Latest Celebrity Health Fad: Butter in Coffee?

What is the latest celebrity health fad? Adding butter to coffee- something often referred to as Bulletproof Coffee.

Members of the LA Lakers, Jeremy Piven, and Ed Sheeran are all proponents of the brew, the brainchild of creator Dave Asprey. He says he came up with the idea while mountain climbing on Mt. Kailash in Tibet.  He claimed to be “literally rejuvenated by a creamy cup of yak butter tea.” Upon his return, he researched the concept and came up with his final recipe. The brew consists of upgraded, organic coffee beans (reportedly low in toxins), grass fed butter, and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) derived from coconut oil, all blenderized together. Of course, Asprey offers his own brand of coffee beans and MCT oil (called Brain Octane Oil) for the true aficionado.

Asprey claims that Bulletproof Coffee will allow you to lose weight, to improve mental alertness, all while avoiding the “afternoon crash.”

Is there any truth to his claims? A very good article by Kris Gunnars, a medical student, personal trainer and health enthusiast on his blog Authority Nutrition lays out the pros and cons of bulletproof coffee. I am reproducing his article here.

3 Reasons Why Bulletproof Coffee is a Bad Idea

Coffee is awesome.

Butter is awesome.

Saturated fat is awesome.

There is no doubt about it… they have been unfairly demonized.

They’ve been blamed for health problems that they really didn’t have anything to do with.

Fortunately, the world is slowly but surely abandoning the old diet myths and embracing these foods once again.

However… it’s important to keep in mind that everything in nutrition depends on dosage and context.

Just because a little bit of something is healthy, it doesn’t mean that a whole ton of it is healthier, or even safe.

This brings us to the topic at hand… a huge trend called Bulletproof coffee.

If you don’t know what this is, then it is a recipe for a coffee drink that replaces breakfast:

  • 2 cups of coffee.
  • 2 tablespoons (at least) of grass-fed, unsalted butter.
  • 1-2 tablespoons of MCT oil.
  • All mixed in a blender.

This is promoted by Dave Asprey, the man behind the website Bulletproof Executive.

Bulletproof coffee has become so popular that people all over the world have either heard about it or tried it.

This includes several people I know in real life, people that are not in any way involved in the paleo or low-carb communities.

For the record, I’m a big fan of grass-fed butter, saturated fat and coffee… separately… in “normal” amounts.

I’ve written about all of them before and include them in my diet, every day.

However… I do not think it is a good idea to consume unnaturally large doses of them.

Some is good, even downright healthy, but too much could very well be a problem.

Although I’m sure bulletproof coffee is tasty and can boost energy levels (especially for someone on a ketogenic diet), I do think there are some genuine concerns that should be noted.

For the sake of clarity, what this article is about is the act of replacing your breakfast with coffee, butter and MCT oil.

This article is NOT about the “toxin-free” upgraded coffee beans, a product sold by Dave and recommended with the bulletproof coffee recipe.

I’m sure it’s decent coffee, although I do not believe the whole mycotoxin thing is supported by science (maybe I’ll cover that in another post).

But I digress… here are 3 reasons why I think bulletproof coffee is a bad idea.

1. You Are Displacing a Highly Nutritious Meal With Something That is Low in Essential Nutrients

It is generally recommended to consume bulletproof coffee in the morning instead of breakfast.

I’m not at all surprised that this can work…

Large amounts of fat should effectively kill the appetite for many hours, especially for people who are “ketoadapted” and used to eating a low-carb, high fat diet.

This could also provide plenty of energy by elevating ketone levels in the blood, which then become available as fuel for the brain.

These benefits are impressive… but there is a pretty obvious downside here, which is rarely mentioned.

Let’s assume that you’re used to eating 3 meals per day (very common). Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

By drinking bulletproof coffee, you are effectively replacing 1 of 3 nutritious meals with something that is low in essential nutrients.

Yes, grass-fed butter contains some fat-soluble vitamins (A and K2), CLA and butyrate. It’s good stuff.

But MCT oil is 100% empty calories. It is a refined and processed fat with no essential nutrients. It is also as far from “paleo” as a food can get.

Even though bulletproof coffee may contain small amounts of nutrients, this completely pales in comparison to what you would get from a nutritious breakfast.

