Every day of the working week, I anxiously check WhatsApp for updates on “beef strip boy”. My friend who works in tech tells us near-daily tales of a man in her office who exclusively eats beef strips for every meal – microwaving (yes, microwaving) them, heralding them, and flooding his Instagram account with pictures of them.
In my friend’s office of roughly 25 staff, she is the only person who eats anything resembling normal meals. Aside from beef strip boy, every other person in her department uses Huel – the meal replacement drink popularised by Silicon Valley’s tech bros. The enthusiasm for meal replacements is part of a growing obsession with “bio-hacking” – a tech scene staple in which people try to “hack” their bodily functions for the sake of extreme efficiency. Tech bros across California are attempting to optimise every element of their physical lives, from sleeping to drinking to eating to defecating, in order to manipulate and train their bodies into its most efficient self.
On Monday, a news story began to make the rounds about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s diet (or, the lack thereof). Although he’s spoken about it before, Dorsey reiterated to CNBC that he eats just one meal a day in the evening on week days, and fasts all weekend. He complements this five-meals-a-week practice with frequent ice baths, “walking everywhere”, and drinking only water until he, apparently, hallucinates.
Dorsey’s diet, while entirely extreme, is not uncommon in the tech bro scene. Meal replacement supplements, 5:2 diets (fasting two days, eating normally for five), and vitamin injections are rife in the tech world, with celebrity tech dudes and CEOs enthusing about the results of these “health” hacks. Bulletproof Coffee creator Dave Asprey takes 100 supplements a day (and injects himself with stem cells), ex-Evernote CEO Phil Libin leads monthly fasting groups via WhatsApp and Paypal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel has reportedly expressed an interest in receiving blood transfusions from young people.
There is a similar theme in alt-right spaces that share many of the Silicon Valley libertarian impulses. Alt-right author and icon Jordan Peterson is infamous for his all-beef diet – claiming that only eating unseasoned beef and nothing else cured a whole host of physical and mental health issues. These diets and bio-hacks have become so common that many have actually been parodied on the Silicon Valley-satire series Silicon Valley.
And yet these examples of people obsessively limiting their consumption to achieve some ideal manifestation of themselves have more in common with eating disorders than personal optimisation.
They aren’t dressed up with the often offensive and sexist tropes around eating disorders; the ones that view all eating disorders as rail-thin teenage girls skipping meals or crash diets popular in the early noughties. The same men that mock young people – and, usually, young women – for drinking lemon water to kickstart their metabolism or adopting plant-based diets for health and environmental reasons are they themselves obsessively preaching these potentially unhealthy diets. They are used as a macho shows of strength and capitalist bastions of ultimate productivity.
Ahh yes. Disordered eating to approximate the suffering induced by poverty and/or access to potable water. Playing is so much fun.
— roxane gay (@rgay) January 27, 2019
For the most part these diets they aren’t driven by an interest in health, they’re driven by an impulse to work more. Amanda Mull wrote for The Atlantic back in January that Silicon Valley’s “food-centric productivity hacks” have implications that reach far beyond San Francisco. She argued that these diets not only push out harmful narratives about eating, but add another modern pressure to our work environments:
“Silicon Valley can give the impression that all personal choices should be made for the end goal of doing ever more work and generating ever more money for founders or venture capitalists, which is part of why so many people find it unnerving to watch a man with so many employees decide that not eating is a valuable practice. If everyone above you on the organizational chart refuses to eat in order to squeeze a little more work out of an already long day, consuming your sad desk salad might be a little higher-stakes than you thought.”
As the conversation grows about what these diets really are, you would hope for a change in the way tech leaders frame them. But as with everything in Silicon Valley, the one thing that outweighs everything – public opinion, bad press, bad data – is productivity (and the money it makes). As long as tech bros believe their “bio-hacking” works, they’ll embrace increasingly insane diets.