Sat, Sep-23-17, 03:15
Silicon Valley diet - the cult breakfast drink obsessing tech millionaires
From The Times
23 September, 2017
The Silicon Valley diet
It’s the cult breakfast drink obsessing tech millionaires who claim it makes them more focused, more successful and slimmer. Anna Murphy had an extra 5lb that she just couldn’t lose – could Bulletproof coffee be the answer?
I can imagine what you are thinking: fashion director in no breakfast shock. Everyone knows that people in fashion don’t eat. Except I do, and I always have done. Three of my favourite things may be Eponine dresses, Chinti & Parker cashmere and Christian Dior kitten heels. But three more are burrata, pork rillettes and Ottolenghi caramel and macadamia cheesecake. Still not convinced? I stayed at the swank Le Bristol hotel in Paris the other week. Someone else was picking up the tab. Order whatever you want on room service, she said. So I did. “Would Madame like the table setting for two?” the man on the other end of the phone asked. Er, no.
It was at Le Bristol where I had one of my rare weigh-ins. I don’t have scales at home. So I weigh myself whenever I stay at a hotel, once every couple of months or so. And these days each time I do, I am surprised to find that I am still, despite countless big lunches and even bigger dinners, consistently around half a stone down on a couple of years ago. I have never been overweight but, as with many people, there’ve been “those last 5lb” tiresomely hanging around for a while.
Not any more. They seem definitively to have shifted. And all because the lady now eschews breakfast, and as a result seems finally to have cracked this weight-control malarkey. But – let’s be clear – I haven’t given up anything else. Indeed, I spend the rest of my day eating more freely than I have in years. I may not eat until 2pm most days, but when I do eat, I don’t stint. Cheese, chocolate, pasta, cake. Sure, I consume all the stuff I am supposed to eat, too. Kale, quinoa. You know the drill. But I also eat lots of stuff I’m not. Yet it hasn’t got in the way of me losing, and keeping off those pounds. And I feel more mentally and physically alert, less sluggish, than I have in years. (But who cares about that? Those last 5lb gone!)
In the past I was always religious about eating breakfast. I knew it was good for me: that was one of the few things the nutrition bods agreed on. And if I didn’t eat it, I had been known to faint.
Yet now, at the age of 45, and again weighing – finally, effortlessly – exactly what I did at 35, not to mention 25, I start my day with a cup of coffee only, and don’t eat for hours. I don’t need to. I feel not remotely hungry, not in the slightest bit light-headed, and – especially from around 11am onwards – physically energetic and mentally alert. Why? Because I am not drinking any old coffee, but so-called Bulletproof coffee, which was invented in Silicon Valley by entrepreneur Dave Asprey, and has become something of a religion among the tech geeks of Palo Alto.
What is it? Just plain black coffee liberally spliced with something called MCT oil (of which more later) and butter: unsalted, lots of it. Asprey came up with the idea after feeling transformed by cups of yak butter tea while trekking in Tibet, as you do. You shove it all together, whizz it up in a blender – aficionados claim this turns it into something akin to a latte: it doesn’t – and you drink it. (In London you can now buy a cup of the stuff ready-made at Crussh juice bars.) The first few times it will strike you as a tad oily – there’s 30g of butter in it alone – but it soon starts to taste like, well, a coffee.
Dan Scholnick, a partner at Trinity Ventures, a technology venture capital firm, is just one of the many Silicon Valley evangelists. “He’s had the biggest impact on my life of anyone in the past five years,” he says of Asprey. Scholnick invited him to talk to 50 CEOs and, in best super-geek fashion, doesn’t fly anywhere without beans, grinder, AeroPress (the coffee obsessive’s gadget), butter, a milk frother and – of course – MCT oil. (I am not that bad yet, but writing this from my hotel room during New York Fashion Week, I have a canister of MCT oil brought from London, and butter in the minibar.)
In America the lure of Bulletproof now extends beyond Silicon Valley. The actress Shailene Woodley tweeted that it was “one of the greatest of human achievements”. And it forms part of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team’s fats-fuelled regimen. (They add double cream for good measure.) Even our own Ed Sheeran has enthused about Bulletproof on the red carpet at the Grammys.
