Silicon Valley has long been recognized as a global think tank for emerging and cutting-edge technology. This California mecca of tech disruptors is revered and relied on for its production of big ideas and ‘hacks’ that simplify processes we didn’t even know needed to be simplified. That is why when I first heard the term “Biohacking,” I thought it had something to do with cyber-security or a phone app. Instead, it refers to a variety of practices that apply ‘the tech-hacker ethos to biology.’ From hanging upside down to increase blood flow to manipulating sleep habits, Biohacking promises to promote ‘better living’ that claims to be informed by science.
Tech moguls are publicly sharing their subjective experiences with biohacking, touting extraordinary results. In a recent interview, Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey explained a nutrition-based routine he called “diet hacking” that essentially described his rigid, elimination-based eating pattern. This ‘lifestyle’ involves multiple-day fasts and has strict rules regarding when what and how to eat. Coincidentally, and quite alarmingly, these behaviors that are marketed to promote health quite closely resemble what we in the eating disorder field might call disordered eating.
Even more concerning are the claims that these leaders in Silicon Valley are making about how Diet Hacking has helped them immensely in their professional careers. Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, swears that during his fasts he feels ‘a mild euphoria’ and a ‘constant supply of energy’ that both help him to be “a better CEO.” Dorsey maintains that during his fasts, he feels ‘so much more focused.’
“What what we know about the human brain is that it is 60% fat,” Stu Koman, Ph.D., President, and CEO of Walden Behavioral Care – a national mental healthcare system specializing in the treatment of eating disorders – said. “When the body goes into starvation mode, it begins taking fat from the brain in order to continue performing vital functions like pumping blood to keep the heart beating. A consistent deficit of brain fat can lead to depression, apathy, lethargy, an inability to concentrate and other serious cognitive impairments.”
And so, scientifically speaking, restricting food actually yields the opposite effect of what we would want the brightest minds – whose beliefs and actions are held with high regard – to experience.
A recent article featured in The Atlantic eluded to the fact that the popularity of Diet Hacking is likely a result of our human tendency to gain control in a life riddled with uncertainty. In the mental health field – and within the eating disorder population specifically – we see this innate desire for control play out through restrictive, bingeing and/or purging behaviors that can cause physiological responses like numbness, euphoria and false senses of calm or relief.
“For our clients, the disordered eating behaviors are often adopted as coping skills used to manage uncomfortable thoughts or feelings,” Koman said. “Similar to the responses that many of these tech moguls described during their fasts, these behaviors may work in the short-term, but can cause serious long-term physical and psychological complications.”
The insidious nature of our diet culture has made starvation (and by definition, anorexia) a revered state that should garner the envious “Oh, I wish I had your dedication” statements or the naïve “if it ‘worked’ for you, it will ‘work’ for me” declarations. Diet Hacking, and the influencers blindly endorsing related practices, further substantiate what the eating disordered brain maintains; to be liked, successful, worthy…you have to look, act – or eat – in a certain way.
So what should we make of the Diet Hacking phenomenon and how can we protect ourselves from similar messages that get delivered to us every day? Koman recommends a “buyer beware” attitude before committing to any kind of eating modification – especially without consultation from a medical and/or psychological professional.
“Of course we are not saying that everyone who practices this type of eating behavior has or will develop an eating disorder,” Koman finished. “But for someone who has the genetic predisposition, engaging in this type of ‘lifestyle’ is like playing Russian roulette. Influencers like CEOs of huge tech enterprises have an inherent obligation to ensure that their endorsements reflect appropriate behavior that we would want our children emulating – this lifestyle does the opposite.”
Natalie Cohen is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Walden Behavioral Care. In this role, she is responsible for the internal and external communications for the company including social media, newsletters, website copy and marketing collateral. She is a founding member of Walden’s LGBTQ Task Force which continues to guide Walden in maintaining inclusive and affirming care practices. Natalie earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in Orono. In her free time, she enjoys practicing yoga, doting on her dogter Bella and trying out new restaurants in the Boston area.