For a period of two years, I adhered pretty strictly to a way of eating called the BulletProof Diet. It was awesome and my physical condition was fantastic. I felt great and had energy for everything I wanted to do. I am convinced it is as close to optimal a way to live for me as anything else.
When Cory House and I were talking on Developer on Fire about some of everything, one of the things that came up was that my breakfast on most days consists of a concoction known as Bulletproof Coffee. Cory later saw an article about this very thing and mentioned it to me on Twitter.
I promised to write a bit about my experience, so here we are.
The Saga Begins
In December 2012, I felt terrible. I was not what anyone would call obese, but my weight was certainly higher than it should have been. My clothes didn’t fit right and when I played basketball, I felt slow, didn’t block many shots or get many steals, and got winded very quickly. There was even a moment where a button popped off a pair of my pants. I knew it was time to do something about it and I was about to embark on cleaning up my diet and eating better. At the time, this meant listening to the advice of the brothers Bill and Shawn Phillips. Bill’s book, Body for Life, is a classic in the world of taking care of yourself and dedication to treating your body as it should be treated. Shawn’s Strength For Life is much of the same, with more emphasis on diet and training for men, especially those a bit older and with families, but who still want to be strong, powerful, and masculine. I still like those guys (and they’re local guys from Golden, Colorado, which is where I went to college).
As I was starting to do what I had done before to get myself back into good shape – or at least acceptable shape, I heard a podcast interview that would shake everything I thought I knew about nutrition. The guest on the interview was a guy named Dave Asprey. There was something about him that appealed to me from the start. It may have been that he’s a good public speaker or that he’s a good marketer. I may have been taken in by a sales pitch. I don’t know. It may have been that he’s a geek. He worked at Trend Micro at the time. I think he was something like a vice president of cloud security or something like that. He called himself by a term I’d never heard before: biohacker.
This geeky biohacker guy was talking on this podcast about taking a systems approach to the human body and tweaking input, taking advantage of undocumented features and knobs, to optimize the performance of the machine that is you. He was speaking my language. I heard him at exactly the time I wanted to hear his message. I made a note to myself to learn more about this guy and his claims.
I don’t remember exactly what he said on the podcast (and it seems that feed is no longer available so I don’t have a link to the audio), but I remember that I was intrigued. He made claims about the conventional wisdom that dietary-fat-is-the-devil being misguided at best. He spoke sense about the incentives created by farm subsidies and lobbies causing a skewed view of what good nutrition means. He said that eating well meant 80% of calories from fat was the ideal. He said that his creation of something called Bulletproof Coffee was all you needed for breakfast and that having this fat bomb in the morning would make it such that you wouldn’t be hungry again until roughly 2pm. He claimed to have spent $250,000 upgrading himself. He said the work of Ancel Keys had flaws and its widespread acceptance resulted from a combination of bad coincidences, misguided authorities, and malicious actors with unhealthy incentives. A lot of it sounded unlikely and conspiratorial. I was listening to a marketing message. Still, the guy captured my attention and I instantly liked him and I wanted to find out more.
I started reading his blog and subscribed to his podcast – there were probably about 40 episodes at the time and I started from the beginning and listened to all of them. At the time, the site was called Bulletproof Executive. It has now been simplified to simply Bulletproof. The people in the forums on the site were buzzing about Dave’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, where he introduced a lot of mind-blowing ideas (including that of drinking a glass of salt water every morning before getting out of bed – something that has really improved the way I feel). It’s interesting that Joe Rogan has since decided that Dave Asprey is a charlatan, withdrawn his endorsement of his products, and said some pretty nasty things about him. It doesn’t change how I feel about either of those guys – I still like them both. I hold Dave as an authority on all things regarding physical condition and Joe is a philosopher and an influence and inspiration for the new podcast I am going to create (more on that to come).
The idea that eating right meant getting lots of cholesterol, that fruit is bad, that butter is a health food – it was all so foreign. Could it be possible that the things we know were misguided?
I decided to just start with the coffee drink and see if the claim held water that I wouldn’t be hungry and I could just focus on work until well into the afternoon. That seemed unlikely at best. I got myself a French press, some grass-fed butter, and some MCT oil and gave it a try, thinking I’d do this a few times, prove the claims were ludicrous, and be on my way. I started out just stirring the butter and oil into my coffee – that doesn’t work – you need to use a blender. Once I figure out a few of the things of how to do Bulletproof coffee, it turned out that it worked. The claim held up. I wasn’t hungry. This was a big deal for work – I wasn’t thinking about food and could just plow through meetings and code in my work in downtown Denver. I really liked doing it.