Let’s try putting these meals into Cron-O-Meter (my favorite food tracker) and see what happens…

My 4 Omega-3 enriched egg (fried in 5-10 grams of coconut oil) and 1 apple breakfast supplies me with large amounts of nutrients:

  • 25 grams of protein.
  • 5 grams of fiber.
  • Over 50% of the RDA for Selenium, Phosphorus, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B5.
  • Over 10% of the RDA for every nutrient except magnesium, manganese and Vitamin B3 (Niacin).

This breakfast contains 429 calories, with 27 grams of net carbs.

Now let’s take a look at bulletproof coffee – 2 cups of coffee, 2 tablespoons of MCT oil, 2 tablespoons of butter:

  • 1 gram of protein.
  • 0 grams of fiber.
  • Under 10% of the RDA for every nutrient except Vitamin A, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin B5 (which range from 22-28% of the RDA).

Bulletproof coffee supplies 441 calories with 0 grams of carbs and and 51 grams of fat (80% of which are saturated).

To be fair, I used regular unsalted butter for the comparison. Cron-O-Meter does not have grass-fed butter listed, which should be higher in some nutrients (1, 2).

If you’re used to eating 3 meals per day, then replacing breakfast with bulletproof coffee will reduce the total nutrient load of your diet by a third.

This can’t be healthy… really. And it certainly isn’t “paleo” – paleolithic humans went for nutrient density (that’s why they were crazy about organ meats).

If you think a multivitamin can solve this problem, think again… NO multivitamin can replace the thousands of trace nutrients, both known and unknown, that are present in real food.

Bottom Line: If you replace one of your daily meals with a mix of coffee and fat, then you will significantly reduce the total nutrient load of your diet.

2. Saturated Fat is Good… But Humans Did NOT Evolve Eating Such Massive Amounts

Saturated fat was unfairly demonized.

Recent high quality studies have shown that it doesn’t cause heart disease (3, 4, 5).

However… keep in mind that all of the studies were done on people using “normal” amounts.

These people weren’t pouring massive amounts of saturated fat into their coffee, they were eating it along with other foods.

These fats belong in recipes and should be used to cook with or to add flavor to dishes. They should be eaten with a meal, not as the meal.

Humans did NOT evolve eating (or drinking) such massive amounts of saturated fat.

There are plenty of nutrients that are healthy when consumed in reasonable amounts, but when people start megadosing them it can cause serious problems.

One example is fructose… it’s “good” when found in nutritious, fibrous whole fruit, but a disaster when consumed in massive amounts from refined sugars (6, 7).

Another example is linoleic acid (the main Omega-6 fat)… it’s healthy when found in whole, nutritious nuts, but a disaster when consumed in massive amounts from veggie oils (8, 9, 10).

It is entirely possible that saturated fat is the same. Healthy in reasonable amounts, but harmful when we start eating massive, unnaturally large doses that are way outside of evolutionary norms.

Of course, all of this is just speculation. Maybe such massive doses of saturated fat are perfectly safe, but it hasn’t been tested… ever… so you are treading in uncharted territory.

Bottom Line: Saturated fat seems to be perfectly safe in “normal” amounts, but the doses contained in bulletproof coffee are much higher than we were ever exposed to throughout evolution. This may be a problem.

3. There Have Been Some Case Reports of Dramatically Elevated Cholesterol Due to Bulletproof Coffee

Since the year 2002, many studies have been conducted on low-carb and ketogenic diets.

Most of them confirm that levels of Total and LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol don’t increase… at least not on average (11).

Triglycerides go down, HDL goes up, weight goes down (especially the dangerous abdominal fat), along with various other beneficial effects on metabolic health.

(Although there appears to be a subset of individual that sees dramatic increases in Total and LDL cholesterol, as well as “advanced” markers like LDL-p/ApoB).

However… keep in mind that the studies showing safety and health benefits of low-carb and ketogenic diets did NOT have the participants drink bulletproof coffee, which is a new phenomenon.

There is no study on bulletproof coffee, whether on a low-carb diet or not, showing that it is safe.

I’ve heard reports from low-carb friendly doctors that had patients with drastically elevated cholesterol levels on a low-carb and/or paleo diet… who happened to also be drinking bulletproof coffee.

You can read about one such case report by endocrinology fellow Dr. Karl Nadolsky here in a story on Med Page Today.

