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.
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.
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.
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.
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We all read labels at varying magnitudes of scrutiny, but unless you have a degree in organic chemistry, you can't possibly be expected to recognize everything that's in today's food unless you've ripped it out of the ground yourself.
Unfortunately, you can't rely solely on the FDA to protect you from rogue additives. A study published last year by the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that 35% of ingredient approvals over the preceding 15 years were evaluated by food companies or their paid consultants—without FDA guidance.
That doesn't necessarily signify foul play, but when the health effects of the foods we eat are judged by the companies selling them, it makes label vigilance even more imperative. That can mean discovering that your favorite snack food has powdered bug skulls in it, but it can also mean learning that the additive you've always avoided because it sounds like a Star Wars villain is actually (Darth) innocuous.
With that in mind, the following food ingredients are generally harmless despite their nefarious names. Keep in mind, this doesn't mean they're safe for all— those with specific dietary aversions may experience difficulties not encountered by the rest of us, so make sure you're not averse before consuming.
Uses: Thickens, stabilizes, and emulsifies.
What is it? A powder obtained from kelp and…wait for it…algae! (Hence the name.)
What it's in: Ice cream, salad dressing, beer (to ensure foaminess).
Uses: Added nutrient and preservative against rancidity.
What is it? A form of vitamin E most commonly extracted from soybean oil.
What it's in: Cereals, vegetable oils, nut butters.
Uses: Converts starch to sugar, helps dough rise, and extends product shelf life.
What is it? You're consuming it right now. It's an enzyme that's derived from swine pancreas or mold mushrooms and is also found in saliva—your saliva.
What it's in: Baked goods, cereal, juice, spirits.
Uses: Thickens and prevents crystallization. It's derived from woody parts and cell walls of plants. If, for some reason, that bothers you, rest easy knowing it's fiber, so it's unabsorbed.
What is it? An additive derived from the cellulose of plants and trees. Please don't ask us to type it again.
What it's in: Frozen desserts, jellies, icing, wine.
Ascorbic acid: A color stabilizer and nutrient added to fruit juice, chewing gum, and canned fruit, it's a more frightening way to say vitamin C.
Citric acid: Used mostly as a tart flavoring and natural preservative in soft drinks, sorbet, candy, and powdered drinks, it's derived from citrus and other fruit.
Malic acid: A tart, fruity flavoring in wine, fruit drinks, yogurt, and candy, it's what makes green apples sour and is also found in grapes.
Pantothenic acid: It's vitamin B5, which is added to beverages and breakfast cereal, and is found naturally in meat, vegetables, grains, legumes, eggs, and milk.
Sorbic acid: An anti-mold agent used to preserve cheese, jelly, wine, and other foods, it's an unsaturated fatty acid that occurs naturally in plants.
Uses: Added nutrient.
What is it? Vitamin B6, the way riboflavin is vitamin B2. It can be harvested from many foods including rice, soybeans, and liver, but when used as an additive, it's usually synthetic.
What it's in: Cereals, instant breakfasts, health-food bars, energy drinks.
Uses: Mold prevention.
What is it? An antifungal mineral that's naturally produced in the body, but when used as an additive is synthesized chemically. Sodium propionate is another form, only sodium-er.
What it's in: Baked goods, dairy products like butter, cheese, spreads.
Locust bean (carob) gum: A sweetener and thickener used in frozen desserts, sauces, diet foods, and as a chocolate substitute. It comes from the Mediterranean carob tree.
Xanthan gum: Added as a thickener/emulsifier in baked goods, yogurt, and creamy condiments; it's the product of bacteria and fermented sugar.
Guar gum: It texturizes baked goods, stabilizes soups and sauces, thickens dairy products, and waterproofs explosives. Extracted from guar beans.
(Acacia) gum Arabic: Like the other gums, it thickens foods like pudding, frosting, candy, and chewing gum, and is a water-soluble fiber derived from acacia trees.
Uses: Added nutrient and prevention against rancidity (basically, a preservative).
What is it? A compound of ascorbic and palmitic acids aided by yeast enzymes that ends up being absorbed as vitamin C and fat energy.
What it's in: Breads, crackers, cookies.
Uses: Thickens, texturizes, and occasionally sweetens starchy foods.
What is it? A modestly-sweet sugar derived by boiling down rice, corn, or potato starch, then adding acids and/or enzymes to break it down some more.
What it's in: Baked goods, chips, cereal, energy bars.
Uses: Flavoring, particularly berry and vanilla.
What is it? A secretion extracted from castor sacs on the back end of a beaver. (Don't worry, we're getting to the harmless part.) If that freaks you out, wait until we tell you where chicken eggs come from. Get past it; it's generally recognized as safe.
What it's in: Baked goods, candy, chewing gum, frozen dairy products. Only about 300 to 1,000 pounds of it is used overall in the U.S. per year.
"What's a good workout if you have bad knees?" – Martha W.
"Bad knees" is a broad term, but in general, the more you can work your knees, the stronger they will get. Unfortunately, this turns into a Catch-22 when your knees hurt during exercise. You need to exercise to relieve the pain, but the pain is caused by exercise.
The key is patience. Seek expert medical advice and follow the rehab exercises they give you. Then, when you're ready, return to your regularly scheduled activity, following the advice of your therapist. If that activity happens to be a Beachbody® program, you'll find additional advice below.
