Is going on a diet like joining a cult?
This is one of the jokes magician Penn Jillette makes in his book Presto: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. Jillette is the loud, tall and formerly fat half of the duo Penn & Teller. Facing raging blood pressure levels that his doctors felt required gastric sleeve surgery, Jillette instead became a guinea pig for an ex-NASA buddy who turned out to be a control freak with some pretty unconventional dietary ideas. But Jillette shed weight in a hurry and many of his pals “joined the cult” along the way. So while he’s had to get used to a new belief system that shuns pizza, doughnuts and Ho-Hos, he’s got lots of company.
He also manages to have way too much fun for a guy in his early 60s who now eats only whole plant foods.
This book didn’t make me want to join his “cult.” But there are a lot of interesting ideas packed in amid Jillette’s signature profanity. Here were the takeaways for me:
* It’s important to know your dietary personality. Some people like to make small sensible changes that Jillette calls “dieting like a grownup.” My dad falls into that category. When he wants to drop a few pounds, he “just eats less.” Like Jillette, more extreme measures appeal to me. I like a diet to feel like a quest or an adventure. I hate when eating is boring, even when I’m trying to do less of it. With Weight Watchers, I was obsessed with gaming the system to figure out what I could get away with without going over my points total. I got similarly obsessed with Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet a couple of years ago, which, now that I think about it, was a bit like “joining a cult” in that I was totally focused on the cheat day reward that SCD followers were always rhapsodizing about. This diet got me leaner, even though I wasn’t able to run due to injury at the time. But once I lost faith in the cheat day concept, I couldn’t stay on the six-day regimen to save my life.
*I love the way Jillette learned to turn “not eating” into an action verb. People are so used to feeling like they’re suffering on a diet, when they have to say no to cake or cookies or whatever. On business lunches with no good options, he learned to say he simply wasn’t hungry. He ordered decaf coffee and seltzer water and found he was better able to focus on the deal, which was the whole point of the meal anyway. On New Year’s Eve, he ate a big salad then drank decaf espresso all night while everybody else was scarfing party food. “At midnight, bringing in a new year in which I would be thinner, I had a big tasty slice of … nothing, (expletive). I was doing this thing.”
*When Jillette’s fat friends whined that they “like food too much to eat like you do,” he countered that he’d found he had a whole new perspective on taste. Cutting fat, salt and sugar made him appreciate the more subtle tastes of fruit and veggies, beans and rice. Hearing their whining, he writes, “makes it sound a bit like ‘I like music too much to listen to Miles Davis.’ It’s not food you like too much – it’s shitty, corporate, jive-ass TV food you like too much.”
From what I gather, Jillette’s buddy “CrayRay” started him out on a two-week “potato famine” in which he ate nothing but plain potatoes, all types including sweet potatoes and fingerlings, as much as he wanted. That recalibrated his taste buds to the point that corn tasted like candy. From there he started eating vegetable stews made of corn, beans and tomatoes, and then salads. There were also “feeding windows” to promote the equivalent of intermittent fasting and cold showers to expose a guy who lives in Las Vegas to cold. . There was no exercise until Jillette reached his target weight, because CrayRay believes that shedding fat and building muscle are “two entirely different physiologies.” At that point, he started the New York Times 7-minute workout and now eats a maintenance diet that’s pretty much straight-up Dr. Joel Fuhrman, best known for pushing whole plant foods on his Eat to Live series.
I’d be pretty interested in reading CrayRay’s forthcoming book. I remember his ideas on “metabolic winter” – back when he was known as Ray Cronise, before Jillette gave him this funky nickname – were explored in Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body. Unfortunately, when I checked out Cronise’s kickstarter page, it looks like he’s at least a year behind schedule.
In the meantime, even Jillette advises that you be careful taking health and diet tips from a Vegas performer who’s still at least part “carny trash.” His book is an entertaining read, but be forewarned – the profanity content is truly stunning.