Keep in mind that this goes way beyond Total and LDL cholesterol, which we now know are not that accurate as risk factors. These are increases in ApoB and LDL particle number, which are much stronger and more accurate risk factors (12, 13).

Although these numbers are still just risk factors… given how strong their predictive value is, I think this is a legitimate concern.

For the subset of people who have cholesterol problems on a low-carb and/or paleo diet, the first thing they should do is ditch the bulletproof coffee. This alone may be sufficient to fix the problem.

There are also plenty of anecdotal reports online of people having cholesterol problems due to bulletproof coffee. Try searching for “bulletproof coffee high cholesterol” (without the quotes) on Google and see for yourself.

Bottom Line: There have been numerous reports of people having massive increases in cholesterol levels when drinking bulletproof coffee. This includes advanced risk factors like ApoB and LDL particle number.

Should Anyone be Drinking Bulletproof Coffee?

All of this being said, I do believe that bulletproof coffee can work for some people… especially for people who are on a ketogenic diet.

There are a lot of testimonials online about it helping people lose weight and increasing their energy levels.

If you find that bulletproof coffee improves your health, wellbeing and quality of life, then perhaps it is worth the downside of dramatically decreased nutrient load.

However, this is probably a terrible idea for people who eat a lot of carbs. High-carb and high-fat at the same time is a recipe for disaster.

I think that just to be on the safe side, anyone who drinks bulletproof coffee regularly should have their blood markers measured. Perhaps you are one of those who respond badly… the only way to know is to get tested.

At the end of the day, bulletproof coffee may work for some people, but may be a complete disaster for others. Only you can figure out which group you fall into.

I personally think it is best to proceed with caution when adopting a drastic dietary change that has never been tested and is way outside of evolutionary norms.

It is better to be safe than sorry.

 

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

3 Comments

  1. Chaney Turney

    September 25, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Bulletproof coffee sounds incredibly intriguing to me, possibly because I avoid both caffeine and dairy, which inevitably leads to the innately human conundrum of wanting what we cannot have. As a pre-med student interested in fitness and nutrition, I admire the author of the included excerpt, Kris Gunnars, because in my experience, doctors that well-versed in the biochemistry of nutrition are few and far between. When “bulletproof coffee” is searched on the web, the only sites that discuss the actual health effects of the beverage are this site and Kris Gunnars’ Authority Nutrition. The majority of the remaining sites tout the drink as a delicious alternative to a normal cup of coffee that does not result in an afternoon sugar crash, which although true, does not account for the potential health risks that could result from over-consumption of such a beverage. However, as the article points out, the benefits of a cup of bulletproof coffee to those who are adhering to a low-carb, ketogenic diet could be prominent, and I feel the suggestions given (i.e. periodic testing for certain blood markers) are sufficient to protect those who partake in bulletproof coffee from unhealthy spikes in cholesterol. Personally, I feel low-carb diets are just as much of a fad as this drink that allegedly accompanies them. While some people have had success in losing significant weight from ketogenic dieting, as a kinesiology student, I feel the unhealthy aspects of dieting in this manner outweigh the initial weight loss that could occur. Just as bulletproof coffee can raise cholesterol, according to the anecdotal tidbits cropping up on the internet, low-carb/high fat diets can have similar effects. This essentially puts participants at risk for the same chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, that they were trying to combat by losing weight in the first place. Also, as referenced in the article, the nutrient deficiencies that can occur on low-carb diets, or through replacing breakfast with bulletproof coffee, have a more significant detrimental impact on overall health than does a little too much junk in the trunk. Bulletproof coffee, just like its more serious counterpart, the ketogenic diet, appears to be nothing more than a craze, broadening its hype across the internet via its celebrity following. During the fad, I feel the amount of medical literature on a beverage of this sort will increase drastically. As soon as the craze dies down, however, the potential studies performed on the effects of bulletproof coffee will be swept under the rug, concealed in the far reaches of the internet until the drink comes back into style.

