Stories from Food and Nutrition

Why Do We Keep Taking Nutrition Advice From Silicon Valley?

Erin Bunch

Erin BunchMarch 6, 2020

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Twitter founder Jack Dorsey drinks salt juice every morning and eats just once a day. Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey loads his coffee with butter, engages in 60-hour intermittent fasts, and continuously monitors his blood glucose levels (despite an absence of diabetes). Silicon Valley psychologist Cameron Sepah, PhD, encourages his venture capitalist clients to engage in “dopamine fasts.” Some tech entrepreneurs eschew a full night of shut-eye for 20-minute naps scattered throughout the day. Many adhere to a ketogenic diet, regularly microdose psilocybin (aka ‘shrooms), and/or utilize at least one wearable health-tracking device daily.

Ten years ago, most of this might have seemed extreme. And some of it still is today—you would be very, very (very) hard-pressed to find any health expert who would recommend going multiple days without food or sleep. But many of the rest of these once-fringe habits have leaked out from Silicon Valley into the mainstream to, in some cases, be widely adopted with fervor. (Hello, Bulletproof coffee.) It seems not to matter to the general public that few of the above-named people are formally trained in medicine, science, or nutrition—whatever it is they’re doing, we seem to think we should be doing it, too.

This health-guru status Silicon Valley folks have acquired in modern times is attributable to many factors, some as old as human nature and others specific to this innovative industry. Keep reading to unpack the reasons you may look to a programmer for diet advice over your own doctor, and find out if this strategy is foolish, wise, or meh, aka worth a shot?

The rise of Silicon Valley as a health and nutrition incubator

The tech industry is known for being on the cutting edge, and this forward-thinking approach is no longer limited to, says, computer programming or iPhone development. “The world looks to Silicon Valley for the latest and greatest in everything,” says Dr. Sepah. “That starts with technology, but there’s a considerable amount of health- and wellness-related companies that come out of here as well that blur the line between health-care and technology.”

It makes sense that consumers might be thirsty for what’s next from the capital of iteration and innovation. “Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of experimentation for 50 years, and we have this history of hacking,” Asprey tells me. “The same kind of people who would have said, 30 years ago, ‘I built a ham radio all by myself in my garage,’ and then they would have said, ‘I built my own computer and I’ve started writing my own operating system,’ now, these are the same people saying ‘I decided I wanted to raise my IQ’—it’s just it’s a natural evolution of that ‘How do I make everything better?’ mentality that’s at the core of Silicon Valley.”

The various tech booms of the past three decades have created their own crop of Silicon Valley celebrities like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk—people who are famous and revered for their inventions rather than their music, TV, or film roles. “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have become the new superheroes,” Asprey says. But unlike other celebs we’ve idolized in the past, Dr. Sepah argues that these Silicon Valley “heroes” have more credibility to be giving advice and intel. “The type of person, psychographically, who comes to Silicon Valley is generally incredibly intelligent and incredibly hard-working,” he says. (Or at least, that’s the stereotype.)

Michael Fishman, leader of the Consumer Health Summit, adds that these folks have a reputation for being problem solvers—quick to iterate on something that’s working, or not. “People in Silicon Valley tend to be looking at not just what’s trendy but what is measurably effective. They’re good detectives, good vetters of the things that are coming out, and then they put things to the test in their own bodies. So it’s not a terrible group of people to at least observe and see what they are paying attention to,” Fishman says. (It doesn’t hurt that when the head of a social media company like Twitter tweets something, it’s inherently viral. Few doctors or nutritionists have the same advantage in educating the masses.)

“It’s a natural evolution of that, ‘How do I make everything better?’ mentality that’s at the core of Silicon Valley.” —Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof

And while you can’t exactly hack Elon Musk’s IQ, for example, it’s powerful to think that one could be like him (or any other Silicon Valley pro) just by copying his diet, exercise regimen, sleep habits, etc. “If somebody famous buys a $40 million home, most of us can’t emulate that; however, if somebody famous is eating in a particular way, it’s almost like we feel closer to that person because we can do something that they’re also doing,” says Fishman. “It’s the halo effect or osmosis or whatever you would call it—you almost feel like you could you now take on some of the other ‘super powers’ that that person has [by copying them].”