I did some experimentation with playing a memory and focus game with and without drinking Bulletproof Coffee. The results were consistent with improved performance resulting from the drink. This, of course, was not a placebo-controlled trial or anything of the sort. Just a guy with clear biases who seemed to get some positive results from doing something small.
That I didn’t get hungry when drinking this stuff in the morning didn’t mean it was healthy. When my my wife’s parents learned about what I was doing, they panicked a bit. I completely understand their reaction. I had the same concerns and was wading into this pool rather than jumping because of fear. According to conventional medicine, I was deliberately seeking a massive coronary.
It’s interesting that in the time since I decided to depart from the mainstream in my thinking about diet, the mainstream has started to move (a little) in the same direction with different emphases coming out from bodies steeped in tradition. Carl Franklin and Richard Morris have started a podcast chronicling their experiences with a ketogenic approach to diet. There are differences between what they are doing and the Bulletproof Diet. There is enough similarity that it’s relevant, though. Dave Asprey calls the Bulletproof Diet a “cyclic ketogenic diet.” I recommend interested readers giving the 2 Keto Dudes a listen. Bulletproof also has a lot in common with the Paleo Diet.
At the start of 2013, the company I worked for put together a “Biggest Loser” contest in the office where the person who would lose the most weight in the office as measured as a percent of their starting weight would win a prize. I decided to join. I weighed 210 lbs. (95 kg) at the time. There was more to the Bulletproof lifestyle than just the coffee recipe and I decided to go all the way. I started taking cold showers, eating tons of green vegetables, lots of grass-fed beef, salmon, and eggs. I didn’t eat a low carbohydrate diet by most standards of the term, but it was lower than I had ever done before. I was religious about eating only carbohydrate sources deemed “clean” by Dave Asprey (primarily sweet potatoes and white rice). I stopped using deodorant, soap, and anything I thought was toxic and bought a filtration system for my water. I didn’t touch alcohol during this period. In the 8 months at the from the start of 2013 (didn’t start Bulletproof immediately at the start of January, but close to it), I had one bite of a grilled-cheese sandwich my daughter was eating and that was my only deviation from the Bulletproof Diet. Starting at 210 lbs. at the start of January, I reached 180 lbs. (82 kg) well before the end of February. At this point my (admittedly underdeveloped) competitive side was concerned that I had lost all the weight I could and would lose the contest with more than a month to go for the other competitors to catch me (despite my enormous lead). I would up finishing the contest at the end of March weighing in at 173 lbs. (78 kg). It was too light for me and, after the contest, I quickly got myself back up to 185 lbs. I consider 185-190 lbs. to be my range of optimal performance at my height of 6 ft (1.8m).
Body weight is easy to measure and easy to track and gives one view of the health of an organism and is therefore useful. It tells you something about the condition of your body, though it is an incomplete picture. When I say that 185-190 lbs. is my optimal weight, there is a lot missing from that statement. I could be within that range but have a lot of deficiency in my health. There are other things important to me to know how I’m preforming. Other than body weight and body composition as measured by a bathroom scale, my own self-assessment of my appearance in a mirror is the easiest measure of my condition. During my period of hardcore Bulletproof, I was extremely satisfied by this measure. I’m not particularly concerned with how I look and I don’t think there’s much reason in that realm to motivate me, but it is a good (though incomplete, just like weight) way to assess where I stand.
I included some of my thoughts about the vanity of appearance as a motivator in my post about Training for the Body. Despite that looking good is not a factor in my core motivation, it felt nice that when I would take my kids to the swimming pool, I would notice some of the moms there looking at me. It may have been my imagination, but I don’t think so. It may have had more to do with carrying myself with confidence than with the condition of my body itself. In fact, I think that likely. Nonetheless, I noticed it and I liked it. When I was at my cousin’s wedding, my dad commented on how great I looked and that my weird diet was really working. That was pretty nice, too.
My favorite metric, though, to assess my state, is how I play basketball. The most obvious differences when I’m performing at my best are the number of shots I block and the number of breakaway, uncontested shots I get. This is because uncontested layups result from stealing passes in a position to get to the offensive end of the court before the opponent. In my best condition, blocking shots happens multiple times every time I play and I typically get at least couple breakaways every time out. I play in passing lanes when I’m at my best, strongest, faster, quickest, and most confident. Those things don’t happen when I’m less-than-optimal. I notice big differences in my fatigue and energy and how I move without the ball. These are matters of great substance, but not quantifiable like blocked shots and steals – especially steals leading to uncontested scores. I played the best basketball of my life on the Bulletproof Diet, with the one small adjustment that I had to increase my carbohydrate intake to optimize my energy on the court from its low during my huge and rapid weight loss.
