The story of the Penn Jilllette’s weight loss is, as you might expect from a Las Vegas entertainer, quite extreme. In fact it was the radical nature of his diet that made the prospect of losing weight so attractive. After consulting with his doctor, who wanted to surgically remove a portion of Penn’s stomach, a moderate diet was no longer an option.
With skyrocketing blood pressure and a veritable chest of pills he was swallowing each day, it became apparent that he might not live long enough to see his children pass into adulthood. And so as he puts it, he realized that his children were more important than chocolate cake.
A balanced diet and steady regime of exercise was not in the cards for Penn, who admires individuals who take extreme steps to reach extreme ends. Moderates? Penn just doesn’t get along with them. And so he chose the so-called mono-diet, selecting the potato as his mono-food.
For two weeks, he ate nothing but, baked or boiled, and lost 14 pounds as a result. After these initial weeks, he allowed himself to eat bean stew, salad, and other plant-based meals, but seldom animal products and never meat, he says. By his own admission, Penn had become habituated to salt, sugar, and fat, and how his extreme privations would break him of his unhealthy routines.
You may be thinking that this diet is for you. Well, you should consult a medical professional before making dietary changes. Or as Penn says: “If you take medical advice from a Las Vegas magician, you are an idiot who deserves to die.”
Penn is currently 17 months into his weight-loss adventure — indeed he has seen it as an adventure and a challenge in order to motivate himself — and once he reaches 2 years, he will consider it a major milestone in his own life and the lives of his children. Penn insists that he today he eats whatever he wants, but that what he wants has profoundly changed.
Penn Jillette’s most recent book is Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
Penn Jillette: I lost over 100 pounds, a third of my weight. I was probably at my heaviest. You don’t ever weigh yourself at your heaviest but I was probably over 340, certainly around there. And now as I sit here in front of you I’m probably about 232. There’s a fluctuation of a couple of pounds, it goes back and forth. That’s a lot of weight. And I did not lose it for vanity. I was pretty happy with myself fat. I didn’t mind being fat. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I didn’t mind how I looked. But my health was getting bad. I didn’t even mind how I felt very much. I didn’t mind not being energetic and stuff. But I started having blood pressure that was stupid high like, you know, like English voltage, like 220 even on blood pressure medicine. And I have two young children. I’m an old dad. My daughter was born when I was 50. So I’m 61 now.
And my life expectancy, the actuary tables were crashing down and the doctor said that I had to get a stomach sleeve. It was a wonderful moment because it then gave me the option to go crazy. If you’re going to surgically do something to me to stop me from swallowing that means I don’t have to worry about doing a sane diet. I can get nutty. And being given the option to be nutty was all I needed. I realized that not only am I not good at moderation, I also don’t respect moderation. Anyone I know who’s able to do moderation I don’t like them. The people I respect and love are people that go wild. I mean I don’t want to go into Kerouac here but the mad ones. No one brags about climbing a nice little slope. You brag about climbing Everest. So once my friend Ray Cronise who I can Cray Ray, once Cray Ray told me that I could lose the weight but it was going to be really hard, it got really easy. Once you make something a challenge, you make something I can brag about, I can do it.
So I wrote this book about me. It is more first person singular in it than in a Donald Trump speech. I don’t’ write about you. If you take medical advice from a Las Vegas magician you are an idiot who deserves to die. You have to do this for yourself and with your proper medical professionals. That being said the first thing Cray Ray and I wanted to do was change my way of eating. It turns out everything about eating is habit. It’s all habitual. You think you have a natural inclination to like grilled cheese or donuts. Not true. All we eat is habit. So I wanted to take a couple of weeks and change my habit. And one of the really good ways to do that that worked tremendously for me is what’s called the mono diet which is just what you think from the root, eating the exact same thing. And I could have chosen anything. I could have chosen corn or beans or whatever. Not hot fudge but anything. And I chose potatoes because it’s a funny thing and a funny word. For two weeks I ate potatoes, complete potatoes – skin and everything and nothing added, nothing subtracted. When I say nothing subtracted I mean no skin taken off but also no water. You can’t cut it up and make it chips in a microwave. Don’t take water out of it. Leave the potato completely – so that means baked or boiled and not at any mealtime.
