I apologize to those who come here for good track or athletic related training advice. Bare with me for this post as I take on something that has been bugging me for the past few weeks. Once again, it’s from someone who makes claims that running the crazy high mileage of 50mpw is unhealthy, but that’s not my gripe.
I’m not normally one to venture into the world of diet. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important, or that it matters, as it most certainly does. In fact, I love looking at diet and performance and understanding what matters and what is simply hogwash. Instead, I don’t like venturing into the world of dietary advice because it’s a place rife with pseudoscience, exaggerations, and lots of polarized arguments. I hate the fact that we vilify things acting like they are the devil, only to switch what is hated a decade later. In many senses, talking about diet is like talking about politics, no one really wins and no one is ever really convinced.In fact one of my favorite charts in grad school was a list of dietary trends where we flip-flopped back and forth between what macronutrient (fat or carbs) was out of favor. The professor traced it back to the 1850’s and it was a great demonstration of this polarized behavior and cyclical nature of dietary trends.
But I’m not hear to talk about diet. I’m here to talk about a diet, but not the merits of that diet. I feel like commenting because, while the information is out there, no one really seems to give it credence.Without further ado, let’s talk about Bulletproof coffee and the Bulletproof diet.
I’m not going to discuss the scientific merits or lack thereof of the diet but instead look at it as an example of marketing, psychological bias, and why people believe dumb things.
At one point in time, my favorite conversation starter was to ask people about their story. Why? Because it’s the story that is interesting and what matters and everyone has one. The people who are good salesman, marketers, and the like know how to bring this story to life and when to put it out there.
Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey is no different. For those who don’t know, Bulletproof is a brand that started out with coffee that combined butter and what is essentially coconut oil. It’s reached fad level with people all over jumping on the bandwagon. Recently, he published a diet book to go along with his coffee product. Asprey’s story is one that people can relate to while at the same time having some mystical mysterious components to it that add intrigue. It starts with the classic relatability of him being an overweight overworked individual. He paints himself as the guy who battled the middle age weight gain and health problems that so many people face.
That’s fine. But then we add in his unique component, which was as a tech guy, he declares that he spent years of his life and hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a hat tip to Tim Ferris’ style of writing and selling in the 4-hour body where he conducted the ultimate self-experiment.
This appeal to self-experimentation creates a nice sciency feel to his work. It’s the “quantified self” movement on steroids essentially. Asprey is essentially saying that he went through all of this work, experimentation, and tracking of health numbers and weight to find out what works. Now he’s passing on that information to you.
To top off this “sciency” sounding experiment, he backs it up with obscure ideas include toxins and other buzz words that make it seem like we are simply poisoning our bodies with foods.
But wait, we’re not done. We have something we can relate to, some sciency sounding process, self-experimentation, and finally the missing piece of mystery, self-discovery, and taking an extreme position.
Asprey ties it all together with a wonderful story about trekking in the Tibetan mountains and noticed that the Tibetan people added butter to their drinks. This yak butter must have been the secret to their endurance and abilities. No, it couldn’t be that Tibetan’s because of living at such high altitudes have specific genetic and epigenetic changes that have made their bodies adapt to the low Oxygen environment in a completely different way than we westerners do. Instead, it was the Yak butter, which upon drinking, Asprey felt magically better.
Thus Bulletproof coffee with special butter and MCT oil was born. Of course, it couldn’t be a small quantity, it had to be a whopping 2 tablespoons of butter. Why? Because you need to go big or go home when marketing things.
Not surprisingly, Asprey lost a significant amount of weight, looks ripped, and brags about his health. He’s got the 6 pack abs that many people dream of and furthermore he claims it came as a result of only a few minutes of exercise a day. The classic, you can get this for less work sell that works so well in America.
Summing it up we’ve got a great story filled with treks to far away lands, sciency sounding words and experiments, big gains for less work, and a magic answer to all of our problems.
The problem with all of this is that Asprey doesn’t portray the whole story accurately. As I said, I’m not going to even delve into the diet, as that can be handled by experts who care about that such thing, instead, I want to delve into the story.
You see it wasn’t the magic butter coffee that gave him boundless energy.
It wasn’t the bulletproof diet aimed at taking away all of those toxins that changed his physique to that of a ripped gym rat.
No. It was none of those things. What was it?
Testosterone. Modafinil. Thyroid Meds.
That’s right. Part of the story was that all of that self-experimentation included taking drugs.
And I give Asprey credit, he has acknowledged their use openly, which means there’s no blatant fraud going on. But it’s not part of the story he’s selling. He mentions the use in order to acknowledge it but then he simply downplays how much of a role it plays in his own energy and physique changes. Whenever asked about it Asprey simply mentioned “I monitor my blood levels, and the physique remains whether they are at 2,000 or 10,000 (of testosterone)” So, therefore, it can’t be the testosterone right?
This is akin to the argument that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire still had to hit all those baseballs right! It wasn’t the steroids, they still did it.
I’m sorry sports fans, but that argument is bunk.
The point is this. Asprey may have gone on exotic trips to Tibet, but his most productive trip was the one down the street to his anti-aging Doctor.
