Should Strength Athletes Be Drinking Bulletproof Coffee?

Move over branched chain amino acids, citrulline, and beta alanine, there’s a new pre-workout in town: butter coffee, at least according to advocates of the Bulletproof Coffee trend.

Popularized by biohacker Dave Asprey, founder & CEO of Bulletproof, the drink favors saying goodbye to cream and sugar and adding butter and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil (a concentrated extract of a type of fat found in palm and coconut oils) to your brew instead.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Asprey created the concoction to replicate the yak-butter tea he drank while in Tibet. But now some Paleo-following CrossFitters, Ketogenic powerlifters, and grass-fed butter fanatics are adding the butter-and-oil combo to their javas, too. Those who drink the concoction anecdotally claim improvements in energy, focus, and satiety, but we dug into the science to see if buttery coffee is worth the hype.

First things first: The coffee. “Coffee doesn’t just taste good. It’s packed with essential nutrients like B vitamins, potassium, and manganese, plus it has loads of antioxidants,” Asprey says. Even before butter coffee got hot, coffee was a popular pre-workout because it’s legal, commonly consumed, naturally boosts workout performance, and no other sports nutrition ingredient has been more studied than it.

[Check out our list of best pre-workouts here!]

One small study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that drinking a cup of a joe before a workout could actually make the training session more enjoyable (not to mention that participants experienced a 60 calorie burn increase, compared to exercise with the placebo). Another study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine also found that people who drank coffee before running 1500 meters on a treadmill finished their run over 4 seconds faster than those who didn’t have coffee beforehand. And a third study published in the Journal of Pain showed that exercisers saw almost a 50% drop in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when they drank some joe.

That said, just because coffee has some reported benefits doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, says Marie Spano, MS RD CSSD CSCS. People metabolize caffeine at different rates, because how quickly caffeine leaves the body depends on a lot of things like what medicine you’re taking and how fast your metabolism is, she explains. That means caffeine may stay in your system longer or impact you differently. If for some reason java doesn’t jive with your body and it t makes you jittery, nervous, upsets your stomach, or interferes with your sleep, avoid it, she suggests.

But butter coffee isn’t just about the coffee. It’s about the butter and the MCT oil, too, say fans. The official Bulletproof coffee recipe contains two cups of single-origin coffee, at least two tablespoons of unsalted grass-fed butter (or grass-fed ghee), and one to two tablespoons of MCT oil. (Though some people use coconut oil instead.) You blend all these ingredients together into a frothy latte-like beverage.

If two plus tablespoons of butter sounds like a lot of calories, that’s because it is. “It is definitely a calorie-dense beverage. Depending on how much butter or other ingredients you’re adding to your coffee, it can be up to 400 calories in just one single serving, which comes almost entirely from the saturated fat in the butter,” Dr. Josh Axe, co-founder of Ancient Nutrition and told me. Just for point of comparison, most pre-workouts contain less than 50 calories while a grande latte with whole milk from Starbucks clocks in at 220 calories. Asprey likes to add up to six (six!) tablespoons of butter… that’s a whole lot of calories.

That said, the butter and MCT oil may have some science-backed benefits. Grass-fed butter contains a decent dose of conjugated linoleic acid, which is a type of fat. One study published in The British Journal of Nutrition found that linoleic acid can improve body composition in obese and overweight individuals when taking over a six month period. A second study published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communication found that it might even preserve muscle mass and strength.

Plus, the fat found in the butter is digested very slowly, which may help suppress athletes appetite to keep them feeling full during training. And it slows the absorption of the caffeine, which may help prolong some of the benefits of coffee (mentioned above), says Asprey.

As for the MCT oil? One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition even found that MCT consumption can lead to modest weight loss or weight maintenance, which suggests that Asprey’s weight loss is not totally bananas. And a second study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Vitaminology suggests that MCT oil may allow you to work out harder. That said, both studies had fewer than 50 participants, so more research is needed to confirm those benefits.

If you want to give the coffee a try, consider this: Most people prefer drinking it first thing in the morning, especially before an intense workout, for an extra bit of energy to help propel them through the day, according to Axe. If you’re a morning exerciser, the good news is you don’t have to wake up early because it only takes 10 minutes to start reaping the benefits of the drink, says Asprey.

Some people drink it in place of breakfast since it’s filling enough to keep you satisfied until your next meal, but if you’re a strength athlete it probably doesn’t make sense to have the beverage replace an entire meal. With its absence of complex carbs, protein and many vitamins and minerals, such a coffee in place of breakfast does not meet all the guidelines of a ‘balanced’ breakfast. So just having the beverage would mean that you’re reducing your nutrient intake and starting out the day with a whole lot of fat (50 grams to be exact, about the same amount of fat that’s in 12 egg yolks).

The lack of protein is why some add a scoop of bone broth collagen powder to butter coffee and why Asprey told me that he suggests strength athletes have the beverage with a collagen protein bar. But that protein addition doesn’t change the fact that the drink still packs a lot of saturated fat. While the research is still inconclusive about whether or not saturated fat actually play a role in heart disease, Spano says it’s best to opt for unsaturated fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocado and salmon. Plus, if you have a particularly irritable stomach, the morning fat intake could upset your GI tract.

For some strength athletes, adding a cup of Bulletproof to a well-balanced, protein-packed breakfast of eggs, whole grains, and some fruit may make sense, especially if hitting your daily calorie intake has been a struggle and you know your body operates well on fat. But for others who are trying to make weight class, in cutting season, or who have IBS, the added calories and fat may not actually help optimize performance.

The Verdict 

If you’re training long, hard, and often, the concoction is probably better for you than some other whipped, blended, and cream-topped beverages you could be drinking, and it may help keep you full and focused during training, according to science. But if you’re trying to make weight class, or cut calories, the fatty-latte probably isn’t for you.

Featured image: @lizadams21 on Instagram