So what is MCT oil? It stands for medium chain triglycerides, which is the best bit of the 21st-century elixir that is coconut oil. Due to the shorter length of its chemical structure, it’s broken down so quickly by the liver that it is speedily accessible to the brain and the body, and doesn’t get stored as fat. The trick is to build up the amount of MCT oil you use slowly – the advice is to start with one teaspoon, progressing eventually to between one and two tablespoons – so that you don’t suffer a case of what is known among Bulletproof devotees as disaster pants.
I am no expert, but in essence what we are talking about with a Bulletproof start to the day is another take on intermittent fasting, in which you consume your daily calories within a specific window of time each 24 hours. Although a Bulletproof coffee delivers up to 460 calories, depending on how much butter and oil you add, the fact that they come entirely in fat form, without any carbohydrates, means that your body doesn’t trigger an insulin response, and so you remain in the fasting – and fat-burning – state known as ketosis.
This will be ringing bells with anyone who jumped on the Atkins bandwagon in the Nineties, or the 5:2 Diet more recently, but in my experience the Bulletproof approach is easier and more efficacious than both. It also enables you to lead a life that’s not irritatingly circumscribed by dietary exigencies. Though in techie land, needless to say, it’s all about such exigencies: Bulletproof drinkers there tend also to follow a so-called ketogenic diet. “Almost every investor I know in Silicon Valley is on some form of low-carb diet,” says Scholnick.
Let’s put the low-carb diet bit to one side. That’s not what I am following. When it comes to swapping your morning Cheerios for Bulletproof, you are losing weight not because of a reduction in calories (there probably isn’t one), but because of the chemical conditions in your body that occur when you are fasting. The butter and the MCT oil in Bulletproof coffee serve as brain and body energy boosters, but at the same time they don’t inhabit the depletion of your own fat. You are still burning your own fat reserves for energy.
What’s more, recent research suggests that staying in a fasting state for longer also stimulates the production of human growth hormone, which maintains lean mass, both muscle and bone, and which usually depletes as we age. In Silicon Valley, the theory goes that not only does Bulletproof make you slim, it keeps you young. No wonder the millionaire tech bosses are all over it.
Dave Asprey was in his early thirties when he came up with Bulletproof coffee. He had “already made (and lost) $6 million”, he writes in his MCT-oil fuelled tome, called – wait for it – Head Strong: the Bulletproof Plan to Activate Untapped Brain Energy to Work Smarter and Think Faster – In Just Two Weeks. At the time Asprey was battling to summon up the necessary brainpower to continue to bestride the 21st-century globe in best Palo Alto style. He was also 100lb overweight. “I felt foggy, as if I had a constant hangover. It seemed like something was broken in my brain.” He went for a SPECT scan (single-photon emission computed tomography scan), which is supposed to tell you how each part of your brain is using energy. “The scan showed that my prefrontal cortex – the most highly evolved part of the brain that manages complex cognitive behaviour and decision-making – had very little metabolic activity and was creating almost no energy.”
What to do? Asprey eventually arrived – by way of smart drugs, brain-training software and, er, electroencephalogram neurofeedback, among other things – at a means to feed the brain enhanced levels of energy. The brain uses up to 20 per cent of the body’s overall energy, and the area of the brain which is most densely packed with energy-creating mitochondria is in the prefrontal cortex, the “higher” part of your brain in charge of advanced cognitive function. “Unlike glucose, ketone bodies can get into the mitochondria completely and intact,” writes Asprey in Head Strong, in which he also describes himself, without irony, as a professional biohacker. “Long story short: ketones are able to skip a step before they even get to work creating energy.”
Yet getting yourself to ketosis, and maintaining it, can be gruelling, as anyone who dabbled with Atkins will remember.
Asprey looked at the research done in the Eighties at Harvard Medical School which “discovered that because some MCTs are water soluble, they go directly to the liver, and your liver metabolises them on the spot. To do so, it wipes out your storage of glycogen. This puts you in a state of ketosis very quickly, even if some carbohydrates are present.” And how does that make you feel? “My cravings disappear and my focus and concentration go way up,” says Asprey. Same here. Although, in his case, the fortune he has made from marketing his own-brand premium-priced Bulletproof oils and coffees – from “Brain Octane oil” to “The Mentalist dark roast” – may have helped with the mental clarity, too. (I buy normal organic coffee, and a cheaper brand of oil called Olimp.)
