Is Bulletproof Coffee As Magical As People Say It Is?

There was a time about nine years ago, when putting butter in your coffee was a zany, kind of disgusting thing to do. Then Bulletproof coffee, as "butter coffee" was later trademarked, caught on to CrossFitters looking for a way to stay energized during intense workouts, and the beverage graduated to a cult-level trend.
These days, Bulletproof coffee is still going strong in certain wellness circles. Hannah Bronfman, for example, told Goop she drinks her matcha and chai Bulletproof-style because it "keeps my brain on fuego all day." And Busy Phillipps said she's obsessed with drinking a Bulletproof concoction that includes collagen powder and sometimes vanilla every morning. Clearly, the Bulletproof hype is not melting away anytime soon. The question is: What exactly are people drinking, and does it live up to the hype?
Bulletproof coffee is a mixture of coffee brewed from "low-toxin" beans, unsalted grass-fed butter or ghee, and something called "Brain Octane Oil," Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof, explains in an email. Unlike a plain cup of java, Bulletproof coffee supposedly provides "unbelievable, sustained all-day energy and focus with a complete lack of food cravings and hunger, without the coffee crash and jitters," Asprey says. While those effects may sound intriguing to any caffeine-drinker, there are a few important things you should know about the ingredients that go into Bulletproof coffee.
Butter contains high levels of fat, which is what makes it so tasty. When your body is introduced to fat, ghrelin (aka "the hunger hormone") is suppressed, says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in New York City. In theory, if you drink a cup of Bulletproof coffee first thing in the morning, you're less likely to experience normal mid-morning hunger pangs. To be clear, confusing your body into thinking you're satisfied is not really something to aim for, because it flips the intuitive eating concept — that you should honor your hunger cues — on its head. (Also, like, we need to crave and eat food to survive.) Nevertheless, hunger-suppression is a big selling point for people who are into the Bulletproof life.
As for the "Brain Octane Oil," Asprey says it's a rare extract of coconut oil that, when added to coffee, "fuels your body in a way other fats can't."
Sound vague and confusing? Brain Octane Oil is a strain of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which are naturally occurring fatty acids. According to the Bulletproof website, their MCT oil is "100% pure coconut oil, cleaned with activated charcoal, and refined using only heat, water, and pressure." In other words, "MCTs are extremely processed, and if taken as an oil, is considered a supplement," Lockwood says. MCTs are also water soluble, which means they are absorbed directly into your cells and liver. According to Bulletproof advocates, this factor is why Brain Octane Oil is such a great energy source — but there's a catch.
Many people consume MCTs for weight loss, because they are digested rapidly. However, that can translate to some uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms for some people. "Your body is meant to digest real solid foods, and this coffee concoction runs straight through you, literally," Lockwood says.
See what I'm getting at here? I was initially stoked to try Bulletproof coffee, because it sounded like it would taste kind of good. I drank one of Bulletproof's packaged cold brew drinks one morning in lieu of my usual brewed cup of coffee, and it tasted fine, maybe a little creamier, saltier, and richer than if you were to use almond milk. Then my stomach decided to revolt.
At first, I felt pangs in my abdomen like a cramp, then a hangover-like nausea came over me, and you can guess what else happened. Bulletproof's rep tells me that this is a normal side effect of taking in too much MCT oil to soon, "as your body adjusts lipase production (a digestive enzyme that breaks down fats) to match the high-energy fuel you're taking in." They recommended eating food along with the Brain Octane Oil next time, and said to "stick with it."
Ultimately, I did not stick with it, because it just didn't seem worth the pain. I also didn't notice any changes in my energy level throughout the day, so that sealed the deal for me.
According to Lockwood, Bulletproof coffee is not a great idea for everyone. Some studies suggest that consuming MCTs may increase "bad cholesterol." Considering some people have higher lipid levels than others (due to genetics, environment, or stress), "it could be risky to introduce excessive saturated fat to someone with a predisposition to hyperlipidemia or cardiovascular disease," Lockwood says. Given that, it's wise to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian who can determine whether regularly drinking Bulletproof coffee is a good idea for you.
TL;DR While the Bulletproof bandwagon may seem appealing, the so-called health benefits are hazy at best. Bulletproof coffee, like most health trends, is not a magic potion that's going to solve all of your nutrition concerns for the rest of your life. If you like the taste of butter in your coffee, that's understandable — butter tastes good! But if you're drinking butter in the morning in place of food, so you don't feel hunger, you may want to rethink why you're drinking it in the first place. The truth is, you're probably better off eating a balanced breakfast full of nutrients than forgoing solids just for sake of a trend.

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series