Biohacking, Intermittent Fasting & Eating Disorders

Updated: Feb 13

The first thing I saw in any relation to biohacking was an article about a Swedish gentleman who had gotten a chip implanted in his hand so that he could contactlessly pay through there. While the first thing that came to mind was the hit dystopian television show Black Mirror, my opinion on the matter remains fairly neutral. It was only upon scrolling through Twitter that I saw a tweet from the website’s founder that led me to question the movement. Jack Dorsey, a certified ‘tech bro’ and CEO of Twitter and Square, tweeted out that he “recently did a 3 day water fast,” and regularly fasts for 22 hours. While Dorsey’s neutral tone did not exactly promote fasting, he certainly made an attempt to normalise it. Dorsey, ranked #168 in the Forbes 400, while also maintaining a fashionable and attainable look (unlike many of the Kardashians, he is what we might call a relatable billionaire), was leaning into intermittent fasting, a feature of biohacking that is linked to losing weight.

Describing himself as the “father of biohacking,” David Asprey asserts that we should be fasting for 8-12 hours a day to achieve our full potential. A quick view of his five tips regarding biohacking shows the less noble aim of the video - not for his viewer to achieve the full potential of their minds and bodies, but to buy his products. A quick visit to his blog reveals a typical ‘What I eat in a day’ post, two of the three meals containing his name-brand products (and links to where we can buy them). It should be noted that none of the products on Asprey’s website have been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Association. Furthermore, Asprey’s focus on butter and red meat is advised against by the American Heart Association.

Of course, a quick search of Asprey’s name on the Biohacking reddit forums shows that many are aware of his marketing ploys - denouncing him as someone simply trying to make money (I am inclined to agree). However, another read through the forum brings up another name - Wim Hof. Known most prominently for as ‘The Iceman’, Hof’s diet tricks could not be any more different to Asprey’s. Hof has been a vegetarian for 25 years, arguing that it increases compassion and that the genetic modification of animals is harmful to our diets. “They have an iron-arm (lacking) diet - they feel rotten,” he explains. Hof is also against the use of supplements, something that further sets him apart from Asprey.

What the two men have in common, however, is their use of intermittent fasting. Hof fasts for 16-hours a day. While this dwarfed Dorsey’s 22 hours, it is still a considerable amount of time to not eat for, especially when living an active lifestyle. Intermittent fasting is done to become more focused - therefore using your brain’s full potential.

Personally, this comes as no surprise - the hyper-obsessive symptoms I experienced when I was in the worst bout of my anorexia sound no different to the euphoric symptoms reported by biohackers as a result of fasting.

I am sure that if a supermodel announced that she recommended fasting for 16 hours a day she would (and quite rightly so) be criticised for promoting unhealthy eating habits to an impressionable audience - the girls and young women that might follow her social media, for example.

So why is it that these figures, whose words are engineered to attract young men, are not met with the same criticism?

Biohacking portrays an attractive fantasy to any aspiring ‘tech bro’ - the term alone brings to mind superheroes like Tony Stark, or visionaries like Elon Musk.

As the previously mentioned character stars in multiple films, and the latter tech genius makes headline after headline, the fantasy that is being sold becomes more popular. The term ‘dieting’ - now almost feminine as it is linked to products like weight-watchers or Slim fast that are marketed to women - is outdated.

The term itself— Biology + Hacking— brings to mind a step towards a highly scientific future, not unlike the society written about by Bethke in his 1983 short story Cyberpunk.

Our entertainment industry further sells these ideas - with major blockbusters like Alita: Battle Angel (2018) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) presenting these Cyberpunk themes on the big screen. Cyberpunk 2077 is set to come out in April of this year, and its announcement at E3 2019 lead to the game having more pre-orders than the third edition of The Witcher. The announcement was presented by Keanu Reeves, long established in Science-Fiction due to his role as Neo in The Matrix. Cyberpunk - and science fiction, as a whole - are massive genres that continue to inspire people on a daily basis, and I am of the opinion that the positives of the genre outweigh the negatives.

However, we must look at Biohacking and the results of these genres with a critical eye.

The eating behaviours associated with the 90s ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic, promoted in part by supermodel Kate Moss and characters like Mia Wallace, may well be called intermittent fasting. Moss once said

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”(and has since retracted this statement) - emphasising on restraining oneself around food in pursuit of thinness. The grungy, cool lifestyle that was associated with heroin-chic further helped to encourage starving oneself. Role models like Courtney Love (whose constant battering by the media was of no help to her own personal struggles) were hounded by the media, and perhaps inadvertently made the lifestyle more dramatic. Of course, the cause of eating disorders cannot be linked only to celebrities - and it is ridiculous to suggest that Moss and Love caused anyone to develop anorexia or bulimia. However, this glamorisation might have triggered pre-existing issues to surface in these disorders.

Like Heroin-chic, biohacking sells a fantasy that appeals greatly with its demographic. To biohack is to achieve mastery over the mind and body, and use them to their full potential. Case, in Gibson’s Neuromancer, gets over his drug addiction through body modification, for example. We see technology greats like Dorsey linking excessive fasting to being more focused and sleeping better (on Ben Greenfield’s podcast), while also dismissing the fact that "The first time I did it, [on] like day three, I felt like I was hallucinating…”. The unhealthy effects of intermittent fasting are glossed over by Dorsey, and are dwarfed in comparison to the positives of achieving his brain’s full limit.

This idea of achieving ‘your full potential’ seems linked to hustle culture, a trend that emphasises putting as much time as possible into your professional life - even if it is to the detriment of your health.

Elon Musk’s tweet that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week” is a rebellion against the normal hours set out by employers, challenging his audience (mostly young men) to invest more time into their professional life in order to change the world. If intermittent fasting is practiced by greats like Dan Zigmond (Facebook’s director of analytics) and Paul Benigeri (tech developer at HVMN), it must play a role in their genius and productivity.

Social learning theory suggests that we are more likely to imitate the behaviour of someone we perceive as similar to us, most prominently the behaviour of someone who is the same gender as us. Therefore, men are more likely to be affected by the fasting routines of Dorsey or Hof. When considering the lack of concern towards disordered eating behaviour in males, the dangers of the culture around intermittent fasting become much more prominent.

Furthermore, the way in which Asprey in particular presents his diet appears mostly catered to men. Asprey writes that “trying to lose weight when your testosterone levels are that of a teenage girl is obviously not going to work” when addressing problems that his customers might have with the bulletproof diet. In this statement, he demeans those who take issue with his diet - placing the grown men consuming his content down to the level of teenage girls, simply because of low testosterone levels. Asprey’s packaging is meticulously designed - with futuristic names like “Brain Octane Oil” and sharp, simple packaging whose use of orange is somewhat similar to the interface in Square Enix’s Mankind Divided.

The products in Asprey’s shop would not look out of place in a cyberpunk universe, selling a futuristic fantasy that promises young men the ability to reach their full potential.

If a teenage boy takes on this advice — fasting for 16–22 hours or placing great focus on what he is eating — there would most likely be some concern as to if he had an eating disorder. And yet, the celebrities that promote these eating behaviours are by no means discouraged by the effects that they might have on their fans.

I am certainly no psychologist, and therefore cannot fully link Asprey, Hof or Dorsey’s behaviours to eating disorders. However, the double standard between how we view eating behaviour in males and females is only further perpetrated by the rise of intermittent fasting. Biohacking sells a fantasy— and this should only give us further reason to question the movement and continue speaking up about eating disorders in men.




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