Is going on a diet like joining a cult?

Is going on a diet like joining a cult?

set_penn_jillette_pesto_9781501140181This 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.

presto-9781501140181_hr-back*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.

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Letting go of 2017

A few days into January I toyed with the idea of going for 2,017 miles in 2017. A couple of Colleen’s teachers who are also runners were going for it. Averaging 5½ miles a day sounded completely doable under their rules, which allowed running mileage to be supplemented with FitBit steps.

I don’t own (or desire) a FitBit, and there was this plantar fasciitis problem to contend with. But  even with no running I was getting 5 miles a day just doing five 15-minute walk breaks.  

Somewhere along the way some of those short quick walks morphed into more diverse activity sessions. I’d do a quick Tabata cycling or kettle bell workout, or set the stopwatch on my phone and just pick up sticks in the yard for 15 minutes. In doing so, I realized that I really didn’t spend that much time outside if I wasn’t running or riding my bike. In fact, I really didn’t get that much exercise at all, some days, outside of running. As a writer, a lot of what I do is pretty sedentary stuff.

These mini sessions became a real respite from the day. Whenever I felt stressed out or hit a roadblock, I’d get up and set my timer and just walk around or go do something. In the process, I stopped caring about mileage. Needless to say, I’m no longer on track for 2,017 miles. Like old Jiko in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I let that big fish swim away.

One day last week I realized that even though walking down the driveway to the mailbox has become part of my new routine – one of my tiny attainable goals for this year was to resist stopping the car at the end of the driveway to get the mail  – I’d never once in 15 years of living “out in the country” walked out to get the morning paper before breakfast.

Now, we subscribe to three newspapers (five, if you count the recent addition of digital access to The New York Times and The Washington Post), so it’s not like there’s ever any shortage of brain food at the breakfast table. But there’s something quaintly old fashioned about heading out on a cold dark morning to fetch the paper before I get the girls up for breakfast.

It’s a very small thing. Just one of the tiny unexpected pleasures that have come from laying down a backbeat of activity in my day. I can’t wait to get back to running. But when I do, I hope I can think of it as adding the melody to a pre-existing tune rather than an obsession that makes me anxious if the numbers aren’t there.  

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Annie’s 7-year, 200-pound weight-loss journey

Annie Giddens started her weight-loss journey about the same time I did, in January 2010. Seven years later, she’s lost 218 pounds, with “six or seven” to go.

I met Annie last week, during an interview for this week’s News-Sentinel column, and was instantly inspired by her determination to not only keep going, but to keep getting better — stronger, faster, healthier.

Annie had every excuse to fail. She was a single mom working long hours. She had A LOT of weight to lose. At one point, during a stressful period, she put 55 pounds back on. But she kept going, and she’s changed up both her diet and her training as needed over the years to stay motivated.

Now 42, the same age her dad was when he died of a cerebral aneurysm caused by hypertension and atherosclerosis, she eats and trains like the hardcore CrossFit athlete she’s become.

If you could use a fresh dose of inspiration to revive your New Year’s determination, check out Annie’s story here.


Here’s Annie competing in a CrossFit competition in Fort Wayne last August. She hoisted 115 pounds in that exercise; her three-woman team placed second overall. 



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Using ‘workout mode’ to tackle an unpleasant task

Why is it that I can embrace all kinds of pure fitness workouts, but I have to trick myself into a grueling, cumbersome task like getting out the heavy 12-foot step ladder and cleaning gutters?

When our son’s not off at college, this is his job. He would’ve been amazed to see his mom carrying and then setting up that monster ladder all by herself. Here’s what got me over the hump: The whole time, I was pretending some drill sergeant of a CrossFit coach was hollering orders.

This was easily my toughest workout of the week. Just sweeping all the sticks off the roof (along with some stubborn moss clinging to a few shingles on the north side) took a lot longer and much more energy than I expected. Then using my arms to hoist myself up and scoot my butt across the edge of the roof so I could reach down and clean the gutters was another CrossFit-worthy activity unto itself.

