you’re not biohacking, you have an eating disorder
There's a lot of bad advice about diet and exercise floating on the Internet, and it's especially problematic when this bad advice masquerades as something scientific.
In a WaPo editorial, Monica Hesse took Jack Dorsey and the tech bro brigade to task for their eating habits. Particularly, her target are the Silicon Valley tech denizens participating in the so called 5:2 eating plan, which consists of starving yourself for two days then heating as little as possible the other five. This, of course, is a terrible idea because while there may be some real benefit to intermittent fasting and caloric restriction, starving yourself for two days at a time is pretty much just anorexia. But in true tech bro hype style, they’re trying to sell the euphoria that comes from your body coping with a sudden cutoff in the calories it needs as some sort of incredible new performance enhancing routine.
Here is the really odd part though. Dorsey describes his rare meals as normal servings of lean protein with vegetables. This is generally the kind of meal most doctors recommend everyone should try to have as often as possible. As we’ve seen before, highly processed food tends to make you more predisposed towards depressive episodes and helps you pack on the pounds by tricking how your body tracks its fullness. Fresh, unprocessed, simple dishes of vegetables and lean meats, nuts, and fish are basically the kind of diet with which our ancestors evolved, and which our bodies tend to process very efficiently for their nutrients.
It’s not that he is eating bad food or doing anything new when it comes to his dinner, it’s that he took good advice and bent it to an extreme until it became an eating disorder. And that’s ultimately what we’re talking about, an eating disorder being passed off as a “biohack” that turns your mildly superhuman. But while “biohacker” sounds a lot better than “anorexic,” your body doesn’t really know the difference and malnourishment will affect its ability to absorb vitamins from food, grow and repair muscle, and keep your organs in good working order. If Dorsey just added some yogurts and protein shakes in his daily ritual and ate all seven days, he’d have a diet worthy of emulation. Unfortunately, he has decided to pretend to be an ascetic monk while slowly starving himself.
Now, if you were to ask the tech bro brigade why they chose such bizarre diets, you’ll probably be linked to a number of popular science papers and articles about the benefits of the very food restriction techniques mentioned in the beginning of this article. But as we’ve recently noted, popular science and real research can part ways, and caloric restriction techniques being touted by celebrities are supposed to be done in moderation, not as a radical crash diet that lasts until you die. The researchers in question were talking about a few hundred less calories, not over a thousand, and finding substitutes to junk food and fillers that are still satiating, nutritious, and full of vitamins.
What we’re getting isn’t science but a simplistic perversion by people who are trying too hard to meet some sort of expectation set either by society or themselves. Humans evolved to trust each other and more or less, take each other’s word. This is why we tend to trust our friends in high status individuals in our social circles. It’s a time-saving measure meant to bolster our pack bonding dynamics. But it can be used against us by scammers and snake oil salespeople preying on those who are a little too trusting and a bit too open-minded. We all just want to be healthy, they’ll, so what’s wrong with experimenting with a new idea?
They will appeal to us by misconstruing actual science and to our predisposition towards ease and simplicity by invoking terms like “organic” and “natural,” and they might believe their own shtick so much that they fall victim to it themselves. Our goal is not to fall into the same trap, to analyze claims skeptically, especially when those claims are about improving our health, and realizing that just giving a bad behavior a fancy new name doesn’t mean the underlying errors have been addressed. And while there’s nothing wrong with trying new approaches to getting or staying healthy, but that approach better be back by solid research instead of repackaging our past mistakes in a shiny, new wrapper.