Biohackers Are Turning Meals into Math Across the World
An offshoot of Silicon Valley’s ‘Quantified Self movement’, biohackers are using technology to precisely track what they consume and how it affects them. They don’t just want to look good; they seek peak physical and mental performance. But where is...
Lunch, if he has it, is steamed vegetables and grass-fed meat or fish with butter and coconut oil. Dinner is more meat or fish with a cream sauce. His diet, which consists of 50-60 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 20-30 percent vegetables, has been carefully calibrated to fuel his 19-hour waking day. He avoids inflammatory foods (trans fats, sugar, alcohol, etc.) and mycotoxins and has spent $50,000 on probiotics to date. He's also a fan of the cognitive enhancement drug, Modafinil, which he takes in doses of 50-100mg.
Asprey, a 41-year-old former tech entrepreneur from San Francisco, has become the poster boy for a very modern type of health nut: the biohacker. If there is such a thing as the perfect human diet, biohackers are hellbent on finding it. An offshoot of Silicon Valley's 'Quantified Self movement', they use technology—calorie-counting apps, smart scales (measuring seven fitness indicators including body fat percentage, BMI, skeletal muscle, resting metabolism, visceral fat, body age, and body weight), productivity recorders, blood testing kits, and graphing tools—to track precisely what they consume and how it affects them. They don't simply want to look good; they seek optimum efficiency, and peak physical and mental performance.
In the past 15 years, Asprey—who now tours the US delivering lectures on his so-called "Bulletproof Diet"—has lost 100 pounds. He says his IQ has risen more than 20 points, and that he needs just five or six hours sleep but can get by on only two.
His regime is the result of extreme self-experimentation. He's tried calorie-restriction, packing protein and consuming only liquids, measuring his body's response to each with the help of blood tests, biometric apps, heart rate monitors, skin sensors, and an EEG machine.
"I wanted to take control of my system," he says. "I pulled out all the stops."
This process cost $300,000—relatively small change to Asprey, considering he made $6 million by the age of 26. But he's not the only one at it.
On forums, hackers swap information about things like the relationship between flaxseed oil and cognitive function. There's animated debate over the best time of day to consume caffeine, the effect of veganism on libido, and whether eating honey and drinking whiskey aid sleep. Some hackers practice intermittent fasting to improve focus.
Over on Measured Me, Konstantin Augemberg, a 36-year-old market researcher, posts graphs and charts recording how full different foods make him, how they affect his pH levels, and how quickly he chews. He usually logs 15 variables at once, which he says takes him 20 minutes a day. Every few months, he analyses the results to see what improvements he could make. His body is, quite literally, a machine that he maintains like a technician.
What's the greater point of all this? "I want to see how diet affects my wellbeing and improve my mood, productivity and other aspects of my life," he says. "I'm a market researcher so decided to approach this using numbers."
Augemberg has now upped his morning fat intake to boost his energy and adopted a pattern of six light meals a day in portions of between 300 and 350 grams each—the exact right amount to fill him up. He explains how he used to cook one big meal on Sunday and eat it for lunch and dinner throughout the week so he could keep track of his calories, but unfortunately noticed that eating the same thing too many times gave him acid reflux. He's now working on introducing more variety.
If you're thinking it all sounds profoundly joyless—the reduction of food to utilitarian calculations—you're not the only one. If Soylent is the ultimate diet "hack" taken its logical conclusion, this level of diet hacking could see us all subsisting on a perfectly-balanced beige liquid at some point in the future. No faffing around with ingredients, no washing up—just a quick refuel and back to work.
What about emotion, though? So much of the enjoyment gleaned from food is attributable to time, place, and circumstance. What about ritual and culture, and, you know, taste? The tingle of sherbet, the salty crunch of just-buttered toast, the sinus-filling tang of blue cheese? Food is one of the simplest ways to squeeze pleasure out of our lives. It might be ephemeral—we chew it, digest it, then crap it out—but our experience with food deserves to be pleasurable for that very reason.
"I'll make that tradeoff to live longer," says Nick Winter, a 28-year-old biohacker from San Francisco.
Winter has tried out various tactics, including cutting and wheat and dairy, and following the "slow carb" diet. He's currently on a modified version of Bulletproof, but avoids eating too much butter because the monthly cognitive tests he takes revealed a decline in brain function. He has his blood analyzed once a year, on his birthday, and recently ditched tinned shellfish after registering high iron levels.
"Generally, people don't understand themselves well enough, and any way of increasing that is worth doing."
Perhaps that's what biohacking does, then. It might not offer much to tempt the palate, but it does pander to our innate self-obsession. It's possible the abundance of data being collected could one day aid broader medical progress, but biohacking is, however you look at it, fantastically narcissistic. The goal isn't, it seems, to try and figure out something new and groundbreaking about human beings generally—it's for biohackers to discover something about themselves. It's about rejecting gut instinct and, instead, fuelling the gut with data.
Asprey still believes it won't be long before we're all at it. "The world's a better place when people feel good," he says. "That's not going away."
It's too early to tell if he's right, but the signs are there. According to Pew Internet Research, 69 percent of Americans track at least one health indicator. There are QS meet-ups in 119 cities across the world, from London to Mumbai, and Buenos Aires.
Will this be a change for the better? Even if we reconciled ourselves to the precision and forgot about enjoyment, would a biohacked future actually be any good for our health? Never mind that there are hackers who build muscle by gorging on ice-cream and cake. As any statistician will tell you that there's a difference between causation and correlation. And while tracking our habits might alert us to genuine health concerns, there's every possibility it'll leave us chasing up all manner of spurious connections too. Like whether margarine is linked to divorce.
Perfectionism—inherent in the biohacking ethos—has been linked with anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms such as asthma. Sigrid Kronsberg, a 48-year-old marketing consultant from New York, began hacking her diet in 2011. She studied the effect of supplements on her mood, adopted a low-sugar meal plan, and drew up spreadsheets to document her micronutrient intake. She didn't feel much better. Instead, she became increasingly anxious.
"I was phobic," she says. "Each ingredient had to be perfect. I couldn't go to Thai or Indian restaurants because they use vegetable oil." Eating, she says, "became an obstacle course." So, in September last year, she quit, "Just to be able to go out and eat without worrying. It's liberating."
An overwhelming preoccupation with consuming virtuous food is considered an eating disorder—Orthorexia Nervosa, literally, "righteous eating." Scrolling through hackers' online meal logs—so time-consuming you wonder if they're expending all their newfound energy maintaining them—it can be hard to tell the difference.
And therein lies the contradiction. Many of us could do with eating better, but if the future of food really is one where every calorie is counted, every micronutrient logged, every portion weighed and analyzed, won't we be replacing one problem with another?