by: Dennis Faye
Wellness hipsters across the country have taken to “bulletproofing” their mornings by swapping out a balanced breakfast for coffee topped off with grass-fed butter and coconut oil in hopes that the resulting cup o’ greasy joe will spur weight loss and productivity.
While the notions behind the practice are interesting and the idea of drinking buttered coffee sounds downright decadent, ultimately, it’s an albatross of an idea that should best go the way of the dodo. In other words, it’s for the birds.
In 1996, I spent three weeks in Nepal reporting on a doctor who was traveling to remote villages to perform cataract surgeries. As much as the experience was life changing, it was also hot, dirty, and exhausting. Being a vegetarian at the time, I lived largely on bread and lentils during the trip—at a fraction of my typical caloric intake. I slept 5–6 hours a night, usually on an Eisenhower-era mattress in a wooden shack resembling a termite-riddled sauna.
The Nepalese were magnificent, gracious people who insisted on sharing a cup of chai with us wherever we went. The tea was strong stuff, heavy on the milk and sugared to the point of being crunchy. As not to insult my hosts, I drank 10–15 cups a day. Between the sleep deprivation, exercise, and the lack of other calories, those little cracked cups of sweet, creamy caffeinated goodness were the only thing that kept me standing—a true miracle beverage.
So as a nutrition consultant, do I recommend you start filling your hot beverages with refined sugar because, for one brief moment of hard living in an exotic country, it gave me a boost? Um, no.
Yet, this appears to be the foundation of bulletproofing.
The Science of Bulletproofing
Creator Dave Asprey based the recipe (which, for the record, he feels is best done with his brand of coffee and his brand of coconut or palm-derived oil) on an aha moment while climbing in Tibet. As he tells it, he was at 18,000 feet elevation in minus 10°F weather when he sought refuge in a guesthouse where they fed him hot, yak butter tea—which “literally rejuvenated” him.
Asprey was freezing cold and clearly exerting himself. They offered him something hot, caffeinated, and highly caloric. Of course this would make him feel better. The fact that it was yak butter is irrelevant. Warm Yoo-hoo with a dollop of Crisco would have done the same thing. As Steve Edwards, Beachbody® VP of Fitness & Nutrition and experienced mountain man, points out, “Mountaineers switch to super high-fat diets at altitude for a number of reasons but, primarily, because the body is fighting for survival (it’s technically dying) and calories per gram of food is paramount.”
Beyond the ancient wisdom angle, the benefits of bulletproofing coffee are supposedly based on “science”; specifically, the growing belief in holistic circles that saturated fat isn’t a heart stopper, but rather a superfood. There’s some merit to these claims, but it’s complicated.
Butter vs. Cream
Different fats (including different forms of saturated fats) have chemical chains of varying lengths. When you look at the research, it appears that perhaps the long-chain saturated fats are the harmful ones, while the medium-chain saturated fats, or medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), that you find in coconut oil and palm oil, may have some benefits. A review in the Journal of Nutrition found that replacing other fats in the diet with MCTs may promote weight loss and satiety. The only problem is that dairy, even the grass-fed kind, consists mainly of long-chain fatty acids, so to truly bulletproof your coffee, you’d be better off adding just coconut oil.
However, Asprey’s Excellent Mountain Adventure took place in Tibet, not Tahiti, so he needed to work the butter angle instead of focusing on tropical fruits. Perhaps he did that a bit too well, since many trend followers skip the MCT and just add the butter, making the practice pointless.
Another problem with using butter instead of milk or cream is that the latter have more vitamins, minerals, and protein than the former. Asprey claims that butter is better than cream because it doesn’t contain “damaging denatured casein protein.” Denaturing protein means to break it down. Your body does this naturally in order to access the amino acids, but pasteurization (heat) also denatures the protein in dairy. Some holistic practitioners argue that denatured milk protein is hard for the body to digest and that it binds with calcium, which then can’t be absorbed. Unfortunately, Asprey’s solution to avoid denatured protein by focusing on the fat is flawed, considering that with pasteurized butter (which does contain some protein by the way) you still encounter many other pasteurization-related dairy issues, including the destruction of calcium-absorbing enzymes.
Furthermore, unless you’re a raw foods person, you eat denatured protein constantly, since protein sources tend to be cooked. The 3–4 grams of denatured protein in a little milk or cream just don’t matter, considering vitamins and minerals take a nosedive when dairy is turned into butter. By volume, butter has a third the calcium of cream and less than a fifth the calcium of whole milk. B and D vitamins also plummet. About the only vitamin that doesn’t suffer is vitamin A. Because it’s fat based, it increases in concentration—but vitamin A deficiency isn’t an issue in the Western world.
In other words, if you want to put some cow juice in your coffee, you’re much better off with milk or cream since they’re more vitamin and mineral dense.
Should You Be Drinking Bulletproof Coffee?
Bulletproofing your coffee is also supposed to keep you extra satisfied. This may be true, but if you follow the recipe of two tablespoons of butter plus two tablespoons of the MCT supplement or coconut oil, you’re also eating 500 calories of fat. That’s the caloric equivalent of six and a half eggs or three cups of full-fat yogurt and a handful of berries—which would be equally filling and vastly more nutritious.
In other words, it’s not a miracle. It’s just a truckload of slow-digesting calories.
I have no problem with Asprey’s brand of coffee or his MCT supplements. I’m a strong supporter of quality coffee and Beachbody incorporates coconut oil into our 21 Day Fix® nutrition plan. But, bulletproofing your coffee as a practice is all about the appeal of a shortcut. Who wants to hear that balanced, nutritious foods, exercise, and willpower are the keys to good health and weight loss? We want to hear that there’s not only a magic trick out there, but a highly decadent magic trick. It’s like learning that a weekend in Vegas cures hemorrhoids or watching HBO will give you six-pack abs. The only thing that could make butter coffee sound dreamier is if it had to be sipped through a bacon straw.
And dreamy is always more appealing than realistic.