I would’ve MUCH rather used those two hours to go for a run instead. But it was one heck of an upper-body workout, and the only person I had to nag about finishing the job properly was myself.

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Synching mind and body on an impromptu 3-day fast



My dad on his 74th birthday, with his two youngest grandkids, Kobi and Kyla.  Choosing a meaningful finish line is one of the things I’ve learned about fasting. Dad’s birthday party was not only a great meal, but gave me a chance to savor the “bonus years” since  his recovery from cancer.

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit, during an unplanned three-day fast, on the nature of that “when one door closes another one opens” concept.


Seems like I’d no sooner got in a groove with an injury-recovery workout routine than I realized, in talking to someone who’d recently recovered from plantar fasciitis, that a big chunk of that routine – mini walking sessions on the concrete floor in our rec room – was surely slowing my recovery.



Intriguing ideas from the planet’s most intriguing people,  divided up into three sections: Healthy, wealthy and wise. 

Given that I’d been wanting to move a couple of my five daily mini workouts outdoors anyway, to tackle some heart rate-raising overdue yard work, this seemed like a good time to do that. And after reading Tim Ferriss’ blueprint for his monthly three-day fast in his new book, Tools of Titans, I decided, why not?


This fast was so much easier because there were no nagging doubts. I knew I wasn’t going to eat anything between Thursday dinner and Sunday dinner, so I wasn’t plagued with that constant “should I or shouldn’t I?” question. So there I was, outside raking frozen leaves after not having eaten a crumb for two days, and it just wasn’t that big a deal. It’s like my mind and body were on the same page: We both knew I was carrying around enough spare fat to fuel leaf raking. There was no interior whining.

Would this have happened on a run? Probably not, because I’ve never managed to shut down the “feed me!” impulse when it comes to running. I’d never attempt a fast while I’m running, especially if I’m training for something.

But in this case, a mini fast provided a chance for reflection. Much like a marathon, it’s a good way to synch my daily “in the moment” decision-making mindset with some higher part of my mind that operates at the managerial level. The player vs. the coach, if you will. The coach knows that what’s being asked of the body can be done. The player must have faith in the coach’s game plan.

One key thing I’ve learned in four fasts over the past year is that it helps to have something cool waiting at the finish line – a meaningful meal to look forward to breaking your fast. Last month I really wish I would’ve broken my fast on Christmas Eve, for instance, but due to logistics I stopped a day early.

This time around, I scheduled my fast-breaking meal for my dad’s birthday party – not just because I knew there would be plenty of good food, but because his 74th birthday feels meaningful to me.

I vividly recall Dad being 64 when he got cancer. At the time, not knowing what might happen, I remember thinking, “Oh please, if he could just make it to 70. Couldn’t we have just a few more years?”

These bonus years are such a gift. Without them, Dad never would’ve met his two youngest grandchildren, or seen his older grandkids grow up into fine young men and women, two of whom have now graduated from college. He never would’ve experienced the satisfaction of going out on top when he later retired as president of the top-performing bank in the state of Indiana. He and Mom never would’ve gotten around to remodeling their house into the perfect spot for big family get-togethers.

And I never would’ve had the chance to interview him for a memoir that wound up being this year’s Christmas gift to my nieces and nephews. Having all those long talks, hearing all those stories about what shaped his life, was the best gift of all.

It kind of puts eating, and not being able to run for a while, in perspective.

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The ‘FitBit effect’on a family gathering

When we arrived at my parents’ house for dinner yesterday, four or five people who on any other given Sunday might be planted around a chip bowl trying out a new dip were zooming around the house racking up FitBit steps instead.

As more people joined the procession, and it got harder to talk as walkers spread out over the three-room “course,” at one point no less than 10 people were circling the family room table at once so we could make up plans for a treadmill challenge.


There are “only” 8 people circling the table in this photo, but at one point at least two more were in on this “walking conference meeting.”