There were some changes to my life I didn’t intend it to be metrics, but they were there.
I’m not exactly old, but I’m certainly not young, either. Back pain had been an issue for me for a few years, especially after intense activity, I didn’t have debilitating pain in my back, but it was a nuisance. Some days were worse than others, but it was something impacting the quality of my life.
Another thing I noticed was that before Bulletproof, every sickness, every cold, every flu, every sniffle my kids brought home would hit me and take me down harder than it did any of them. On the diet, I might feel a little lower energy for a day when something passed through the house and that was it. My wife started getting a little annoyed with constantly hearing me say “I’m impervious to illness.”
I also stopping waking in the middle of the night to have to get up to urinate.
Perhaps most significant in my changes were two things I did not anticipate at all. Not significant because of their impact on my life, but because they were so unexpected. Both are related to my athletic endeavors. In my entire life of playing basketball, my game has been that of a scrambling, hustling, scrappy player. I was never one of the best players on the court and it was only my intensity that closed the gap (to the extent that it did). Most of my scoring for most of my life came from offensive rebounds. That has changed. After I started drinking Bulletproof coffee, that changed. I started shooting the basketball really well. There could be a lot of reasons for that. It may be an instance of the placebo effect. It could be a change in my confidence as my physical condition improved (and confidence has always played the largest role in how well I shoot). It could result from many other things. The other thing I noticed that I didn’t expect is that when I play racquetball, after a point was over and I tried to catch the ball in my left hand, I started being able to make clean catches much more consistently. It’s a strange and inconsequential difference, but it’s real. I attribute it both of these to the MCT oil in Bulletproof coffee. It has a reputation for enhancing focus and cognitive performance and I believe both of these to be physical manifestations of that. Of course, I could be completely wrong in this attribution, so take it for what it’s worth to you.
The results of going hardcore on the Bulletproof lifestyle were fantastic. I felt better than I ever had. My confidence was incredible.
How about now?
I am no longer a zealot for the Bulletproof Diet. This isn’t because I don’t want to be. It’s my favorite way to eat and live and I consider it optimal. It was sustainable for me for 2 years and in a less hardcore manner for longer than that. In late 2015, though, I went off the rails. That might be due to my focus on other things, like starting a podcast, family, marriage, health, and changing priorities. It’s funny that I thought I had it all figured out and now I find myself back over 200 lbs. and feeling uncomfortable in my clothes. I’m slower and less athletic than I’d like to be on the basketball court.
The slip back started with an observation. I had been trying to get my wife and kids to eat more like me and they had not really moved at all. I was in it alone. That was ok. We’d take the kids for a sweet treat and I would be present, but not eat. One day I decided take a small deviation and eat some ice cream with my family. The kids were ecstatic knowing that I was going to participate completely in the activity. I realized then that it was not enough to be present – the act of setting myself apart and not fully embracing that experience enhanced my life in one way, but it hurt my experience in another. It didn’t drive a wedge between me and the rest of my family, but it did take me out of complete presence in some family activities. At one point I had told a friend that I missed eating nachos and he told me “You gotta live.” Of course, he was right, but there’s a larger calculus involved and going without nachos has incredible rewards. There was a deeper experience, though, that I missed by not eating ice cream with my kids.
I started relaxing my dedication to diet perfection and I went too far. I found myself eating those chips and crackers again. I got into those same states of tearing through the cabinets in the kitchen looking for any snack I could find.
At one point I decided I was going to go grain-free again. Then I walked into the kitchen. My daughter was there.
Daughter: “Hi dad. I made some waffles.”
Me: “They look great, honey.”
Daughter: “Want some?”
Me: “No thanks.”
Then her shoulders slumped and everything in her body language screamed disappointment.
Until my family comes to the realization that the Bulletproof Diet is right for all of us, strict adherence is not the right path for me. I loved the lifestyle and how it made me feel, but that’s not a place that works for the things that matter most. The pendulum has swung too far, though, back toward a standard American diet. I’ve had way too many grains and sugars and processed Frankenfoods in my diet over the last year or so and badly need to find the right balance. I think I’m moving in that direction with the principle I’ve now laid down that I only eat things that aren’t real food when I’m doing so with my family and we are doing it together. In all other times, I eat clean, green, and with lots of real fats.
Balance is my new key and my new metric. I also need to consider that I am not a professional athlete. I’m a family man and a software geek. Feeling great serves both of those roles and being as close as I can to Bulletproof serves me well. It has to be balanced with true presence with the people that matter most to me. It also has to be balanced with the bond that comes from sharing a brew. At this point I don’t have it all figured out and my physical and emotional state are suboptimal.
But I’m working on finding it.