Inside Bulletproof, the Butter-Loving Wellness Cult of the 1%
The third annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference was open for all of 15 minutes before I had a needle sticking out of my left butt cheek. The shot, called Muscle Beach, was a mixture of CoQ10, L-carnitine and magnesium; it purported to give me strength. I was about 10 minutes into the opening ceremony when I started to feel it: the fogginess of my jet lag draining from my body like a hangover that had second thoughts.
The conference is a $1,799, three-day plunge into the world borne from Dave Asprey's Bulletproof coffee, which you probably know better as the coffee diluted with grass-fed butter instead of milk. According to Asprey, 1,250 people were in attendance, more than double last year's count.
The Bulletproof conference pledges transcendence through expensive equipment, diet plans and grocery bills, the affluent approach to keeping your body in check. It promises an extremely long life through "hacking" our biology.
But how many of these promises actually check out?
The Bulletproof promise: Asprey's program claims to help you lose 100 pounds without exercise, raise your IQ by more than 12 points and stay healthy by sleeping less. This is a combination of having a Bulletproof body and Bulletproof mind. The program advocates less exercise in exchange for more meaningful movements, eating a lot and taking the right supplements. It's the "five-minute abs" of full-on self-transformation, but it promises more than just a flat stomach: Stick with Bulletproof and you'll get a sound mind and longer life too.
The centerpiece of the Bulletproof brand is the butter coffee, which tastes like a mouthful of fat. Its greasy creaminess is due to what Bulletproof calls Brain Octane Oil, another source of fat for your body to burn. At the conference, the coffee stand stayed busy between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Virtually everyone was drinking it. But the coffee was the beginning of the products you could consume. The toilets brimmed with fluorescent, vitamin-rich piss from all the supplements attendees injected and swallowed.
It started Friday, when the Davesciples gathered at the Pasadena Convention Center in California. The conference is built in Asprey's image: nootropic supplements available in little tubes (called ampules) stacked up in glass bowls like candy. Copies of Asprey's cookbook, The Bulletproof Diet, sit next to a constantly refilling table of Bulletproof coffee. Grass-fed butter is sampled by the spoonful at the Anchor Butter booth.
The events continued this way, down a narrow hallway of the convention center, past the barometric chamber (previously known for oxygen therapy), past the standing desks and the orgasmic meditation booth, into the tech hall where virtual-reality meditation headsets made their home beside portable saunas and a $10,000 bed. On the far end of the vendor rows sits the injection booth. This is where my ass, and many other people's asses, got stuck full of vitamins.
This is where my ass, and many other people's asses, got stuck full of vitamins.
This isn't biohacking in the sense that people are putting computers in their bodies. I found no young cyborg biohackers intent on hooking up their skulls to Bluetooth technology and forearm-implanted computers. Bulletproof is a cult of wellness for the upper-middle class — the transcendence of the Lululemon set. Of the 18 seminar and workshop presenters, including Asprey, most of the lessons revolved around adjusting how you think (be positive!), how you eat (you should eat a lot of fat!) and how you exercise.
As nurses from Shine Natural Medicine stood around the booth, signing up visitors for shots or full-on IV bags of vitamin cocktails, I asked other attendees what they'd taken. "Mine had magnesium, vitamin C, glutathione, B-complex... not sure the rest of the stuff," Chris Holder, a softball coach from Jacksonville, Florida, told me. When the IV needle entered his arm, he said, "I felt a little tingle. Not like liquid backing up, but some pressure." He said it felt like he was a car, filling up with gas. His nose watered from what he figured was the vitamin C. "Maybe that's blood flow increasing in those areas. That's probably what it is."
Volunteers began dishing out free Bulletproof coffee at 7:30 a.m., and the attendees were electrified, even bug-eyed. The target demographic here was hard to peg down: most were beautiful young people who either want to pursue a career in fighting or fitness or nutrition in a quintessentially Californian way. But there are an overwhelming number of people in their 40s and 50s, similarly attractive, slim and fit, flocking to seminars on achieving happiness and keeping their brains calm despite the pressures of making a shitload of money.
The attendees I spoke with were people who like to control everything in their lives. They're lawyers. Coaches. CEOs. They're used to running the show. And because of that Type A-ness, they're uninterested in taking the long road to anything anymore. Or they feel like they're coming to the end of the road and they're absolutely terrified.
Mary O'Connor, a real estate agent from New England, sat next to me at a seminar called "5 Traits of High Performers." Thirty minutes earlier, she bought the $10,000 bed. She was pretty sure she'll live to be around 100 years old, she said, but her family has a history of Alzheimer's, so she's trying to keep her brain sharp.
Holder, a former Indiana State linebacker, had signed up for Asprey's Bulletproof Coach Training course. Two days and $4,000 later, his eyes popped out of his head like two white light bulbs. Through Bulletproof, he learned mindfulness, people skills and accountability, and now he wants the lifestyle to expand to more parts of the country, like Jacksonville. He can't wait to teach everyone what he's learned this weekend.
Here's a sample: "Max, close your eyes and just breathe through your nose," Holder told me. "You ever do yoga? Breathe in for a count of four. You gotta get centered, because you get all in your head. Now you're not thinking, you're just being, Max, and that can get intense because most people don't want to be in touch with who they are."
Holder has a daughter, a softball-playing high school freshman. When she pitches, she gets anxious. Through Bulletproof, he's learned tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique to help her deal with her anxiety. (It sounds a little like acupuncture, but with no needles.)