The idea was to see who could accumulate the most mileage in one of two categories: 10 minutes at a 10% incline or 15 minutes at 15%. It’s based on a recent YMCA challenge I wanted to repeat on a weekly basis, and this seemed the perfect environment to try it in.

Though the workout proved harder to replicate because the treadmills are set up differently – the bar on Dad’s is in an awkward spot at such a sharp incline – we quickly adapted the challenge to a “no hands allowed” format that’s tougher to do and cuts down on speed dramatically but will allow for more improvement over time.

My niece Madison hit the 30,000 steps mark yesterday to win that challenge, and my nephew Mason won the 10-minute treadmill challenge at .669 mile.

Ultimately it’s not so much who wins any given Sunday, but how much people are able to improve their scores each week. (The results were entered on a spreadsheet so we could track our progress.) It will be fun to see if we keep this up.


My niece Madison, left, won the daily walking challenge by passing the 30,000 step mark. Mason, right, won the treadmill challenge. But we’ll see if he can defend his title next week!

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A cross-training plan for January

Inspired by a lingering case of plantar fasciitis and  the legions of FitBit evangelists who’ve emerged during the holidays, my plan for January is temporarily switching from a running-based fitness plan to one that emphasizes four mini workouts per day.

Even during my most grueling marathon training, I’ve often been struck by how sedentary I can be when I’m not running. Another problem is that I rarely stick with yoga or strength-building workouts, so while my legs are strong my upper body is neglected. My hope is that while recovering from this injury I’ll build up a routine where it feels natural and energy-inducing to add some focused movement throughout the day. And if at least one of those workouts gets me pretty sweaty, or happens to run longer than 15 minutes, that works for me.

Here are some options I want to try:

The treadmill challenge:  Last week the Y had a contest to see what distance could be achieved in 15 minutes on a treadmill at the maximum 15% incline. The winner, a kid my son’s age, got 1.20 miles. My first attempt, walking 4 mph with a couple of 4.6 mph minutes, got me to 1.03. I went back and walked 4.5 mph with four 5.5 mph minutes, but ran out of gas before I got to the fifth 5.5 mph minute that would’ve pushed me into the lead. I feel like I can either come up with a better recipe or learn to push through it. But one way or another, I’m going to keep trying to beat that mark on my own, because that’s one heck of a calorie burn.


Rowan inspired all of us by working out every single day she was home for the holidays. 

Rowan’s 6-minute yoga abs workout: I got this off my oldest daughter’s Pinterest page. With only two sets of four poses, this  seems like something simple enough I could memorize:

  1. 30-second high plank
  2. 30 second boat
  3. Warrior three (30 seconds each leg)
  4. Side plank (30 seconds each side)

Though I can’t necessarily hold each pose for 30 seconds each right now, I’m going to work at it. After getting used to having Rowan around last week, maybe doing this workout will help me miss her less after we take her to the airport today.

Body weight circuit workout: This workout I got from Nerd fitness feels like a good fit in that I prefer workouts, like recipes, to be simple enough that I can memorize them. This one calls for two sets of the following:

  • 20 squats.
  • 10 push ups.
  • 20 walking lunges.
  • 10 dumbbell rows (each arm)
  • 15 second plank.
  • 30 Jumping Jacks.

Because I hate jumping jacks, I prefer doing those first to get them out of the way. (Customizing a workout also helps make it feel less like “somebody else’s bad idea.”)

Cycling intervals: The Tabata Takedown calls for a 20-second stationary bike “sprint” followed by 10 seconds recovery times 10, with 3 to 5 minutes easy pedaling before doing two more sets. If I have time, I’ll do the full workout with a few minutes warmup and cooldown. But if I really only have 15 minutes, then I could do a 5 minute warmup, one set of intervals, and a 5-minute cooldown.



Bonny Damocles

An easier version of Bonny’s stair-climbing sessions: Bonny Damocles has kept his diabetes at bay without drugs for 25 years by climbing stairs four times a day. (He used to run them, then switched to 15-minute walking sessions because it was safer while still getting his heart rate up.) I’ve had a hard time motivating myself to climb stairs multiple times a day, but walking on the treadmill at an incline can apparently provide the same benefit. (For me, this type of treadmill incline will differ from the “treadmill challenge” described above because I’ll walk at an easier pace.)