You don’t get up in the morning, eat a potato. You don’t eat it at lunch or dinner. Mealtimes are obliterated. When you really need to eat, eat a potato. And over that first two weeks I lost I believe 14 pounds. So already I’m a different person. But I also reset my taste buds. I don’t like to use the word addiction. It’s a loaded word and also I don’t think anyone really knows what it means. But I was habituated to a great deal of salt, sugar and oil. After two weeks of potatoes that was gone. And the first ear of corn I had was candy. I mean it was just amazing. It was so sweet and so full of flavors and so salty even. I grew up in New England where there’s wonderful fresh corn in the summer but I always drenched it in butter and salt. I never tasted it. Then after that two weeks I went to, you know, bean stew and tomatoes and salads. But still no fruit and no nuts. Certainly no animal products. And I lost an average – these words are careful – an average of .9 pounds a day. So I took off pretty much all the weight in three or four months, in a season, in a winter. Because we have so many calories our bodies are constantly in summer. We’re preparing for winter that never comes. Winter came for me.
And that was 17 months ago. So I’ve kept the weight off for 17 months. Now two years is magic. Very few people keep it off for two years. I’ve got seven more months to go. I think I have a shot at it. I feel better. I’m happier. I’m off most of my blood pressure meds. Not all of them, it takes a while for the vascular system to catch up with the weight loss. I have more fun. I believe I’m kinder. I’m embarrassed about that because I’m an atheist as I’ve covered to this very camera before. So I should not believe in a mind-body separation. But somehow I believed that my mind could stay healthy and happy even if my body was falling apart and I shouldn’t have ever believed that. But I did. And now that I’m lighter I feel lighter and I feel happier. And, you know, there’s a chance, my chances of living longer for my children have gone up considerably. You know I lost my mom and dad when I was 45 and a year of my life was in deep, deep mourning, you know. And there’s a very good chance my children will have to go through losing their dad. And I’d much rather they do that when they’re a little older than having to do that when they’re 15.
It turns out that being with my children is more important to me than chocolate cake. All of that having been said now that I’m at target weight I also – this is important – I also didn’t exercise while I was losing the weight. Exercising is body building. It’s a different thing. Wait until you hit the target weight, then you exercise. Then it’s easy. Then it really does good. But while you’re losing weight make it winter. Sleep a little more. Get sluggish. Let your body just eat the fat that you’ve stored up just the way you should. Hibernate a little bit. Let it eat the fat. Be a little bit like a bear. Now I eat no animal products, no refined grains. Extremely low salt, sugar and fat. Another way to say that same thing is two words – whole plants. That’s all. That being said every couple of weeks at least two weeks go by but every couple of weeks I just eat without thinking. I eat, you know, my son says come on dad, eat like a man. I’ll have a pizza with him. I’ll have a hot fudge sundae with my daughter. If there’s a special occasion and I haven’t gone off program in two weeks I’ll eat whatever. Do you know when I’m in New York if I haven’t had anything in two weeks I’ll have a slice of really great pizza or maybe a little bit of corned beef on rye. But that is an occasional rare inappropriate meal. That’s a special thing. It’s not a cheat. I don’t cheat because it’s part of my plan. The weird thing is though after the microbiome changes and after the taste is reset I do not crave donuts. I do not crave pizza. I do not crave ice cream or hamburgers. They taste okay when I have them.
Well that’s really not true. Chicken disgusts me now. I used to love chicken. Fried chicken, chicken and waffles. It’s kind of disgusting to me. Eggs kind of disgust me. Steaks I liked for a while and now that’s kind of fading away, even hamburger. Everybody I know that’s gone through this – we’ve lost all together a bunch of us like 5,400 pounds. Is that right? Yeah, 5,400 pounds. All my friends. And I was just talking to a couple of what we call ourselves Cronuts after Ray Cronise. I was talking to a guy last night and he was just saying now hamburgers have fallen away too. And I realized the other day I was in an airport. I was stuck for ten hours in an airport and I said, you know, I’m going to eat for entertainment because I’ve got nothing to do. And so I just said it’s been a few weeks since I ate badly, I’ll just eat whatever I want. I realized after and I’ve been noticing – I had cookies, you know, I had a bagel. I hadn’t eaten any meat at all. And they’re all there, barbecue places, you know. There’s good ribs places. McDonald’s. I just kind of – I lost the taste for it which is really remarkable because I would have never guessed that. I would have never guessed it. And if someone had told me oh by the way you just won’t want this stuff. So the kind of punchline to this whole thing is after this whole incredibly restrictive diet and all of this willpower and all of this climbing a dietary Everest as I sit here right now on the Big Think I now eat whatever I want. But what I want has changed profoundly.