Then there’s the weight loss. Asprey has dropped 7st since he started his regimen, which, aside from the coffee opener, includes lots of fat and vegetables for the rest of the day, plus very little fruit and starch. As I said, I am happy with my 5lb and the odd KitKat. But, as critics point out, Bulletproof is not a nutritionally replete way to start the day, so you do need to take on plenty of nutrients when you start eating.
There’s something else worth mentioning about MCT oil. In Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure? Dr Mary Newport, an American neonatologist, wrote about her late husband Steve’s descent into the progressive brain disorder, and the comparative reprieve that she believes came through giving him MCT oil from 2008 onwards, initially in the form of coconut oil that he ate with oatmeal. Despite an MRI showing “considerable shrinkage before we began the dietary intervention”, Newport says Steve’s personality returned, and his short-term memory and ability to stay on task improved. Five years on he “no longer had any of the physical symptoms that were affecting him before … such as tremors, a weird gait … sudden episodes of faintness”.
Steve died of Alzheimer’s last year, at 65. Yet Newport, who received hundreds of testimonials from others about the impact of MCT oil – and others that observed no discernable changes – still describes ketones as “molecules of hope”. As a result of her campaigning, the University of South Florida completed a humane animal study on the effects on Alzheimer’s of a ketogenic diet with coconut oil and with ketone esters – a more concentrated, and expensive, form of ketone delivery. It is now carrying out a clinical trial on the effects of coconut oil on 65 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. A much larger human trial of the impact of MCT oil on the disease is slated in Canada.
The science, in its earliest stages, is not without its critics, but until the results come in, Newport’s advice when it comes to maintaining optimal brain function is clear. “For now you can provide ketones to the brain as an alternative fuel by consuming food that contain medium chain triglycerides to produce ketones. What do you have to lose?” Given that researchers have discovered the brain of an Alzheimer’s sufferer typically starts to show a dramatic decline in its use of energy from glucose up to 10 or 20 years before the first symptoms of the disease appear, I would argue absolutely nothing.
Still, MCT oil in its Bulletproof incarnation has many naysayers. There are some who argue those drinking Asprey’s signature brew regularly will risk developing high cholesterol. I haven’t had my cholesterol tested recently, so I don’t know if it has impacted on mine. But Silicon Valley doctor Molly Maloof is not a fan. “I’ve seen three patients with really, really high cholesterol. I’m like, ‘What are you drinking in the morning?’ They say, ‘You know, I start my day with Bulletproof coffee …’ And I’m like, ‘Are you? Oh no.’” According to Maloof, “Some people will be fine on it,” but there are a large number of people who won’t.
Still, you don’t have to go the Bulletproof route to lose weight. Instead you can stay in a fasting state simply by not having breakfast. That’s what my mother has been doing for the past few months, and she has lost 5lb, too. And that’s what is recommended in Professor Terence Kealey’s recent book, Breakfast Is a Dangerous Meal: Why You Should Ditch Your Morning Meal for Health and Wellbeing. (What is it with these long book titles? Too much prefrontal activity?)
Kealey is a British clinical biochemist who now works on food policy at the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute in Washington. Having been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2010, the advice he received from Diabetes UK and the NHS was, “Eat three meals a day.” In their joint publication Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes they say, “Avoid skipping meals and space out your breakfast, lunch and evening meal over the day. This will not only help control your appetite but will also help control your blood glucose levels.”
But Kealey had a personal glucose meter or glucometer at his disposal, and the boffin status fully to process its results. “I soon made an unexpected discovery. I found that my blood glucose levels were dismayingly high first thing in the morning, but – even worse – they would rise much further, indeed hazardously, if I ate breakfast. I didn’t feel ill with those elevated levels (glucose in high concentrations is a silent killer), but over time they would be killing me.”
So Kealey began missing breakfast, allowing his blood glucose levels to fall to normal over the morning. “After lunch and dinner, of course, they would rise again, but noticeably less than over breakfast. Since high blood glucose levels are unsafe, I discovered that, as a type 2 diabetic, breakfast was the most dangerous meal of my day.” And he found he was far from the first person to reach this conclusion, coming across a range of convincing research in science journals, most notably by Professor Jens Christiansen from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, that suggests we would all be better off without breakfast.