I’ll also do some light jogging, but probably not more than a couple of times a week as I allow my foot to heal. It will be interesting to see whether any of these workouts become a part of my regular routine after I go back to running on a regular basis. If so, maybe dealing with this injury will have been a plus in the long run.

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Holiday food log: Aiming higher at Christmas


The treat bar at my parents’ house on Christmas day.

Do I eat any better on Christmas Day now than I did when I was fat?

For probably the first three Christmases after my 90-pound weight loss in 2010, I was still obsessing over Weight Watchers points, and so any kind of big family gathering put me on edge, afraid I’d mess up.

The last two or three Christmases, I’ve let myself enjoy the holiday, knowing I would be more disciplined in the days before and after to make up for it.

Still, it bugs me to get too much out of control. This year that happened at some points on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Which led me to wonder: Have I learned anything about how to savor holiday feasting without letting things get too ugly?

Framing the day that way made me feel better. Yes, I ate WAY too much. But even when I’m overdoing it, things aren’t as horrific as they were before. Some examples:

*I started the day off with a gingerbread man and it was so good I immediately wanted another. I refrained. It wasn’t the end of my sugar consumption that day, but it felt better to reflect on the cuteness and tastiness of that single gingerbread man than to try to make the moment last forever by continuing to eat until I finished off his comrades.


The Gingerbread men and the Nutter Butter Santas.

*After allowing myself to nibble on whatever looked good throughout the morning – primarily fresh fruit and breakfast casserole, but yes, there was a buckeye, a molasses cookie and a Christmas cookie in there as well – I meditated on creating some interior “white space” in which I focused on feeling calm, complete and grateful. Not eating anything during this period of a few hours helped contribute to that feeling.

*The traditional Christmas feast at my parents’ house is a late afternoon breakfast. My Mom fries potatoes and my brothers fry dozens of eggs. There’s also ham, toast, frozen fruit and my homemade cinnamon rolls. I used to have a lot of trouble controlling myself at this meal. But I’ve eaten it enough times over the years to be satisfied with two eggs, ham, toast, and fruit. I don’t eat fried potatoes anymore and I don’t need to sample my own cinnamon rolls every time I make them. They’re hardly a delicacy since I can make them anytime I want.


My brothers, Brian and Brent, at their traditional egg frying post. 

*I was disappointed in myself for plunging into the spicy chicken dip later in the evening after we’d opened gifts, but only because I forgot to scout out some raw veggies to use for dipping. Once somebody set out a bunch of celery sticks, I was much happier to leave the chips alone. 


Passing out gifts. My niece Monroe climbed up on a chair to reach the top of the gift stack beside the piano. That’s me in front of the tree. 

*Even though I definitely overdid it at my parents’ house, I was pleased to realize afterward that I only had one sugary treat: Another gingerbread man. In my fat days, I would’ve picked something off the treat bar every time I walked past.

Now, all of the above being said, I’ve got A LOT to work on before next year.

For starters, I’d like to be a few pounds lighter so that I feel like I’m truly at my best and not just “better than I used to be.”  Wouldn’t it be nice to focus on feeling great for Christmas rather than focusing on all the goodies I want to eat?

I don’t want to deprive myself. Food is not the enemy. But if I could learn to appreciate great food without plunging into gluttony, that would be an incredible gift to myself.


Speaking of looking and feeling great at Christmas, check out our oldest daughter, Rowan, right, who’s dropped 50 pounds in the past few months since moving to Charleston, S.C. It is awesome to have her home for a whole week! (That’s our daughter Cassie at left, also adoring their cousin Kyla.)

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Holiday Food Log 28-29: the pre-celebration fast

One problem with single-day diet challenges is that the next morning I have an urge to overcompensate. That’s what happened after Tuesday’s “cycling diet” video game, when I had THREE Christmas cookies PLUS a Pop Tart. By 10 a.m., when I’d already been up for 8 hours and consumed a zillion calories, I decided it was time to initiate a pre-Holiday fast.