  2. Francisca Acosta

    September 30, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Before reading this article, I had never heard of bulletproof coffee. So as you can imagine, I was a little thrown off when the article stated “Bulletproof coffee has become so popular that people all over the world have either heard about it or tried it”. That being said, I am a fully aware of the large dependence and passion a large portion of society has on coffee. “Coffee is more than popular: it’s ubiquitous. No other beverage is as revered or respected.”(1) “After crude oil, coffee is the most sought commodity in the world” with a “worth over $100 billion worldwide” which translates to “over 500 billion cups of coffee” consumed worldwide each year. (1) In short, this proves that coffee is a very large market, so to me, it makes sense to have someone like Dave Asprey try to capture part of that market by introducing a novel presentation to an olden idea, such as the traditional cup of coffee.
    (2)
    Through the idea alone though, Asprey makes no monetary gain. As mentioned in the article you can easy find his bulletproof coffee recipe online and create your version. The key behind the bulletproof idea is the marketing and advertising behind it. As seen through the company’s YouTube video (http://youtu.be/5-atwAIo_Lo) they market bulletproof coffee as not just the “best tasting coffee”, but rather part of a healthy lifestyle or health path in order to improve on things such as your IQ or weight. In order to truly follow this lifestyle, the market their own brand of Upgraded™ Coffee and Brain Octane™ Oil which, according to them, is the healthiest option.
    In retrospect, this is comparable to several marketing techniques used in various fields, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Big pharma, or “nickname given to the world’s vast and influential pharmaceutical industry and its trade and lobbying group,” (3) has been highly criticized in recent years due to their marketing campaigns aimed towards patients, making them believe that if they consume their new drug, their life will drastically improve, often more so than with older medicines. The reality is, these drugs often re-creations of older drugs that differ very slightly in aesthetics and chemical makeup and even less in efficiency, yet cost orders of multitude more than the generic or older drug option.
    (3)
    Like coffee, pharmaceuticals are a huge industry. Though aimed at improving the health of millions worldwide, it is often forgotten that pharmaceutical companies, just like any other are also businesses. They market the drugs that will give them the most profit, and it is not always the option with the highest cost-to-benefits ratio and can also even lead to those not needing the drug to acquire it.
    Like with bulletproof coffee and Asprey, this business/for-profit marketing agenda is masked through benevolent seeming goals, in this case, educating the public of health problems and treatment.
    Sources:
    1. Goldschein, Eric. “11 Incredible Facts About The Global Coffee Industry.”Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
    2. “Single Origin.” U.S. Roasterie Coffee Roasters. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
    3. “Big Pharma.” DrugWatch. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

  3. Hannah Willey

    September 30, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Why would someone be inspired to add butter to his or her coffee? This was my first thought after hearing about the trend of “bulletproof coffee”. A quick web search turned up countless news articles providing celebrity endorsements of this new drink. However, a search for peer-reviewed articles from the medical community on the subject provided no results. If there is no evidence that bulletproof coffee has the claimed health benefits, why is it such a growing trend?
    While my first instinct as an aspiring doctor is to conduct a literature review of health and fitness trends I come across, this is not the average American’s reaction. In American culture, celebrities are idolized and their habits are quickly adopted as a way to better ourselves. One celebrity endorsement of a product can make it a bestseller, which is why celebrity figures are often utilized in advertising campaigns. Although the creator of bulletproof coffee may not have contracted these individuals to advertise this product, the end result is nevertheless the same – bulletproof coffee has become a huge trend.
    Similar to other forms of advertising such as those produced by the pharmaceutical industry, the consumer must work to make themselves aware of both sides of the story. Even if something is marketed in a completely positive light, that may not be the full story, and there may be medical concerns lurking in the shadows. Drug commercials often display the positive outcomes that can result from taking their product, while leaving the numerous side effects in the fine print. Likewise with bulletproof coffee, delving into the nutritional information turns up concerns, as presented in Kris Gunnars’s article. I found this information on the concerns of ingesting so much saturated fat and forgoing the nutritional content of a whole foods breakfast to be very influential in my decision to not start drinking bulletproof coffee, that is until formal research produces evidence of its benefits.
    We often forget that celebrities, while eager to share their health and lifestyle habits with their fans, have no formal medical training. I know I have habits that are motivated by concerns other than health, such as personal preference and pleasure. And I suspect that celebrities also do things for reasons other than health. It is important when consuming media regarding celebrity culture to separate habits that are medically proven to be healthy, and those,which have just been adopted as the latest trend. Make sure you get both sides of the story when it comes to health.

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