Celebrities, Weight Loss and Penn Jillette’s New Vegan Diet

Celebrities, Weight Loss and Penn Jillette’s New Vegan Diet

By | 2015-04-11T13:27:45+00:00 April 11th, 2015|Tags: , |31 Comments

penn and tellerThe vegan internet is abuzz over Penn Jillette’s (of Penn and Teller fame) recent weight loss and his current plant-based diet. But when it comes to celebrities, weight and veganism, I’m always more than a little cautious.

Here are three reasons why I think it’s a mistake to view Penn’s experience as good PR for veganism.

  1. He lost weight on a very low calorie diet (which may or may not have been vegan; he hasn’t said). He reports that he lost 100 pounds in 100 days. That’s quite an accomplishment and I don’t mean to dismiss it in any way. But fast weight loss due to extremely low calorie intake is hard to sustain. Only time will tell whether he is able to maintain the weight loss.
  2. His current diet doesn’t exactly create a compelling picture of the joys of vegan living. Here is how Penn’s diet is described in one article: “Vegetables—raw, steamed in a salad or stewed—as well as black or brown rice, and fruits for dessert (with plain cocoa powder) is his daily diet.” Aside from the fact that this diet is nutritionally deficient, it doesn’t sound like a very inviting introduction to veganism. In fact, it sounds like a great way to discourage people from ever considering this way of eating.
  3. Penn Jillette does not appear to be a friend to animals. He has spoken out against animal rights. And in response to some tweets about his weight loss, he has said that he is not part of “the vegan movement” and has not changed his perspective.

I have to say, I simply do not get this “celebrities and weight loss” brand of vegan activism. It sets vegan diets up to fail, because that’s what happens when vegans (especially those in the public eye) get sick or gain back their weight or start eating meat and eggs again. It presents veganism as the most unattractive eating plan on earth. And it turns its back on the core value of veganism, which is animal rights.

Losing weight on 1,000 calories per day does not show “the power of plants” as some have proclaimed. It shows the power of semi-starvation. And that is probably not the best approach to advocating for animals or for encouraging people to adopt healthy and sustainable vegan diets.

31 Comments

  1. Steve April 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm - Reply

    You pegged it Ginny,

    An anti-animal rights man went on a crash diet that temporarily does not have animal products on it. Period.

    It was disheartening to see vegans who know better ( like Erik Marcus ) of vegan.com celebrating this. They know the “vegan” part of his deficient diet is here today and gone tomorrow, and when it is gone tomorrow it will be an embarrassment for vegan diets.

    Not to mention when Teller regains the weight, which tends to happen with even sensible diets, but is much more likely with crash diets.

    Then teller will probably blame plant based diets and become someone promoting another variation of the low carb thing.

    • Ginny Messina April 11, 2015 at 5:07 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Steve.

      Erik actually shared this blog post on twitter, so I know he’s sensitive to the issue and the problems with this kind of vegan PR.

      And you’re right–this was a crash diet, not much more than that.

      • Steve April 11, 2015 at 6:20 pm - Reply

        Ginny, no disrespect to you or Erik but this what “vegan.com” ( Erik?) posted on the vegan.com Facebook page:

        “Whoa: Penn Jillette has become so healthy looking on his vegan diet he’s unrecognizable!”

        The article linked to under that comment states flat out Jillette says he isn’t a vegan, will eat animal products again, and only went on the crash vegetable diet to get off blood pressure medication.

        • jess April 12, 2015 at 7:33 pm - Reply

          I’ve had to “unfollow” vegan.com on facebook because of stories like this. The last post was praising Adam Richman for going vegan. Which he hasn’t. He just admitted to eating vegan on occasion to lose weight.

        • Christy July 26, 2015 at 12:25 pm - Reply

          Please realize that Erik has another person running his social media. Most the posts you see are from someone else posting all news vegan related.

  2. Chris Pert April 11, 2015 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Ginny.

    This is getting tiring. This is nothing but a lame sequel of the awful “Pseudo-Vegan II”, which starred Beyonce, which of course followed the first “Pseudo-Vegan”, starring Bill Clinton. Too many people in the vegan community burst into celebration whenever this happens and it’s pathetic.

    Conflating crash diets with veganism does us no favors.

  3. Melody April 11, 2015 at 8:39 pm - Reply

    I really agree with everything said. Also, I think conflating veganism with weight loss in general is a disservice to the movement.

    We have known since the Ancel Key’s study, how miserable people become on stringently calorie restricted diets, that they in effect create eating disordered thinking, that anywhere from 95% to 99.5% of diets fail within 2 to 5 years, and that 60% of the people who go on a diet will actually regain more weight than they lost.

