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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Why Body Positivity Needs Your Help

BoPo heartI’m thrilled at how the body positive movement has really taken off and gone mainstream in the past year. I remember when it was little more than what seemed like a fringe movement only a few short years ago. I’m not even sure I remember anyone using the words “body positive.”

After suppressing my weight on diets for so long, my body naturally gained weight when I stopped dieting and started to eat normally (yep, it can happen).  I was dismayed at the change but I knew I couldn’t go back to dieting, so I decided to immerse myself in this body positivity stuff I’d been seeing a bit of on the internet. After poking around the web for a while I found some wonderful body-acceptance bloggers and advocates to light the way for me. Because literally no one else I knew in real life knew about this stuff, I felt like I had discovered a true body-acceptance treasure trove to which I and a handful of others had the secret key. Which sounds kind of awesome on the level of “Goonies” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but in reality, when learning how to finally accept and like your body after many years of culturally installed body dissatisfaction, it’s not really a place you want to be alone.

That was in 2010. Flash-forward six years and it now seems like the words “body positive” are on everyone’s lips. While the spread of a body positive movement has, in my opinion, been a good thing, its lack of a codified definition has left it open to misinterpretation and hijacking by less benevolent forces (like what happened to “lifestyle changes”).

“Body positivity” is a pretty general, undefined term, and therefore it’s open to anyone’s interpretation. It can mean something different to everyone. For me, body positivity is about accepting the bodies we have right now, no matter how well they approximate the cultural beauty standards and ideals. It’s about having respect for our bodies and what they do for us, not just about how they look to others or in the mirror. For me, it is also about rejecting a diet-and-weight-loss culture that tells us we need to change our appearance in order to feel good about ourselves and become socially acceptable.

I’ve noticed recently that my definition isn’t necessarily everyone else’s. I’ve read a few “body positive” blogs in which the bloggers talk about their efforts toward weight loss for health purposes. That disappoints me; if it’s truly about health, we know that a person does not actually have to lose weight in order to make positive changes toward good health. Eating well, exercising, managing stress, getting social and emotional support are all things a person can do without requiring the number on the scale to change. And knowing what I know about just how unhealthful and futile dieting is both physically and mentally, I simply cannot equate the pursuit of weight loss with body positivity.

I’ve also seen people draw a line in the sand with body positivity and weight. Like, “It’s okay to feel good about your body up to a certain point. But some people are too big and need to lose weight.” No, this is absolutely not body-positive. This imaginary line in the sand is why I believe in fat positivity. It should go without saying that fat positivity is included in body positivity, but considering that the word “fat” is still largely wielded as an insult, and fat bodies are almost never accepted and celebrated as other body shapes and sizes are – well, it’s going to take a lot of extra effort on behalf of fat activists and advocates to normalize fat bodies. Part of that effort includes saying, unapologetically, that we are fat positive.

This movement needs to be inclusive and accepting of all weights even if it is not necessarily the best or “healthiest” weight for that person at that moment (example: people with illness that cause unintentional weight loss or gain). This is why the banning of very-thin models in France or ads of very-thin women in England is not the answer; this still puts a value on certain body sizes (and if they can ban thin bodies, they won’t hesitate to ban fat bodies at some point either). It doesn’t solve the problem of inclusivity; it only makes the problem of exclusivity worse. The real problem is that women have long suffered from being valued for what our bodies look like; body positivity needs to be about putting that particular valuation aside and embracing the other great things about our bodies and what they do for us, how they enable us to take part in the world.

All of these problems are merely problems of definition, or lack of. The thing that really gets my blood boiling is when industries that profit off of our body insecurities start using the language of body positivity to sell products that aren’t very body positive at all. Dove, I’m looking at you and your cellulite reducing cream. Weight Watchers, I see you trying to get “beyond the scale” with some #bopo language, but I bet you didn’t remove any of the scales from your meetings, did you? Products that propose to change your body are simply not body positive, because they insist that the body at its starting point is flawed and requires changing.

Body Positive Australia recently illustrated this point perfectly when they took Weight Watchers to task after WW put some naked larger women in its magazine and declared they would end fat-shaming:

“Don’t try and manipulate body positivity, mindful eating and other ideas that HAVE NOTHING to do with weight, or weight loss. At the very least – please get real because the veiled attempts at pretending you give a shit are really tiresome. Your advertising directly preys on people’s insecurities and promotes the idea that you’ll be happier and more confident by losing weight. You use fear of fat, and shame, to perpetuate the idea that we’re not enough as we are, we must change & that if we’re smaller, we’re better, more valuable, more worthy. Yours is a shame-based business that is built on the idea that smaller is preferred, and that controlling your food makes for a better person. It keeps the narrative alive that self-worth is contingent on weight, shape and compliant eating behaviour. Whilst we’re keeping the focus on weight, we’re not really addressing the REAL reasons we’re not living the life we want, and deserve.”