The conditions really were perfect: Not only was I sick of eating, but there was no need to worry about running fuel as I’m recovering from an injury this week. Plus, there’s something almost mystically calming about a fast, if you can get in the right frame of mind for it. That suddenly seemed like an opportunity to not be missed during the hectic holiday season.

siddharthaRecently I read a post that referenced Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, commenting on the liberating aspects of “knowing how to fast.” Not having read the book, I’m not entirely sure what his approach was.  What I do know, based on my own rather limited experience, is that it helps to disconnect your interior alarm system. If you don’t, your mind and body are going to constantly be fretting about whether you’re doing an incredibly stupid thing.

Having undertaken a five-day fast earlier this year – zero calories other than a daily teaspoon of coconut oil – without any real problems, I now know it can be done. I know it feels calming at some points and disorientingly weird at others. Hunger pangs seem much more distant and removed from the “hunger” I only think I experience in everyday life. 

I fasted from 10 a.m. Wednesday until around 5 a.m. this morning. I felt pretty good for the most part, though I didn’t exercise much – just a short circuit weight workout Wednesday and a short cycling workout on Thursday. I would’ve liked to continue through Saturday, thinking it would feel truly magical to break my fast with Christmas Eve dinner.

But knowing how much I need to get done today, I decided it would be better to have some fuel on board. Christmas always feels pretty magical anyway, no matter how old I get. Here’s hoping yours is, too.

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Holiday food log #27: The diet/exercise ‘video game’

I love one-day diet/fitness challenges. Yesterday, knowing I had a cycling workout in mind, I decided to follow a diet modeled on one a cyclist-blogger friend has written about using when he’s trying to drop a few pounds.

If I remember correctly, at some point in the past Fit Recovery talked about eating an apple and a banana for breakfast, a protein bar for lunch, and a sensible dinner. (Naturally, I can’t seem to locate that specific post now.) Because I’m typically hungrier in the morning than the evening, I switched that up a bit and had a protein bar for breakfast, a “sensible lunch”, and an apple and banana for dinner.

Now, for me to make this work, I’ve got to pretend I’m playing a game. Usually I pretend I’m playing against an online character based on a real person. When I do a one-day Atkins diet, for instance, I’m not just eating low-carb – I’m competing against some 1990s version of my sister, who before she had a peanut allergy relied on 1-2 chocolate-peanut butter Atkins bars a day to help her stick to that diet during a time when she was at her lowest weight as an adult. I’m not trying to beat her, per se, but I’m trying to do as well as I think she did in my mind – if that makes any sense.


If Stephen King described Sifkitz’s diet in “Stationary Bike,” I would’ve loved to pair that with a cycling workout. But all I know there is that he eats two oatmeal cookies while he rides…

Yesterday I wound up with 1,210 calories following something like FitRecovery’s diet. My sensible lunch was a footlong grilled chicken sub with no cheese, just mustard and veggies. That’s a lot of satisfaction for 650 calories! Note for next time: I could’ve come in at just over 1,000 calories if I hadn’t added peanut butter to my banana at dinner

The cycling workout I did was based on the “Tabata takedown,” which I got from Men’s Fitness. I forgot the printout in the car that had the actual workout on it, and I don’t have a smartphone, so I did it from memory … which means I messed it up a bit.

Basically, I just rode in easy warmup mode while reading this cool article on a master craftsman frame builder in Bicycling magazine, then did 10 seconds full sprint followed by 20 seconds recovery x 10. I pedaled easy for 3 minutes then repeated that set two more times.

Later, I discovered I should’ve “sprinted” for 20 seconds with only 10 seconds recovery. So between that and the peanut butter I guess I would’ve been penalized if this were a real video game. But the upside is that I still took in only 1,200 calories and rode 8 miles, some of it as hard as I could go. No heel pain during that workout, either. I should get bonus points for that!  

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