All Articles

🥩🍷 Nebuchadnezzar Diets

Even if we could live forever I’m not sure that we should. Stories need endings and jokes need punchlines. Bryan Johnson disagrees. He’s part of a pantheon of Tech Bro Health Influencers currently popular on a podcast near you. Their gospel extols the virtues of sleep, vegetables, sobriety, and very cold water.

Bryan is probably the most extreme of the pack. The retired entrepreneur is running an experiment on himself to become so healthy that he slows down his own aging. The results seem real, especially given that he started from a pretty unhealthy place. And he has created a following.

I do respect when people do hard things and appreciate the dedication to a philosophy, but I’m unsure of where to draw the line. I try to strike a balance between living well and being a human being. I don’t get enough sleep. I’ll have a glass of wine. I eat too much sugar. At the same time, I’m very disciplined and practice certain healthy habits consistently. I mostly eat fish. I exercise every day without fail. I drink plenty of water.

Should I change that? Am I missing out by only doing the basics?

This kind of exploration has Biblical precedent. In the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his buddies show up in Nebuchadnezzar’s court and stage a wager. To avoid the terefah food and the wine of their new captors, they ask for permission to only eat vegetables and drink water. They propose a test after which the Babylonians will evaluate them in 10 days. When the time comes, the guards are surprised to find that Daniel’s crew appear healthier than the others. I’m not sure why that shocked them so much, but it was enough to approve the plan for the remaining three years of Daniel’s Neo-Babylonian study abroad.

Bryan Johnson is running a similar gambit with a longer time-horizon. I’m over here doing a mild Nebuchadnezzar impression. I wanted to see if it mattered and, if it does, what does it cost? My guess is that most things in health are just the combination of basic practices and lucky genetics, but maybe I’m wrong. So I did something terribly unscientific and compared my results to his in order to draw conclusions. It’s not anecdotal if you have two data points!

Measuring Up (or Down)

I recently completed my annual physical. I poked at it with AI and met with my physician last week who scanned my results and told me “the only way you would be healthier is if you played for Benfica. Please go live. Have many girlfriends. Find adventures. Celebrate your vitality.” I don’t disagree (except for the girlfriend point). I imagine that if I told my Southern European doctor that I want to work harder to be even healthier, he would weep.

I’m lucky. Other than a collapsed lung and some creaky knees, I won the general health genetics lottery. I’m also fortunate enough to be able to dedicate time to exercise and to afford a healthy diet. I have the ability to stay committed to that diet. I am in my mid-thirties.

Could I be better, though? The results from my physical give me a range of data points that I can combine with metrics from my Apple Watch and Withings Scale to spot check my own values against Bryan’s current results.

I’ve taken the overlap of the data points that he considers important and that I happen to have on hand right now. In some cases he provides “optimal” targets, which are generally more aggressive than what my own lab reports cite as the target range of healthy outcomes. I have broken out the comparison in three sections below.

First, we need to recognize some important distinctions:

  • I have spent more than a decade exercising nearly every single day and maintaining a healthy weight. Bryan started his journey more recently after a decade of ignoring his health.
  • I’m in my mid thirties. Bryan has crossed the age Rubicon and is in his mid forties.
  • We of course have no idea how his genetics compare to mine and how those would influence these values (if they did, this kind of experiment would be moot). If we were generally doing the exact same thing, though, I’d probably have better baseline results.
  • I am only comparing the values that I have on hand, not the longer tail of metrics that he captures through other screens.

Body Composition and Exertion

Measurement Sam Bryan Bryan’s Goal
Body Fat 11.5% 6.9% < 10%
BMI 20.3 22.8 < 22.5
VO2Max 53.0 58.7
  • Turns out the guy who eats a strictly-controlled vegetarian diet and obsesses over his exercise routine has a bit less body fat.
  • I have a lower BMI, but his advantage in muscle mass, not fat, pushes his value higher.
  • His VO2Max is genuinely stunning for his age. Those are the kinds of results that professional athletes attain.

VO2Max is a place where the “good enough” theory comes into play. At my age, “Excellent” is above a 48.3. Excellent for Bryan would be above a 46.4. The average male in our demographic sits somewhere between 35 and 40. We’re both going to walk into a doctor’s office and present no concerns here. I just don’t know if the data exists to say that his score would create substantially different longevity outcomes.

