infirm in any way. I just want to enjoy living in the now.

And that’s where feeling good becomes your new guideline. For example, one of the best reasons to stop overeating is because the feeling of being overly full is just plain unpleasant. When you are in the middle of a meal, then, it makes sense to pause and not think about how healthy you’ll be in 30 years if you stop now, but how uncomfortable you might be in 30 minutes if you don’t stop now. Our internal cues around hunger and satiety are designed to make us feel good. Getting to that hungry-and-ready-to-eat point? Feel good. Getting into hangry territory? Feel bad. See? Simple!

Our bodies seek balance. After even a day of “treat” foods, I find myself craving a pile of vegetables. And when I have them – ones that I like, prepared how I like them (i.e. in a non-diet way) – I feel good. My stomach doesn’t feel weighed down or bloated, and I like that feeling. Or sometimes I want something “heavier” like comfort food, because that’s what makes me right as rain at that moment. Our bodies crave variety so that we get all the nutrients we need from a range of foods. Yes, vegetables are healthy, so there is definitely an advantage to including them in your diet. But there are a ton of feel-good-right-now reasons to include them in your diet, taste being one and bowel regularity being an important other. Can’t poop? Feel baaaad. If you’re not a vegetable lover, try experimenting incrementally with different veggies using recipes that combine them with favorite foods (like green beans sautéed with bacon fat, Stilton blue cheese, and walnuts – thank you Jamie Oliver!).

This works for exercise as well. I only exercise now when I feel like it and I only do what is fun or what helps me to clear my head and loosen my joints. After years of experimenting, it turns out that I feel good getting some sort of movement most days of the week. All of those days aren’t spent at the gym – at most I want to be there two days a week, and others not at all. I’ve found other forms of activity that make me feel good for a variety of reasons. Most recently this has been a line dancing class at work, which feels good not just because it is movement but because it’s totally fun, goofy, and social. Exercise doesn’t have to be about the sweat at all if that doesn’t make you feel good.

So to recap: Feeling healthy = Feeling good right now. Math portion of the post now complete.

Finding the “healthy” foods and the right movement is important, but they have to make you feel good in the moment. We are creatures built for happiness now first and foremost, so let that be your biggest motivator for being healthy. Because after all, our happiness is the most important part of our health!

Committing Nutrition Heresy: Why I Don’t Think What We Eat is All that Important

Hold on to your hats, folks!  I’m about to say some pretty wild stuff (at least for a dietitian): I don’t think what we eat is all that important.

This is not what I thought for a long time. I once thought food was the most important aspect of our health. I thought if I could just eat virtuously enough, organic enough, local enough, free-range-pastured enough, enough vegetables, fruit and fiber and low enough fat…that I could live forever. Or at least I could live long enough that the end would always remain just safely out of view and I would remain disease free and looking like the age of 33 until the ripe old age of 110.

That was incredibly naïve, of course. It eventually became clear to me that all the good nutrition (or exercise) in the world wasn’t going to prevent the osteoarthritis I was developing in both my big toe joints, nor the near-debilitating ache I felt in my back. Good nutrition wasn’t going to fix troubled relationships or mediocre jobs, and it wouldn’t stop me from turning a year older every single year. The truth of it was that food was actually preventing me from living a healthy life because it was all I focused on.

Because what is health? Is it just eating enough fruits and vegetables? Of course not. Health is comprised of many components: genetics, environment, spiritual life, socioeconomic status, education, stress, relationships, access to health care. Nutrition and exercise are a small part of a big picture. What good is a diet filled with wholesome foods but a life filled with chronic stress? What good is all the exercise in the world if it excludes time to build nurturing relationships? What good is a near-perfect diet when you can’t enjoy it without overwhelming guilt when it isn’t perfect?

(There is a time when food is the most important, however, and it’s when you don’t have enough. People struggling with food insecurity will likely find that food–affording, finding, preparing and eating it–is their number one priority.)

So here’s how I think food and nutrition are important: I think we need to enjoy our food. I think it’s important to have a relaxed attitude toward eating. I know that dieting is not working for us. I think that eating fruits and vegetables can help ward off, but are not guaranteed to prevent, some diseases. I think most of this can be achieved with a non-diet lifestyle. And I think it is equally important to feed our souls with good relationships, feed our minds with knowledge, ease our stress by treating ourselves kindly. Food is a part of our lives, but it cannot be the only part.