The fixation on Silicon Valley also coincides with a larger, current mistrust of larger, government-funded organizations—many of which shape public guidelines surrounding health and nutrition. A 2019 Pew Research Center report found that 75 percent of Americans think that their fellow Americans’ trust in the federal government is shrinking. Just think about people who are skeptical of vaccines despite federal health agencies emphasizing their safety, or people writing off research about the safety of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) because those studies were funded by the government. “I have a thesis that the public vacillates its trust between institutions and individuals, and right now the public doesn’t trust institutions,” says Dr. Sepah. “That’s why you see the rise of gurus which, you know, gurus have literally existed for thousands of years, but right now they’re especially popular and social media just amplifies them.”

Asprey tends to agree with this read, and employs it as a defense of the health trends he and his cohorts are popularizing. The alternative to paying attention to what founder-fluencers like himself are proselytizing, he argues, is to blindly follow government guidelines, which he points out are funded by food and industrial lobbies. Having been disenchanted by the latter, it makes sense that people might look to people outside that system for dietary and lifestyle guidance. “I can tell you intermittent fasting is better than the recommended daily breakfast that the government recommends full of grains and oils and skim milk and whatever other cheap stuff we can grow in our land,” he says. People should be disgusted with the information they’ve received so far, he says, and expect better. “It’s [Silicon Valley’s] job to deliver more,” Asprey insists.

Rebranding health as a productivity hack

What’s especially revolutionary about the way Silicon Valley techies approach health is that, unlike doctors, they are less interested in curing disease and more interested in turning themselves into efficient machines that never get sick to begin with. The promise of this, in a productivity-obsessed culture, is hard to resist.

“When I started the Bulletproof blog, I was like, ‘No one has ever spoken to my people,'” says Asprey. He would see marketing-speak about being faster and stronger, but not necessarily more effective or smarter. “I was like, ‘Actually, I don’t really want that. I want to be a reasonable body weight, but I want to be whip-smart, I want my brain to be turned on, I want to solve problems because it makes me happy.” There was no language for what he terms his “tribe,” so he created one. “As far as I can tell, I’m the first person to say, ‘You should hack your health,’ and it was very disruptive even just nine years ago when I started,” he says. “[Before then], upgrading yourself would have been this egotistical, arrogant thing rather than a modern manifestation of personal development.”

“Silicon Valley is ultimately performance-oriented,” agrees Dr. Sepah. “The type of clients that I see in my private practice are, like, predominately CEOs or Venture Capitalists who are highly, highly competitive and they’ll do anything to have an edge—so I think they’re drawn to experimenting with different techniques to ultimately help them perform better, too.” So, he says, if someone is likewise performance-oriented, they might look to emulate leaders in Silicon Valley. “They say, ‘Wow, they’re able to create these huge companies in very little amount of time, so there’s obviously something they’re doing in terms of productivity and performance that’s working,'” Dr. Sepah says.

Asprey tells me that even though the tech world is overwhelmingly male—and hacking, at least to me, seems like a hyper-masculine pursuit—women actually seem the most receptive to this reframing of good health as optimized productivity. Why? Because even in 2020, they’re (generally speaking) doing the bulk of the domestic work in addition to managing careers, and they need to be well-oiled machines in order to accomplish it all.

However, it can also be said that this reframing is often used as a clever way to market or rebrand existing concepts. I ask Sepah if “dopamine fasting,” where a person temporarily abstains from technology, social interaction, sex, and other habits to “reset” their dopamine levels, isn’t just a way of making obvious concepts seem new and viral. (After all, tech detoxes and other such means of shutting down stimuli are not novel ideals.) He surprises me by saying yes. “Of course, and that’s why I chose it on purpose—I’m trying to help as many people across the country as possible,” he says. “I try to make some of the techniques, or at least light versions of the techniques, from things like cognitive behavioral therapy, available to people en masse.”

The limitations of Silicon Valley on your health and wellness

Confession: I tend to be team science when it comes to diet and health, which means I do not glom on to every trend that crosses my desk. I tend to be skeptical, in other words, of the evangelism of founder-fluencers.