So what’s the point? If the goal is to avoid death, then the kinds of risks that correlate with a low VO2Max can probably be ruled out for both of us. If the goal is to become the best athlete you can be, he’s winning here.

Heart Health and Blood Stuff

Measurement Sam Bryan Bryan’s Goal
Cholesterol 173 158 < 190
LDL 103 74 < 100
HDL 57 73 50-60
Triglycerides 93 55 27-89
Heart Rate Variability 66 54
Resting Heart Rate 57 44
White Blod Cell Count 4.0 4.5 3.5-6.0
Red Blood Cell Distribution Width (RDW) 12.6 11.3
  • Bryan wins this round, but we’re entering another “so what” phase of this comparison. All of my values are essentially within his target range.
  • We both sit at heart healthy cholesterol ranges, though if mine increased steadily I would want to start watching more of what I eat. Neither of us are in a risk zone and we both meet his “optimal” goal.
  • His LDL and HDL levels are both better than mine.
  • My triglycerides count increased a bit this year. In this case, I’m within what any medical measure would consider healthy but slightly above his “optimal” target. This is almost definitely a case where my diet’s inclusion of occasional steak and red wine and gummy bears plays a role.
  • Heart rate and variability and resting heart rate reflect the different levels of physical exertion we pursue. My “run 4 miles at a steady pace on the treadmill for 3 times a week” compared to his competitive routine can be seen in the data, but neither are in risk zones.
  • I don’t know what to do with the blood cell data other than to think “alright, neither of us are at real risk here but I’m not sure if that means we should change anything.”

This is broadly an area where I think he’s right. The guy has ten years on me and his heart health is better. This simplistic analysis cannot determine what mix of that is genetics, but given his age and the commitment to his diet, it’s pretty easy to infer that what we eat and drink makes up the difference here.

Again, none of this is a risk range. The goals that Bryan lays out are substantially more strict than what most physicians would consider to be excellent. If my results did start to tick up substantially year-over-year, then I’d probably take this more seriously especially as I get older. In our current snapshot, my “better” age seems to make up some of the difference compared to Bryan’s better exercise and diet.

The Rest of It

Measurement Sam Bryan Bryan’s Goal
Fasting Glucos 72 82 < 95
Gamma-Glutamyl Transferase 21 10 < 14
Alanine Transaminase 17 18 < 15
Liver Function (AST+GGT+ALT) 58 48 48
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone 1.86 1.94 1.0 - 2.1

These are the most interesting data points to me because they sit in the “is it worth it” category. Some of these can be influenced by diet, but a lot of this boils down to luck and genetics once you start to follow a generally healthy diet.

If I cut out all red meat, booze, and dairy from my diet could probably tip a couple of these in a “better” direction? Sure. Would it lead to different health outcomes? Probably not - at least at this point. I’m not sure that I’m ready to abandon yogurt or beer altogether to influence my already healthy GGT values without understanding what could be possible if they somehow got better.

So what?

I don’t know if we should lionize Bryan’s approach or not. We all probably have a handful of our own unhealthy habits. I’m not going to even bother finding a study to cite because I think anyone reading this is aware that people living in wealthy nations have become more obese and less active - and that the consequences include increased cardiovascular risk and other negative outcomes.

But does pursuing this kind of ambitious goal only set people up for failure? He probably sets the definition of “excellent” but you could see two pathways for his disciples. Some with compulsive behaviors might take this to extremes that pose their own health problems. Others will wash out after aiming too high and revert to unhealthy patterns. A thin slice might stick to it within positive parameters.

The objective is still a little unclear to me. Bryan’s stated goal is longevity, but the extreme commitment to his routines seems to approach the equation as if these values need to be continuously improved. His optimal goals target a range much more aggressive than what most physicians would recommend.

Most of these values kill you if they get worse - once you’ve passed a certain threshold, you don’t become less likely to die from them if they get better. Nothing in my results suggest I need to alter my lifestyle significantly - certainly not to the ambitious levels that Bryan pursues.

That said, I’m also much younger and I have no idea where he started. It’s possible that in ten years I will need a similar level of commitment to maintain my healthy ranges. Babylon’s finest meats and wines seem okay until then.

Published Jan 15, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP & CoS, Emerging Tech at Cloudflare.Sign up for emails