Becoming truly body positive is going to require vigilance as the diet industry continues to defend its turf against the potential self-satisfaction of millions of people and therefore the loss of profit for its shitty products that don’t work. Likewise, many people who are personally invested in and benefit from the status quo of cultural beauty ideals will want to continue to enforce these ideals, only letting a chosen few into the club under the guise of “body positivity” in order to continue to keep it exclusive and their power intact. Don’t be fooled, none of this is really body positivity. Being truly inclusive, compassionate, celebratory and accepting of all body shapes, sizes, colors and abilities is what body positivity really needs to be about.

Want to Work With Me?

Are you over dieting but don’t know how to handle eating normally? Are you over living a life of restriction and binge eating? I can help. I’m now taking clients for drama-free eating coaching sessions. Click here for more information.

Latest Dietitians Unplugged Episode!

Aaron and I talk with Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center about eating disorders in men. Give us a listen!

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Anatomy of a Bad Body Week

body
This day was the beginning of my bad body week. No idea why – looks harmless now!

I’m committed to a non-diet life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad body days that turn into bad body weeks.

I’d been enjoying my time in Vivienne McMaster’s Be Your Own Beloved class. I was enjoying the challenge of taking a lot of selfies, even if they weren’t what I would have considered “flattering” or “attractive.” I felt I was really getting the hang of this compassion-for-myself business!

Then one day I took several photos for the prompt that day – we are encouraged to take many, many photos – and for some reason…it just set me off. The outfit I was wearing – something I thought looked super cute in the morning – was all wrong. My inner critic came leaping out of hibernation with all sorts of insults for my body, my face, my hair, my very soul, and for reasons I’ll get to, I was ripe for the picking.

I felt down for the rest of the day. I woke up the next morning with residual bad body feelings. I was also going through a period of fatigue (a theme of my life that I’ve learned to respect with rest). I felt like there was no one I could talk to about these feelings, because even if someone else knows the pain of bad body days, it’s hard to understand how other people have them. “You look great!” someone might console. I don’t know why, but that’s just not helpful at all; I know my bad body day is not rational and that others are not seeing what I see. A compliment at that moment just feels dismissive of all the dark feelings. I shared my thoughts with my partner and he was supportive and loving as always, but it’s still hard not to feel alone in these times.

But here’s what I knew, after so many years of experience: bad body days aren’t forever. And for me, they aren’t really about my body. At the same time, I also developed acid reflux and stomach distension that are classic symptoms of stress for me. So I started to think…what am I really bothered about? And I didn’t have to dig far to know that I’ve been a little stressed out with starting my business and dealing with the less fun administrative tasks. I’ve long known that I feel stress somatically, that even as my mind remains calm, my body sends me a multitude of distress signals. My body becomes, then, an easy target when the mental distress finally mounts.

What do I do when I finally realize I’m in the middle of a bad-body jag? It becomes all about self care. For me, that means getting lots of sleep and doing things like reading something fun and relaxing, eating familiar foods, and mindless TV watching or game-playing on my phone. And last week, it also included binge-listening to Julie Duffy Dillon’s fabulous podcast, Love, Food (specifically episodes 25, 26 and 28). Hearing that I wasn’t actually alone in these uncharitable thoughts about my body, that there were others dealing with these thoughts every single day, all over the place, was comforting.

In a culture that actively promotes body hate for profit – especially for women – and as someone who was a victim of this culture for 40 years before realizing it was total bullshit, it is unrealistic to think I’m going to feel great about my body every day. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s necessary to feel fantastic about the way our bodies look every day – that’s something that takes up a lot of mental space I no longer have room for. Feeling good IN my body is much more important to me, and that’s what I strive for now.

Soon enough, my bad body week ended. This week I’m back to being just fine with my body. I didn’t need to go on a diet to cure my bad feelings; I just had to sit with them for a while and be good to myself.

By the way, the photo that undid me is the one that accompanies this post. I look at it now and think there’s nothing wrong with this person in this photo. Some people in our photo group even liked it. In the end, it was all about what I really needed (self-care, compassion), and had nothing to do with how I looked.

Big News: Dare To Not Diet is in Business!

I’m excited to announce that I’m taking clients for drama-free-eating coaching! It’s been by dream to help others find peace with eating, food and their bodies, and after so many of you have reached out to say that you want this kind of support, I’m finally able to do it. To find out more, click here.

Latest Dietitians Unplugged Episode!

Aaron and I talk with Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center about eating disorders in men. Give us a listen!

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Dietitians Unplugged Podcast: Men and Eating Disorders

Cover2Do men get eating disorders too? Long regarded as a disease of girls and women, people sometimes don’t realize that men can also be affected by eating disorders. Aaron and I talked to Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center, a treatment center for those with eating disorders, substance abuse issues and self-harm disorders. They also happen to specialize in eating disorders for men, and that’s the subject of this podcast. Andrew shares his personal story of suffering with an eating disorder, body shame and muscle dysmorphia.

Listen now:

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