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How Penn Jillette Used Technology to Lose 120 Pounds — No Magic Required

Penn Jillette is a firm believer that too much moderation is bad for you.

“I’ve never had a drink of alcohol in my life,” says the 60-year-old illusionist. “I’ve never had a puff of marijuana. And if I did do drugs, I’d be a heroin addict and I’d drop LSD every day. Not only do I not do moderation, I don’t respect it in any way.”

So it’s probably not surprising that when the 6-foot-6-inch Jillette was hospitalized in October 2014 because his weight had ballooned to 330 pounds and he was in danger of stroking out, he saw it as an opportunity to push the envelope even further.

The doctors wanted to cut him open and insert a stomach sleeve, limiting Jillette’s ability to take in food. Instead, he had a more radical idea: to see just how much weight he could lose by questioning every assumption made about food and dieting.

In this quest, he had some help: the guidance of Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist who advocates radical changes in diet; a posse of like-minded friends; and a handful of tech gadgets.

Using these devices and obsessive adherence to a strict regiment, Jillette managed to drop nearly 120 pounds in just four months, rebooting and extending his life. And now he plans to share what he’s learned with the world in a series of Web videos debuting next month.

Nothing up his sleeve but a blood pressure cuff

The first thing Jillette did after checking out of the hospital was to buy a Withings smart scale, on the advice of Cronise (aka “Cray Ray”).

“Cray Ray said the first thing you gotta do is buy this scale,” says Jillette. “I thought a scale is a scale is a scale. I know what I weigh. I got scales. I got one of those fancy doctor ones where you slide the things along. He says, ‘No, no, this is different. It talks to the Web.’ It sounds like the difference is unimportant. But, you know, we’ve learned over the past 30 years that the things that talk to the Web — whether that is naked women, ISIS, or a scale — once they talk to the Web, things change.”

The Withings Smart Body Analyzer. (Photo: Withings)

When Jillette stepped on the scale, his weight showed up on Cronise’s phone. And the fact that his weight was showing up on his friend’s phone is what made all the difference, he says.

And not just Jillette’s weight was there. He recruited a posse of friends who also used the Withings scale to record their weight loss. It became a kind of “cult,” Jillette says, to see who could lose the most weight the most quickly.  

“We became this coven of late-middle-aged obsessive men who are living, breathing, and thinking about how much weight we lost today,” he says. “It was like starting a band. The wacky thing was, just a simple technological thing of a scale that talks to the Web allowed me to tap into an unpleasant cult mentality and use that as a positive thing.”

The Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor. (Photo: Withings)

Besides the scale, Jillette also relied on the Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor. At the time, he was on “six hard-core meds” to control his blood pressure. As he dropped weight at the rate of nearly a pound a day, the medications that had been keeping him alive were starting to kill him, he says. So each day he strapped on the cuff, which uploaded his blood pressure directly to his doctor.

“I’d put the cuff on, and my doctor would call me 15 minutes later and say, ‘Your blood pressure is crashing, get off that medication, it’s poisoning you,’” he says. “I don’t think it’s possible to do what I did if I had to drive to the doctor’s office every week to measure my blood pressure.”

Today, Jillette is medication-free.  

Live free or diet

Jillette acknowledges that the single biggest driver behind losing pretty much the equivalent of his silent partner in illusion, Teller, was a radical change in diet.

“I adopted what, in its simplest terms, is called an evidence-based diet,” he says. “I eat whole plants. That’s the whole answer. No animal products, no olive oil, no salt, no sugar, no refined grains. You end up being a hippie, but for very different reasons.”

After three months, eating what he used to consider normal foods — like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — felt kind of disgusting, he adds.

“All of this stuff is possible without Withings putting this stuff on the Web,” he says. “It’s just making it automatic and instant. It doesn’t allow a guy like me to spin information — something I’m normally very good at. A little tool, a little bit of a nudge, can make a huge difference.”

All told, Jillette’s group of co-conspirators collectively lost several hundred pounds — and they’re not done yet.

“The thing no one ever told me is that this weight loss stuff can be fun,” he says. “Like building a ship in a bottle or learning the exact, perfect bass line to ‘Sister Ray’ by the Velvet Underground.”

“People always ask me, “Don’t you miss pizza and stuff like that?” That’s kind of like asking someone who plays in a band if they miss watching TV. No, motherf****r, I’m playing in a band. I didn’t watch CSI: Cleveland tonight because we recorded a f*****g album. I don’t miss pizza because we’re all obsessing on getting our weight perfect.”

Now read this:

Dan Tynan could stand to lose a few pounds himself. When not eating, you’ll find him on Twitter