    Diets don’t work (I personally think they are part of the reason the population is more overweight now). And they make people unhappy. Then, those unhappy people say it was because their bodies needed vitamin bacon to function. Tough luck Babe.

    This trend is essentially causing people to advocate against animal rights, and that ain’t right.

  4. Nada (One Arab Vegan) April 11, 2015 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this – I sincerely hope people don’t associate veganism or a nutritionally dense whole foods plant-based diet with what he followed.

  5. Matt April 12, 2015 at 7:29 am - Reply

    > I have to say, I simply do not get this “celebrities and weight loss” brand of vegan activism.

    IMHO, many of us vegans are hugely insecure about our diet. We grasp onto any validation at all, even if ultimately harmful to animals / veganism. (Also why we so blindly believe anything that seems pro-veg or anti-meat.)

    The animals are lucky to have you on their side, Ginny!

  6. Kathy Gehlken, MA, RDN, CMP April 12, 2015 at 9:01 am - Reply

    The Minnesota Starvation Experiment (Ansel Keys) showed the effects of starvation i.e.diets that provide below 1600 calories for men and 1300 calories for women–http://jn.nutrition.org/content/135/6/1347.full.pdf+html

  7. Don Matesz April 12, 2015 at 9:47 am - Reply

    I would prefer that vegans stop calling this celebrity crash diets “vegan diets.” As you point out Ginny, it helps people get an unappetizing image of eating animal-free.

    Further, I don’t see how any vegan can call a nutritionally deficient diet like Jillette’s a “vegan” diet. Since nutritionally deficient diets cause harm, such diets do not manifest kindness to or respect for the needs of animals (including human animals). By definition, nutritionally deficient diets, fed to any animal, are not vegan.

  8. zsu dever April 12, 2015 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Couldn’t agree more with this brief-but-to-the-point blog post.

    Thank you, Ginny. It was the same with Clinton, Beyonce (as the other poster added) and it was the same with Anne Hathaway.

    Just because a plant-based diet is adopted for a brief period of time, does not mean it is healthy or sustainable when followed in this restrictive way. And it in no way helps the animals, especially as it is looked upon as extreme. When the individual falls back to their old animal-based eating habits, they are regarded as saved and welcomed back from the darkness.

    So sad.

    Zsu @ Zsu’s Vegan Pantry

  9. Patricia Tyrrell April 12, 2015 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    “Since reaching his goal weight on his birthday, March 5, Jillette has stopped restricting the amounts he eats, and instead follows Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutritarian diet – this means he consumes no animal products, no processed grains, and no added sugar or salt.”

    (Copied from the People magazine article about Mr. Jilette)

    Dr. Fuhrman’s nutritarian ‘diet’ (which is actually a way of life, as opposed to a lifestyle) is nutritionally excellent and provides everything necessary for a healthy, plant based way of eating. There’s more to his meals than just beans and rice and heaps of vegetables, he has some incredible and really tasty dishes that even a confirmed omnivore would love. If Mr. Jillette continues to eat in this manner, I’m sure he will feel amazing and if he were to highlight the amazing recipes found in Dr. Fuhrman’s books, I believe more people would turn to a plant based way of eating.

  10. Diane April 13, 2015 at 9:47 am - Reply

    Is there something to call this kind of diet instead of “vegan diet”? I use vegan diet to differentiate from veganism, which encompasses an entire lifestyle. I consider “plant-based diet” too vague, since you could eat animal products and still say your diet is plant based.
    As a failed vegan who hasn’t completely give up, I perhaps have a different point of view. For me, when a celebrity follows any sort of vegan diet, it contributes to normalizing that diet, which I hope will eventually lead to more vegan entrees in restaurants (one of the reasons I’ve failed). Secondly, jumping on people who are imperfect vegans makes people like me feel more like giving up altogether. I quit posting on the McDougall board after I was threatened with expulsion for saying I had sympathy for Rosie O’Donnel because she found the vegan diet too hard. I would like to see more acknowledgment that it can be hard. I felt like a terrible failure because the diet was supposedly easy, but I had to give it up because I suffered from intolerable gastrointestinal problems which did not, in spite of everything I’ve read on “official” sites, get better with time.

    • Dave Shishkoff April 13, 2015 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      How about ‘strict vegetarian diet’? That’s how I described myself back in the early 90’s when I gave up animal products, but didn’t know the term ‘vegan’. 😉

      Ginny – great blog, thanks for posting this! =)

    • Chris Pert April 14, 2015 at 7:01 am - Reply

      “Is there something to call this kind of diet instead of “vegan diet”? I use vegan diet to differentiate from veganism, which encompasses an entire lifestyle. I consider “plant-based diet” too vague, since you could eat animal products and still say your diet is plant based.”

