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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When Intuitive Eating Becomes a Rule, Not a Tool

No more eating rulesI have to thank a commenter in an Intuitive Eating discussion group I belong to for the catchy title of this post. It was in response to another poster who had said he felt he was eating too much and generally eating “everything.” It got me thinking about the ways that this could easily happen when we are in the early stages of learning to give up dieting and eat intuitively.

For those of us who have dieted, Intuitive Eating can feel like a lifesaver once we get over the fear of trusting our own bodies. When we start to tune into our internal cues of hunger and satiety and eat accordingly, we can feel an immense sense of relief and freedom from restrictive eating.

But what happens when we start to become just as restrictive with IE as we were when we dieted? When “eat when you’re hungry” (a guideline) becomes “eat ONLY when you are hungry” (a rule)? When “stop when you’re no longer hungry” becomes so rigid that you are left craving more? That’s when Intuitive Eating has become a rule, not a tool, and you’re in danger of embarking on yet another diet.

We eat for many reasons: primarily stomach hunger, but also sometimes for mouth hunger, for celebratory reasons, because you won’t be able to eat later, for comfort, and sometimes just because it is there. Having a strict control rule such as “I can only eat when my stomach feels a certain level of hunger” can feel restrictive, and restriction is frequently associated with binge-eating behaviors (See the evidence here). Having permission to eat for all the other reasons, while mostly aiming for stomach hunger, creates a safe space for eating where you are in charge (as opposed to in control).

Same for fullness/satiety. Most of the time, we are listening for the “not hungry” cue to tell us when to stop eating. But occasional overeating is normal – say, on special occasions, like a holiday meal, or when a particular meals tastes especially wonderful (hello pizza!). Feeling like we have permission to overeat if we want to gives us – not “the rule” – the decision making power over what and how much we eat.

Once we’re back in Rule Land, it’s easy to feel confined to healthy, moderate eating – and it becomes easy to want to rebel against it too. That’s when we might start feeling like we’ve gone off the rails, eating without listening to internal cues, and trying to satisfy the psychological deficits restriction creates.

When I learned to eat intuitively, I found that I still had a hard time regulating myself with pizza (did I mention this is my favorite food!?). As I honed in on my internal eating cues, I found I was able to recognize satiety after one slice most of the time. However, there were times when I wanted more just because it tasted especially wonderful (because not all pizzas are created equal, and sometimes it just is better), but I felt guilty that I was eating past my satiety. That resulted in feeling like I was restricted – and then I ate even more. Eventually I realized that I could eat just as much as I wanted, which sometimes meant a little, and other times meant more – and the freedom allowed me to stop overeating to discomfort on this food. My significant other (a natural intuitive eater) makes it his business to occasionally overeat on pizza just because he likes it so much. Remember that if we listen to our body’s cues most of the time, an occasional indulgent eating episode won’t disrupt our weight regulation.

Following our hunger and satiety cues are best thought of as guidelines that will help us make good eating decisions in the moment. Becoming obsessive with these guidelines can make us feel cheated. Sometimes you’re not all that hungry for that birthday cupcake (especially right after the delicious birthday meal) but you want it anyway because it’s a celebration – and, hey, how often do you have cupcakes anyway? (for me: not nearly often enough!)

So remember, let Intuitive Eating be your tool to the best eating for you – not a rule that puts you on another diet.