You see, Asprey was on modafinil daily for 8+ years. What is modafinil? It’s an anti-narcolepsy drug that is the ultimate stimulant. It’s banned by WADA as a performance-enhancing drug. Some might remember it from the BALCO era when world-class sprinter Kelly White got busted for using it.
We all know what thyroid meds are and you can read more about them on my blog here. In small doses they are used, dangerously I might add, to manipulate metabolism. Sounds like a simple way to get that metabolism going and cut some fat, right?
And the mother of them all, testosterone. If you don’t know what this is or does, then you’ve been living under a rock. But the simple fact is that it helps with strength gains, recovery, and a whole slew of other things. It’s the drug of choice for most athletes and it’s derivatives have been used for years by athletes to cheat and enhance performance.
And this is the credibility issue I have. Most people are going to do this diet program or drink this coffee and assume that they are doing the same things Asprey did to reach his own current state. They’ve been sold that these few secrets are what it will take to get their brain and body running at full capacity.
The simple truth is that if we looked at Asprey himself, the things that made the vast majority of the difference are the drugs.
Let’s relate this back to athletics.
If I gave you Liliya Shobokhova’s training program and said, this is what it takes to run 2:18 in the marathon. If you follow this program, you too can maximize your potential. I sold this program as the holy grail and you bought into it.
The problem though is that Shobokhova performed that training on EPO, among other drugs. Could a normal person without supraphysiologic values of blood and hormonal parameters complete the program? Probably not. Would they benefit in the same way? Most likely, they’d be over-trained and would fail miserably.
In this case, most coaches would simply state that we have no idea how good the training actually was, as the drugs allowed her to do things and improve performance in ways that normal people can’t. Who’s to say, she isn’t a 2:25 marathoner without the drugs?
The point is that we can’t actually evaluate the efficacy of the training program because it wasn’t the main factor. The outside variable that had a huge impact was the drugs.
In the case of Asprey’s Bulletproof diet, it’s much the same only to a larger degree. You see, the drug impact would have an even bigger impact on the weight and appearance change than they would on an endurance performance level.
While maybe not to this extreme, what we get from Asprey is focusing on the things that maybe had 10% impact on his health and appearance, and ignoring the variables that had a 90% impact, the drugs.
This would be akin to me telling you that the 1:06+ half marathon I ran off of half-ass training was a result of the foot mobility exercises I did, and not the 60-70 miles per week with random tempo runs with my collegiate kids that I actually ran (and the years of 100+mpw under my belt before…).
That’s what Asprey is doing. He’s selling us the extra stuff as if it was the most important .So it annoys me when he makes claims that you can have shredded abs off of almost no exercise because of one of the most pseudoscientific explanations ever known to man…” I stack mTOR by using coffee with Bulletproof Intermittent fasting. mTOR builds muscle.” (Also, ignoring that caffeine is generally an mTOR inhibitor ).
The reality is that, yes you can have shredded abs off of almost no exercise….if you also take testosterone! It’s like me pointing to someone taking EPO and running a 4min mile off of 30 miles a week and saying that 30mpw is the best training ever…ignoring the EPO.
It makes no sense.
While this has been somewhat of a rant, I hope you all get the point. It’s not to offer a critique of the actual diet. That is done elsewhere but others more qualified. Instead it’s to point out that based on the story Asprey sells, he’s missing the key components. Which annoys me when he falls in line telling people they need to do less work for more gain, and that running 50mpw will destroy you.
And this bothers me even further because he portrays himself as a “biohacker” who has found out all of these secrets about diet, exercise, and such. When the reality is he’s simply a guy who took and continues to take PEDS. No offense to Mr. Asprey, I’m sure he’s smart and is successful in his own domain, but would you listen to recently busted doped athletes on the best way to train?
So yes, Mr. Asprey, we can get “less is more” if we take drugs.
Yes, you can feel like you’re 20 when you are actually 40 when you are on 2k-10k worth of testosterone to get your Testosterone levels to that of a 20-year-old…
… But in the real world, most of us aren’t hopped up on testosterone to supercharge those workouts, and anti-narcolepsy drugs to keep us wired day in and day out.
Perhaps he should have written a book about how he reached the state he is in by taking narcolepsy drugs, thyroid hormones, and testosterone.
That’s what we’d call the Russian Doping program….We already know it works…Though most of us have some ethical problem with that…
Plus, the book wouldn’t sell…
So, Mr. Asprey, you can call yourself a BioHacker, but the reality is in my line of work, we’d just call you a Performance Enhancing Drug user and coach. That’s not biohacking. That’s simply falling in line with the BALCO’s, Barry Bond’s, Jon Drummond’s and Ben Johnson’s of the world. Your product of coffee, butter, MCT’s, and so forth might be great though I would severely doubt it based on not only science but just the general rule of thumb that taking the extreme position rarely works out, but we’ll never know with the drug use surrounding them.
P.S.- Normally I wouldn’t call people/things out, I have a particular hatred for people who use/push drugs and then try and sell themselves as an expert when the results are from the drugs. This is why I hate drug athletes and coaches. It skews the results. When we see what drugged up people do, it skews what correct training is…
(Sources: talks about testosterone and modafinil use here)
For more on the psychology of performance, check out my NEW book Peak Performance. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold! For more on training, check out my first book The Science of Running.