      Diane,

      It’s simply called or at least used to be called “strict vegetarianism”. Nowadays, few health vegans call themselves this, though I wish they would to avoid confusion with ethical veganism. Of course, some are vegan for more than 1 reason. I’m beginning to think that if the “plant-based” label and movement siphons off the health-vegans/strict vegetarians from the ethical vegans, it may be beneficial for the ethical vegan community(I regularly see health only vegans on social media proclaiming they have nothing to do with animal rights, they are only doing this for health reasons, so please don’t confuse them with those awful activist vegans). Still, there is that issue of the overlap between health and ethical veganism.

      As an aside, I gave up on McDougal many years ago after following his advice to a T and ending up anemic. I’m not sure if this is still true of his plan, but he seemed to ignore potential pitfalls of a vegan diet.

    • prioritarian June 12, 2015 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      I’m a failed vegan too — and very proud of it!

      Veganism is an ethical ideal that I strive to reflect but I’ve never been and never will be “perfect”.

  11. Jane Thomas April 14, 2015 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Diane, I empathize with you and Chris, I agree with you. On the one hand, categorizing is important because it’s misleading when someone says they’re vegetarian but they eat fish or chicken, leading others to think it’s OK to serve “vegetarians” fish. On the other hand, it’s never helpful to alienate someone who, for health reasons, is cutting back on consuming animal products because any reduction in animal consumption is a move in the right direction. Penn Jillette has always struck me as unpleasant but it still benefits the world if he decreases his animal consumption, even for a short time, than if he never tried a vegan diet. Who knows what seeds have been planted in him or those around him. I personally dislike the American tendency towards an all or nothing mentality. I once was dining at Millennium in SF and a woman at the next table said to me, “I’d go vegan but I could never give up yogurt.” I said, “so do the best you can and still have yogurt.” It’s better than not doing it at all and one day the yogurt may also disappear on its own when she realizes she doesn’t really need it.

    At the same time, I really appreciate Ginny’s drawing of distinctions. She reminds us all that there are multiple levels to thinking about diet and there are certain pitfalls about limiting yourself to only health concerns.

    And agreed about McDougall. I never trust someone who presents health information as black and white without any room for doubt or debate. Plus his food is awful. I’ve noticed that his Star McDougallers always “fall off the wagon” before a health scare brings them back. Honestly, only the threat of an eminent heart attack could keep someone on such a tasteless diet. Thank God tasty options are increasing and vegan cookbook writers are ever more creative.

    • Christy July 26, 2015 at 12:28 pm - Reply

      It’s unfortunate but most of the people who are now “ex-vegans” are people who followed some restrictive plant-based diet full of dogma. I have so many people come to me who were also shamed in those communities and thankfully are back in the fold with a sensible vegan diet.

  12. Vegan Valor April 14, 2015 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    Great post again. Some years ago I thought it helpful when
    celebs became vegan. The problem is, most of them aren’t
    vegan but rather strict vegetarian to overcome some sort
    of health issue.

    This is the case here. It does no good for any of us when
    veganism is being usurped like this. It muddys the waters
    I think. Veganism as mentioned is an ethical approach to
    living which just so happens to have a dietary component
    to it.

  13. Diane April 15, 2015 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    I have heard the term “strict vegetarian,” but I wonder if it has a specific meaning in the world at large. The terms do get muddied. I knew someone who was very ostentatious about calling herself a vegetarian, though she ate fish. I could see a server in a restaurant thinking a “strict vegetarian” is someone who doesn’t eat chicken. Also, I don’t think there’s necessarily a clear divide between ethical vegans and those who eat a strict vegetarian diet for health. I started reading about vegetarian nutrition when my 8-year-old daughter decided it was wrong to eat animals, and I wanted to make sure her diet was healthful. I was reading because of nutrition alone, but that led to finding out about factory farming and other animal issues. I think people can start for one reason, then find out about others. I wonder also whether giving up animal products for health might “allow” you to start thinking about ethics – it’s easier to start taking the exploitation of animals seriously when you no longer feel psychologically compelled to dismiss their interests because you want to eat them. It’s impossible to know where Penn Jillette’s dietary changes will lead his thinking. And as Ginny points out, it’s also impossible to know whether he’ll sustain the weight loss.

  14. Virginia Faubel April 21, 2015 at 7:51 am - Reply

    While I understand the concerns would it be preferable if we read once again how someone lost weight on an eggs and bacon diet? If an anti vegan like him tries it, it clearly shows a plant based diet has spread further into the society than it had before. Anything that promotes plant based diets is better than not talking about it at all. We’ve been given a free mass media opportunity to discuss and educate, not sure why we would want to discourage this sort of discussion.

