If you're like the majority of Americans — 64 percent, according to the National Coffee Association — you rely on that first cup of coffee to get you going each morning. Well, devotees of Bulletproof coffee, the trendy drink that infamously introduced butter to brew, claim the stuff can give you even more, and longer-lasting, energy.
Let's face it — most of us would gladly chug movie-theater-popcorn-flavored java by the gallon if it were true. So, is it?
Understanding Energy and Calories
The supercharged brew that's been taking the fitness and nutrition world by storm for the past several years boasts a number of benefits, from increased satiety to a sharper brain.
But its energizing properties might be the toughest to prove (or debunk), and not just because there haven't been a ton of studies on it yet. "You can't really measure increased energy, so it's hard to get an objective take on it," says Carolyn Land Williams, PhD, RD.
In the simplest terms, energy comes from the calories we consume. More calories (and Bulletproof coffee, which contains both butter and oil, can have upwards of 400 per cup) means more fuel for your body. "If you're used to drinking your coffee black, then yeah, you'll have more energy because you're consuming significantly more calories," says Leslie Bonci, RD, a Pittsburgh-based nutritionist. Eating too much, however, can have the opposite effect, as your body diverts blood to your digestive system and away from other parts, like your muscles and brain. We've all experienced the post-meal food coma.
Getting the "Right" Calories for Energy
Where those calories come from makes a difference, too. Carbohydrates tend to be digested more quickly than fats and protein, which sounds great energy-wise. The problem is, later on in the digestive process, they can wreck havoc on your blood sugar, leading to lethargy and hunger. For those reasons, the traditional dietary advice has been to eat a "mixed meal" consisting of carbs, protein, and some healthy fat for the most sustained energy.
But diets including Paleo and the ketogenic diet focus on nixing carbs to force the body to burn fat, which produces byproducts known as ketones. Plenty of Bulletproof drinkers subscribe to this theory as well, and the website specifically recommends replacing a high-carb breakfast with the drink, which contains only fats (butter and certain forms of medium-chain tricylcerides, or MCTs).
According to the Bulletproof website, the extra-energizing effects are due to the fact that "the saturated fat in grass-fed butter slows the absorption of caffeine, which gives you even energy for several hours instead of a caffeine spike and crash." But there's no reason to believe a balanced meal and milk with your coffee wouldn't have the same effect.
"It depends on what you are replacing with the Bulletproof coffee," says Alissa Rumsey, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness in New York City. "If your baseline is something with lots of refined carbs or skipping breakfast, then this may be better than nothing." Overall, though, she sees it as a missed opportunity to get more nutrients into your diet. "You're not getting any protein, fiber, or any major vitamins or minerals."
Considering the Effects
And there are long-term effects to consider, too, Rumsey points out. "We know saturated fat is probably not as bad for us as previous thought, but it still isn't good for us, especially in these amounts every day." MCT oil is absorbed differently than other fats, so they don't have as much effect on cholesterol and triglyceride levels, but it's not the fat-burning, metabolism-boosting superfood that everyone thinks it is.
There's plenty of research that caffeine alone has perks. Besides its short-lived energy boost, it can improve short-term memory and enhance focus, performance, and reaction time in athletes. And researchers are continuing to look at the function of MCTs on brain function in healthy populations, not just dementia and Alzheimers' patients.
Trying It for Yourself
Until more solid research is in, you can always, as the Bulletproof website recommends, "Try and feel for yourself." Williams did, and was pleasantly surprised to find she did enjoy it. While she cut back the recipe to one tablespoon each of butter and oil, she says the effects on her appetite were immediate. "When I have this, I almost forget to eat lunch, which is bizarre to me, because I don't miss a meal or snack," she says.
And while she hasn't completely bought into the energizing claims, she's going to keep drinking it on occasion.
This post has been updated with a corrected quote.