Valter Longo, PhD, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, is similarly wary. “Part of the problem has to do with the lack of understanding about the safety concerns [with diet and health advice]—there’s this almost delusion that no matter what you do, it’s not going to hurt you,” he says. “We’re already seeing the consequences of that, but I think it’s going to get worse because people are improvising lots of different unproven technologies, but also sometimes they’re also very naive technologies.” By this he means that some of this diet or lifestyle advice reflects a somewhat basic understanding of the complex, nuanced science behind something like, say, ketogenesis.

Dr. Longo also worries that because most founder-fluencers are not doctors or health-care practitioners, they are unencumbered by liability. “Most of the time, they don’t have the responsibility of making sure nobody is hurt; and if they had this liability, I think they would think very differently,” he says. “In my clinical trial, if somebody gets hurt, they’re going to come looking for me.”

Asprey passionately counters this narrative, however. For starters, he says that a lot of what he’s doing is getting people off unhealthy-by-consensus diets. “Right now, I’m dealing with 3 million people, most of whom eat French fries from fast food restaurants a couple times a week,” he says. “We have abundant evidence that’s bad for you, so I’m gonna tell you not to do it.”

Plus, he says, many people don’t have years of life to lose while they wait for the results of clinical trials to come in. “People in pain, people like me who are 300 pounds, who have brain fog, who got arthritis before they were 30, who are diagnosed as having a high risk of dying from stroke and heart attack at 29, we’re not going to wait—we’re suffering and we’re going to die,” he says. “That’s why Silicon Valley has won for 50 years, because we don’t wait, we’re impatient.”

“Whether you’re taking your advice from a famous personality or tech founder or a medical professional, you want it to be on the cutting edge of what’s best for you personally versus what’s trending or what’s popular.” —Michael Fishman, leader of the Consumer Health Summit

Dr. Sepah also feels that the media tends to sensationalize and demonize any trend coming out of Silicon Valley, even if it’s not all that controversial. “When Jack Dorsey was doing intermittent fasting, the media went off on him and said he’s promoting starvation and eating disorders and all this nonsense, which, if you actually talk to people who use intermittent fasting in the clinical community, there’s a copious amount of science behind it,” he says. (It should be noted that Dorsey’s form of intermittent fasting reportedly involves one meal per day on weekdays and no food at all on weekends—something that is typically not recommended by most health experts.)

Still, Asprey says he’s the first to admit that diet is personal; that you can’t just take exactly what someone else is doing and expect the same results. Instead, it should be seen as more akin to a general guide or inspiration. “Everyone who is alive is doing [diet/nutrition] without a map, but we can at least tell you which way is north on the map and tell you to walk in that direction if that’s where you want to go,” he says. From there, it’s all about personal experimentation. It’s for this reason he’s invested in Viome, a microbiome-testing company—he believes the key to optimal health is personalization. (Again, it should be noted that Asprey has no formal medical or nutrition background; he has a Master of Business Administration.)

Fishman agrees, and says that personalization is the future of health. “Whether you’re taking your advice from a famous personality or tech founder or a medical professional, you want it to be on the cutting edge of what’s best for you personally versus what’s trending or what’s popular.”

This advice essentially describes biohacking, which, whether you like it or not, is a concept that originated in Silicon Valley but has since been appropriated by wellness industry professionals like Alisa Vitti (founder of period tracking app MyFlo), Ellen Jorgensen (biologist and founder of biohacking lab GenSpace) and Jasmina Aganovic (president of skin-care brand Mother Dirt). We may be drawn to its NorCal proponents because they’ve got a superhuman Robert Downey Jr.-as-Iron Man appeal, but the idea of following personalized diet and lifestyle advice, while somewhat novel, is not exactly the stuff of science fiction.

In other words, the overarching idea behind the advice coming from Silicon Valley may just be solid. Living off butter, 20-minute naps, and ‘shrooms likely isn’t the way of all of us (despite years of evangelizing to the contrary), but we can take a page from the biohackers’ book by working to “optimize” our own health.

On the personalization tip, customized vitamins are now very much a thing—should you buy in? You can get personalized mattresses for optimal sleep, too.

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