  15. Madeline Osborne April 24, 2015 at 12:39 am - Reply

    Why is everyone focusing SO hard on the terminology of ‘vegan diet,’ instead of the NUTRARIAN life Mr. Jillette is promoting?

    Have ANY of you even heard of “Eat to Live?” Or bothered to do more than just read a few words from “the Media,” and then rushing to pile on how this is harmful, bad, and terrible for the Vegan reputation?

    Mr. Jillette’s story (and results) made me take the time to look up “Eat to Live,” and then start reading the book.

    It is NOT “nutritionally deficient.” It is NOT a “starvation diet.”
    ANY diet carries the risk of yo-yo rebound. Name one. They ALL have those who revert.

    “Eat to Live” is no different. BUT, it is a decent foundation towards a healthier lifestyle, with more responsible choices.

    I have been yo-yo dieting for the better part of 40 years now, and have lost and re-gained approximately 350 pounds, in increments of 5-10 up to my current efforts, which is approximately 70 pounds so far, with another 70 to go (it’s not the diet that does you in, it is the lack of consistent adherence that does it…). I am once again “on the wagon,” but ONLY because of Penn Jillette. The “Eat to Live” plan is very restrictive, as was The South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, The Perricone Prescription, The Zone, and tons of other diets I have done over the decades. The ‘vegan’ part is the hardest for me, but I am now old enough, I truly do understand the ‘bad’ things about food and my choices. But at some point vegan or carnivore, or anything in between, one hopefully realizes that maintaining a healthy weight and life requires conscious consideration of what you eat.

    I am a food addict. It’s easier to admit than it is to battle. The “Eat to Live” philosophy is not harmful, and is truly helpful to making more conscious eating decisions.

    Like any diet plan, the first 6 weeks are more restrictive, and hard for many to stick with. But after that, as one readjusts their eating choices, it gets easier. It is so easy to condemn things you do not fully understand. And the Internet is wonderful to promote misunderstandings. Please don’t put such a negative spin on things because of a few ‘soundbites’ that don’t truly show the story behind them. Check out the Nutrarian lifestyle and “Eat to Live.” Like any diet, it has its extremists, but it also has a LOT of scientific basis, and is NOT as deprivation oriented as many of you are (INCORRECTLY) criticizing it for being. Trust, after the ‘Tuna fish,’ ‘Cabbage soup,’ ‘Egg,’ and ‘Atkins’ diets, Nutrarian (AFTER the initial 6 weeks of hell) is more nutritious than many other ways of eating.

    One of the reasons I have abhorred vegan diets is because most vegans come across as snooty, elitist, and downright wacky when it comes to anyone NOT embracing their cow-oriented food choices. If not for the South Beach Diet I did 10 years ago, I would not be able to discipline myself enough to even try Nutrarian eating. But thanks to Penn Jillette, I not only looked at the program, I COMMITTED to it, instead of the past 18 months of whining how I ‘plateaued,’ ‘stalled,’ etc. etc. to excuse my slow return to crap eating choices.

    I STILL am not happy with giving up all the processed, fat and calorie laden things I used to merrily stuff into my mouth. But as a food addict, I LOVE the fact that I am able to eat pretty much as much as I want to, so long as it is plant based. Makes that chewy kale go down MUCH easier.

    My biggest challenge will be to maintain this type of food choices after I get healthy and thin. THAT’S when “oh, just one piece of pizza/chocolate/pasta, bread, CARBSssss” becomes the Devil whispering in my ear. As a food addict, the craving never goes away. But I’m finally at the stage of Life I recognize this.

    Virginia Faubel says it best.
    “We’ve been given a free mass media opportunity to discuss and educate, not sure why we would want to discourage this sort of discussion.” Before you condemn it, learn more about it. And then, instead of being SO negative about ‘non-vegans’ eating this way, whether as a temporary weigh loss fix, or an attempt to ‘try’ veganism, perhaps you should TRY to better analyze how you can help people better embrace the plant-based eating choices that really are better for us.

