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Far from Bulletproof Science

by Bruno Van de Casteele

September 18, 2016

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Donate Like a lot of people in the Western world, I used to be a bit overweight—you know, a spare tire, nothing special. But in one of those classic New Year resolutions last year, I decided enough is enough and started going on a diet. Scientifically backed, of course!

The first thing I realized was that just eating less wasn't really helping—even when using "light" or "zero sugar" products. I started digging around on the Internet for other options. By chance, I found Tim Ferris's The Four-Hour Body (Crown Publishing Group, 2010). Since I had already read and liked his Four-Hour Workweek (Crown Publishing Group, 2007), Ferris's book seemed like a good place to start. So, per the book's guidance, I started a slow-carb diet, eliminating sugars and some other carbohydrates from my diet.

I'll tell you how I got results in a couple of paragraphs, but let me first say that Ferris's scientific approach isn't that bad. He bases some of his recommendations on very preliminary research or his own experiments (purely anecdotal), but the diet itself seems to be working (at least for me).

At a certain point Ferris mentions Dave Asprey and his Bulletproof Diet, so I dove into that, too. The is not a joke by the way: it seems Asprey is less focussed on science and more focussed on selling his stuff, including the diet, coffee, a podcast and books and clothing and appliances, supplements, meditation instruction, life coaching and business seminars, and, no joke, mold remediation. Asprey's project was a bit of a disappointment. His book can essentially be reduced to: A. all your problems are due to inflammation of the gut, bones, whatever and B. buy my stuff. It reminded me of a quote from George Hrab's song "Skeptic": "Is he helping you, or is he helping himself?" The same also applies a bit to Ferris, by the way, but at least it's limited to books.

Honestly, I don't mind that people want to buy expensive food and supplements, but please, don't coat it with a scientific brush, because it's not supported by science at all. There is some real and important science about our gut (e.g. here), but Asprey is way off the mark.

I had actually forgotten about this Bulletproof book and forgiven Tim Ferris for being so positive about it, until my eye fell on the following article about Vegan Bulletproof coffee. "Normal" Bulletproof coffee was one of the first of Asprey's "findings." You need the following:
  • a liter of strong coffee from "mold-free" coffee beans (conveniently available in his store)

  • mixed with "grass-fed butter"

  • some cinnamon for taste (which might or might not be beneficial for your health)

  • coconut oil (sometimes difficult to find and expensive—oh and also available from the Bulletproof store, with a very high markup).

Mix it all together, and you're good from breakfast time until 2pm. Really, I kid you not.

The vegan competitors replace ghee with cashew butter and some cacao. Honestly, that might taste OK, but for me that is just a preference. The vegan alternative promises, as the original one, to make your body "burn just a little bit hotter," which seems to describe increasing your metabolism, but doesn't actually promise any definable medical benefits.

They also claim their coffee is "paleo," referring to the fad called "paleo diet" where you can only eat food our ancestors would have supposedly eaten 10,000 years ago (basically, raw meat and nuts). Beats me how cashew butter and hot, brewed coffee match that description, especially since coconuts, cashews, and coffee were all domesticated after the Paleolithic Era in different places that no single Paleolithic ancestor would have been able to reach in one lifetime.

The article itself is a nice read on how two entrepreneurs overcame various problems with their startup (kudos to them!), but in my opinion they were trying to solve a nonexistent problem for a thing that isn't up to scientific standards anyway.

So for those who are wondering how I fared: yes, I managed to lose 10 kilograms. How? Two things: first, I kept a kind of detailed journal of what I ate and didn't eat (with a nice reward if, for instance, I managed to keep beer of my menu for a week). Secondly, a friend recommended the work of Gary Taubes, especially his Good Calories, Bad Calories (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), which is an ultra-detailed look into the science behind our digestive processes (including impact of insulin on our blood). The book also strongly attacks the accepted belief that fats are to be avoided. It seems there, too, some shoddy science was at work. The move away from "light" products helped me especially, because guess what they replace the fat with: sugar!

To be fair to Asprey, one should not throw away results because of commercial interests or wrong science. I'm not afraid to admit that I drink a version of Bulletproof coffee (without the ) as part of my breakfast: half a liter of coffee, butter (grass-fed, it tastes better) and some cinnamon for taste. Most of the time that's all the coffee I need that day. More importantly, it gives me a feeling of satiety that lasts easily into lunch, which is Taubes's point anyway: not all calories are bad, and fat indeed helps you stave off hunger.

Sometimes my lunch is vegetarian or even vegan. It's perfect as a lunch, keeps me more focussed in the afternoon (less energy to digest meat means less fatigue for instance), and yes it sometimes tastes better. But that is just a personal preference.

So in short, try to stick with more scientific-minded books. Ferris and Asprey write well, but are sometimes lacking. Taubes is much more detailed and nuanced, and the reward of digging through his thick books (he has shorter versions, too, don't worry) is a more correct understanding. The more popular ones might be interesting, but please use caution. And remember what George Hrab sang about...

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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