Here's a five-step rehabilitation plan to help with those aching knees.
Step 1 – Talk to your doctor. Some doctors, whether through laziness or fear of liability, shell out advice akin to "if it hurts, don't do it." Unfortunately, most of us have knee pain at some point in life. If we don't work through it, the situation gets worse.
Regardless of your doc's optimism, your rehabilitation begins with a diagnosis. That's why you need a doctor. Whether your knee pain is debilitating or just nagging, it's well worth your time to find out exactly what is going on. The alternative solution is trial and error—and that can make your knees worse.
Step 2 – Do your rehab. No matter what your problem is, your doctor will recommend some physical therapy (PT). Like doctors, some PTs are better than others, but do what they say regardless. Even archaic protocols shouldn't hurt you. A good PT will just push you harder and take you further. Either way, you must do your PT before moving on. I know, it's boring (everyone says this), but if you're serious about fixing your knee issues you need to take this step seriously. It's the foundation for everything else!
Step 3 – Think holistically. Most chronic knee problems don't begin with your knee. Unless you've had an acute injury, most knee (and back) pain radiate from imbalances in your pelvic girdle (your hips). The simple exercises and stretches in these videos should be incorporated into your regimen as soon as you're cleared from your PT. Hopefully, they're similar to what you've been doing with your therapist.
Step 4 – Assess your doctor's clearance advice. This is where the steps diverge, as all knee issues are not the same. Eliminating knee pain follows a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" rationale, meaning that the more you're able to handle training-wise, the quicker and more effective your comeback will be. Along with that advice, however, is the more important logic that you don't want to reinjure your knee. That is first and foremost, and should dictate all of your actions.
For simplicity sake, we'll use the two most-common diagnoses: 1) You are cleared for any activity, and 2) Avoid anything that puts excessive stress on your knees, like running.
Step 5, part A – If you are "cleared for any activity." Congrats! Go start exercising! However, if you want to make sure this doesn't happen again, I strongly recommend a round of P90X2®, by far Beachbody's most effective workout program for knee issues. It's designed around protocols used to keep professional athletes on the field—and keeping knees healthy is the biggest challenge they face. The program targets stabilization, especially in the hip area, and building a super-solid foundation.
Whether or not you're fit enough for X2 is a different discussion. It has an extremely modified version (hotel room modifications), so you can do the program if you aren't super-fit, but it's still very advanced. If you're in reasonable shape, this would be your go-to. If you are unsure, try the P90X® Fit Test, which you'll find here. If you can handle P90X, you should be fine with P90X2.
If you can't do the Fit Test, start with an easier program (see below). Body weight is stress for your knees, and losing extra weight will function in the same way as making your body stronger. So even if you're cleared for anything, if you have a lot of weight to lose, pretend you're cleared for limited activity.
Step 5, part B – If you are "cleared for limited activity." Again, congratulations! (Sort of.) This diagnosis usually happens after an acute injury or for those who've ignored pain for years and lost knee cartilage. You still have the same biomechanical goals of stabilizing your body, but you have to be more careful about how you do it.
Almost any Beachbody entry program might be right for building knee strength in this situation, depending on the severity of your condition. The rule to think on is this: Whatever you do that doesn't make you worse, makes you better. So every time you finish a workout without pain, or pain worse than you already have (if you're at a constant dull level of pain but still cleared to move), you're improving your ability to eliminate the pain altogether. Also, every pound you lose is less stress on your knees, which will help lessen strain, and, thus, pain. So watch your diet, and move as much as you can. Your body will respond in kind.
Here's a rundown and synopsis of some options to consider, from easiest to hardest.
Tai Cheng®– This is a great mobility and stabilization program that almost anyone can do. Downside is that it won't burn many calories or quickly change your body composition. Upside is that, no matter who you are, it will improve your knee issues.
21 Day Fix® – Currently, Beachbody's best entry-level, knee-friendly program for those who need to lose some weight. While there is some jumping in this program, and even a "plyo" workout, there are always modifiers you can follow.
Hip Hop Abs® – This predecessor to INSANITY® takes jumping out of the equation, combining basic hip hop (you don't need to know how to dance) and a lot of ab and hip work in the entry-level weight loss program.
Brazil Butt Lift® – There is some light jumping, and a lot of squatting, but if you can handle it, this program focuses on your butt and hips and greatly improves the stability of your pelvic girdle. This makes your body "track" better, reducing the strain on your knees.
Body Beast® – Controlled weight training is a great way to change your body composition without putting a lot of stress on your knees. If you want to lose weight, don't follow the "bodybuilding" focus of the nutrition guide. You can both lose weight and strengthen your knees effectively pumping iron with Sagi.
PiYo® – Chalene Johnson's combination of yoga and Pilates is great for hip stability and core strength, both vital for combating knee pain, making it a good choice for those who don't have specific ACL/MCL (or lateral) knee issues, as there is a lot of twisting at speed.
P90X3® – While it's a hard program, you can modify every move in every workout and have it serve as an effective entry point. This program, like X2, builds a super-solid foundation. It lacks the specified stabilization movements (because it doesn't use stability balls) but that also makes it a bit easier to adapt to.
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†Results may vary. Exercise and proper diet are necessary to achieve and maintain weight loss and muscle definition.
Please consult with a physician before beginning any exercise program.
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