    It’s far too easy to hate on others for not making the choices you do, or not approaching those choices with the same reasoning you do. But you can do WORLDS of encouragement by acknowledging the effort others make, instead of condemning the whole thing because it’s not what or how you would do it…

    • Danielle April 28, 2015 at 11:41 am - Reply

      Hi Madeline!
      I think it’s absolutley wonderful that you’re giving “Eat to Live” a chance! As you say, it has a good nutritional foundation and can be incredibly health promoting. I’d wager that most people on this comment thread, and certainly Ginny, are well aware of Eat to Live and of Dr. Furhman. Had Penn Just decided to go right into Nutritarain eating, I think less debate would exist here. However, he did not really practice Nutritaian principles during his extreme weight loss and focused more on severe calorie resection, the picture of his meals were painted as bland and severely restricted and lacking in a number of nutrients such lysine from legumes. Furhmans diet and recipes are colorful, vibrant, and more health promoting and he recognizes the value of beans. Long term diets of less than a 1000 calories a day can be problematic and are ultimately nutrient deficient and can cause a number of distressing psychological and physiological responses. I’m so glad that Penn is now launching into Nutritarian eating, but we must be mindful of conflating the kind of severe restriction Penn iniatlaiy practiced with veganism. Most vegans that have done some research and that follow R.D.s like Ginny and Jack Norris are aware of where to get various nutrients in their diets, allowing them to practice flexibility and mindfulness. Having personally experienced some of the traumas that such severe calorie restriction can cause, I personally take a great deal of joy now in the abundance of my vegan diet. I think the criticism here is less to do with Dr Furhmans diet plan and more to do with intensive calorie restriction. Personally, I became interested in plant based eating for health reasons and stayed vegan for ethical and environmental reasons. I recognize that we do not all have the same motivations or starting places and am pleased with anyone that ventures into plant based eating and for whatever reason. I do know the perils of over restriction however and hope that everyone can find their way in a fashion that is generally health promoting. I wish you all the best in your weight loss journey and most importantly, the absolute best in health! Eat to Live is a fine program and I hope that you find joy and deliciousness in his approach and recipes!

  16. Jane Thomas April 25, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Madeline,

    Congratulations! Changing eating behaviors is such a challenge. Mad props to you for being so open to choosing a diet plan that not only will improve your weight and your health but protects animals and the environment. Agree that the negativity and pressure to maintain strict standards can be a turn off. Thank heavens, you looked beyond that. May this plan evolve into a lifetime of animal-free eating for you.

  17. Diane April 28, 2015 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    Madeline, I would guess that most people here are familiar with Eat to Live. I tried it and found it way too restrictive. I have seen many reports of similar experiences. While I don’t think it’s nutritionally deficient, I would be very surprised if it’s sustainable for most people. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but it sounds like your commitment is very recent. Will you be able to sustain it for a year? Five years? Ten? Maybe. Clearly some people do. But I would wager that most people who try it eventually give it up. Whether Penn Jillette will keep the weight off remains to be seen. The world is full of people who’ve lost massive amounts of weight, been convinced they’d found the answer, and then gained it all back. I do hope you find what works for you – whether it’s Eat to Live or something else.

  18. Diane April 28, 2015 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    One more thing: It should be clarified here that Dr. Fuhrman’s nutritarian diet is not a strict vegetarian diet, though it can be. He allows a maximum of between 5% and 10% animal products. That information is directly from his website.

  19. Ann May 3, 2015 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    I tend to agree with Virginia Faubel’s comments – how many of us, honestly, became perfect vegans when first inspired to do so, for whatever reason (environment, animal love, health, weight, etc) and never screwed up, went overboard, backslid, tried the wrong diet etc? How about showing some encouragement and a little compassion, rather than self righteous criticism. I personally could not sustain Dr. McDougall’s diet, which I tried first, and have had better luck being a vegan on Dr Joel Fuhrman’s nutritarian plan, although I do not follow it to the letter. I still screw up sometimes, but I’m okay with that, because if I allowed myself to stress about being perfect, I would give up the whole vegan thing, and hurt many, many more animals than my occasional mistakes do. I think we need to chill and cultivate a more accepting, positive attitude toward others starting out on the vegan path.

  20. Sheryl June 25, 2015 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Ginny, I love your posts…and books too! PLEASE continue writing those books.

  21. Alex June 8, 2016 at 6:45 am - Reply

    Penn Jillette was vague with details, probably because he intends to sell a book. But I haven’t read mention of any animal products and he claimed to follow a Dr Fuhrman diet, which discourages animal consumption.

    If he did minimal research, there’s no reason to assume he was deficient in any nutrients. He ate an “enormous salad” and then “3 lbs. of greens and three servings of black or brown rice with a vegetable stew, along with lots of fruits”.

    His salad or stew alone could satisfy most of his nutrient requirements.

    Let’s hope he’s taking B12, has an iodine source, and enjoys sunshine.

  22. AC August 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Penn Jillette has said he eats no animal products. Try 6:35 forward on this video.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NelIXCuuSZ0

    You can update your post if you want it to reflect what he’s actually said.

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