Kealey’s book also offers an exhaustive trawl through history to illustrate what a recent – and unnecessary – invention breakfast is. In medieval Europe its consumption was “restricted to children, the elderly, the sick, and labourers”, he writes. Until well into the 1800s, breakfast continued to be only for the weak or for those engaged in physical graft. The upper classes wouldn’t eat their first meal until 10 at the earliest, often later. Breakfast was for poor people who had to work in the fields or down the pit. (How many of us are doing that today? No wonder we are getting fat.) In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), Sir Felix Carbury breaks his fast at midday.
It was the advent of the so-called Popular Health Movement in America at around the same time that began to change things, the notable adherent to which was one John Kellogg, who, alongside inventing, opining on and becoming rich courtesy of cornflakes, also, among other things, recommended clitorectomy for nymphomania. And this is the man whose breakfast mantra has gone global.
Since he made lunch his first meal, Kealey has not only managed his diabetes but also lost weight. (He has two cups of strong black coffee, not Bulletproof, but still carbohydrate-free, and exercises in order to stop feeling hungry.) As he points out, it is the act of eating breakfast – particularly when carbohydrate-heavy – which prompts the release of ghrelin, the so-called hunger hormone, the levels of which rise and fall in the blood in direct opposition to insulin levels. Once your body – and your head – adjusts to your new regime, you don’t feel as hungry by 11am as you would if you had eaten three hours earlier.
That has been my experience, certainly. To state the obvious, I am not a nutritionist. I am not any kind of expert. I can only tell you how it’s been for me. If there is one thing I have learnt over the years it’s that one person’s diet is another person’s disaster (pants); more than that, that diets generally are bad news. Something that feels like restriction, that never lets you kick loose, is never going to work long-term if you like food and – I would say – life.
There are lots of people I have come across who feel the same way as I do about the act of side-stepping breakfast, and have experienced similar, if not more dramatic change. Take the fitness trainer Max Lowery, who has recently published a book called The 2 Meal Day. His adventures in intermittent fasting started by accident when he was travelling in Latin America and, in order to save money, eating “only one massive meal a day”. He was extremely fit before his trip, but on his return – having trained throughout – he had lost 7kg, “but was more muscular than I had ever been”. Then he returned home to his normal routine, “eating three big low-carb meals a day, which meant I quickly put the weight back on. I never had any problems building or maintaining muscle, but I just wasn’t as lean as when I went away.” It was from this experience that Lowery formulated his 2 Meal Day programme, during which he fasts for 16-18 hours. Like Asprey, and unlike me, he doesn’t skip breakfast in order to be able to cheat more often the rest of the time, as you would expect from a fitness trainer. His book is full of recipes for teriyaki turkey burgers and the like.
More resonant for me is the experience of the American health blogger Elle Bieling of bodywindow.com, whom I stumbled across online early on in my no-breakfast experiment. Bieling, 59, has also finally lost that last 5lb. She had long followed the supposed wisdom of three small meals a day and two snacks in order to “keep my metabolic rate up”. But, she observes now, “If I have to eat every three to four hours all I think about is food and eating. And I could never indulge without suffering guilt. Now I forget about food for hours. And I try to pay attention to if I am hungry or not.”
I am the same. Shutting down the rota of consumption for part of the day takes food off the menu psychologically, too. It’s a liberation. Plus it makes you better able to register when your body actually needs food rather than when it merely expects it, and to tweak the rest of your eating accordingly. Snacking, however “healthy”, is, I have come to conclude, another disastrous piece of nutritional advice we have been given in recent years. Our grandparents didn’t do it. And they weren’t as fat as us. If you snack, your body and your head never switches off, never recalibrates, and that’s before one factors in the intricate internal chemistry I have touched upon only briefly in this article, and can’t hope, as a layperson, fully to understand.
What’s more, in contrast to many diets, the no-breakfast approach fits in with the reality of modern life, when eating properly in the evening – together, generously – is a highlight of most people’s day. Now I never go to bed hungry, literally or metaphorically. Yet I need never balk from getting on the scales. And, oh, the joy of eating burrata or rillettes with nothing but pleasure, with no payback; not every day, of course, but often enough. Who needs breakfast? I’ll hold out for that cheesecake at four.