Holder's daughter has been drinking coffee since she was in middle school, and now she and Dad drink Bulletproof together. He has a son too, who has trouble concentrating, but Holder doesn't want to take him to a doctor. "Sometimes the best thing you can do is be there and be supportive," Holder said. He'd rather avoid "rabbit holes of the pharmaceutical route or take him to some doctor who just wants to say you have a problem."
Another participant in the coaching class, an 18-year-old named Rajan Kumar, forked over the $4,000 and now walks around as if wool had covered his eyes for years. He feels — to use a buzzword from the course — present. "I OD'd on pot brownies a while back and it was the same feeling," he says. "Like, I wasn't thinking about anything. That's enlightenment, bro."
"Like, I wasn't thinking about anything. That's enlightenment, bro."
Meeting Dave Asprey: At the Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, Dave Asprey isn't Dave Asprey. He's Dave. He is Zuckerbergian in how he moves around the hall — attainable but protected, jokey and smug but willing to appear in your selfie. He walks around with a bodyguard who somehow ends up carrying part of his personality: While Asprey gets to be warm and calm, his unease and guardedness show in the face of the short, severe-looking man walking just in front of him.
Asprey positions himself as the martyr of self-improvement research, trying different methods and sharing them with his people — as long as those people, as he describes, earn around $75,000 a year.
"This is the number that buys happiness," Asprey tells a full conference room during a seminar called "The Science of Happiness."
When asked about why people can't seem to just do this stuff on their own, Asprey doesn't answer directly. Instead he talks about willpower and how people don't have it. He says willpower is quantifiable; you can "spend" units of willpower. So he throws himself up on the cross. He's come a long way: "I'm a good guinea pig," he told me, "because I did weigh 300 pounds and I did have chronic fatigue syndrome and toxic mold exposure and fibromyalgia and arthritis in my knees. I've been bitten by a vampire bat. I have no idea why."
That's the beauty of the Bulletproof lifestyle. It worked perfectly for one person, Asprey, and was then crafted in his image — so, of course, Asprey can say it clearly works.
"People read the diet book and think it means to eat everything you possibly can all the time," Asprey says. "That's not the diet. You just need to eat the amount your body wants."
Otherwise, it's chalked up as user error. "Often times they're not actually doing the Bulletproof diet," Asprey says. "When I'm working one on one with a client, if they're not responding well I'll say, 'Let's look at your hormone levels.' If your thyroid is broken and you're doing the Bulletproof diet, that's a problem."
The problem with having a devout following means there's not much healthy skepticism around to keep your beliefs grounded. Bulletproof still pushes the mantra that mycotoxins, or mold, are in everyone else's coffee, while Bulletproof is clean of them. Earlier this year, Gizmodo published a piece debunking the Bulletproof butter coffee trend, citing a Spanish study that found ridiculously low mycotoxin levels in people who drink four cups of coffee a day. Despite this, Asprey presented no evidence during his talks to show his critics were wrong. Even his PowerPoint presentation, rife with study-attribution numbers, didn't reveal any of the study titles. At one point, Asprey said, "That study isn't published yet, but it's a study."
Last year, Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University, told the New York Times that switching your breakfast to just a mug of butter-and-oil coffee is the marketing equivalent of the "grapefruit diet" trend of the mid-20th century — which, of course, did nothing for your actual weight. "This is not a breakfast of champions," she said.
One of the most furious critics of Bulletproof, Joe Rogan, used to endorse the coffee and encourage listeners of his podcast to buy Bulletproof products on the website Onnit.com. Then he discovered through independent studies that Asprey's claims were hollow.
"This guy is selling coffee ... that was supposed to be the cure to this issue [of] mycotoxins," Rogan said during one of his podcasts. "His contention was 70-plus percent of all coffee is infected with mycotoxins that make you sick. ... We decided to start looking into it ourselves. ... We tested four random coffees ... none of them tested positive for mycotoxins."
That was over a year ago, and the Gizmodo story came out in January. But that didn't stop roughly 1,000 people from flooding the Pasadena Conference Center this past weekend. That's because it's essentially one of the most magnificent victories in health trends.
Most of the lessons here are simple: Get exercise, meditate and eat good food. But the real money comes from the products and the classes. For two days of being told to calm your brain in the coaching class, plus nine months of virtual training, the total cost is $4,000. For a neurofeedback class called "40 Years of Zen," it's $15,000.
By the end of the conference, I'd had $40 worth of vitamins injected into my butt, drunk four cups of Bulletproof coffee and about a bottle of Fat Water, eaten a bison bar and taken so many vitamins I didn't need, my urine was a disconcerting neon color. What I took was mostly free of charge. I can't imagine what people who subscribe to the Bulletproof lifestyle consume in a day.
Get exercise, meditate and eat good food. But the real money comes from the products and the classes.
If there's one thread that ties together each face at this convention, it's transformation. Through the Bulletproof lifestyle, they're shedding their old skin and starting anew. They have a ton of energy. They look great. They spout Bulletproof mantras. They share stories of loss and redemption: Asprey made his money early, then lost it. Brendan Burchard, the presenter of the "5 Traits of High Performers" seminar, got cheated on and then nearly died in a car wreck. Their devotees are looking for answers, someone to tell them it's going to be OK. And it's here Bulletproof makes its meal.
Asprey doesn't think his legacy will die anytime soon — and he doesn't believe he will, either. His air of invincibility might come from his daily regimen of vitamins and supplements, which he describes as outnumbering Ray Kurzweil's. Or it might be that he believes humans might soon achieve biological immortality.
"I'm not afraid of death at all," he told me. "But I'm not OK with dying without my consent. I think it's totally possible for me to live until I'm 180 years old. Depending on how technology is going, I could live a lot longer than that. But if I don't live to be 180, I'll be really pissed off."