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Bowie, Elvis and Lemmy: Which Famous Drug Diet Was the Worst?

BIG CAVEAT: None of these are good for you. But scientifically, which would do you most damage?
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

This article originally appeared onVICE UK

Some celebrities are more famous for their drink and drug intake than others. Hunter S Thompson, for instance, supposedly took cocaine for breakfast – and then again, repeatedly, throughout the day – before dropping acid after lunch. Bowie reportedly survived on a diet of coke, milk and red peppers for a period, while Lemmy boasted about drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel's every single day.


These tales all add to the myths already surrounding these artists, but really: all of the above is a lot to put your body through. What was this level of partying doing to these, and how did they last so long?

To find out – and to work out which famous party diet was the worst, bearing in mind none of them are "good" in any conceivable way – I spoke to some people who know what they're talking about: Dr Henry Fisher, Policy Director at drug policy think-tank Volteface; George McBride, Head of Advocacy at Volteface; Harry Shapiro, editor of Druglink and head of publishing at Drugscope; and Petronella Ravenshear, nutritionist at Chelsea Nutrition.


Elvis Elvis (Photo: MGM Inc, via)

It's hard to nail down everything Elvis consumed in the darker period of his life, but here's a start: he drank so much Pepsi it was supposedly delivered in bulk direct to Graceland by Pepsi's distribution lorries. Famously, the basic element of his daily food intake was the "Fool's Gold Loaf", a 30cm-long bread roll, stuffed with bacon, peanut butter and strawberry jam. Each one contained 42,000 calories, and in his final days he ate two of them a day, together with little midnight snacks of hamburgers and deep-fried white bread. His calorific intake stood at an estimated 94,000 a day. An Asian elephant consumes only 50,000.

And then there were the prescription drugs: Diazepam, Methaqualone, Phenobarbital, Ethchlorvynol, ethinamate, Codeine; uppers, downers and powerful painkillers and sedatives such as Dilaudid, Quaaludes, Percodan and Demerol. Evidence showed that during the seven-and-a-half months preceding Elvis's death – from January to August of 1977 – his doctor wrote him prescriptions for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials and injectables.


"For some of us, gluten acts like an opiate – i.e. like heroin or morphine – and not only can it be just as addictive, but it can also have a sedating effect," explains Petronella Ravenshear. "His diet of high fat, high sugar and high carb food is not only liver and heart toxic, it's also fatal to the microbiome; all his friendly microbes would have curled up and died. Short-term effects would be constipation, low energy, mood swings and depression. The longer term effect would be death."

On top of all that food sedation, he was chugging downers, and his obesity would have changed how the drugs affected him. "In terms of body weight, if someone weighs twice as much as someone else, there's a lot more mass and they'd need more [drugs] to achieve the desired affect," say the guys from Volteface. "If someone's tiny, a much smaller dose will have a similar effect. Also, if someone's eating a ridiculously calorie-heavy diet like that it's going to have an effect on the drugs they're consuming – how they're metabolised, how they get around the body and how long they stick around for. In this case – Elvis' extreme case – it makes it a total mystery as to what affect they're going to have."

How dangerous is this diet? 5/5

"He was taking uppers, downers, all-arounders. The risk is very high for overdose with this, and there's also a problem with withdrawal," says Harry Shapiro. "If you stop taking all these – if your body lets you – you're going to be in a hell of a mess. He had a massive heart attack and that would have been caused more by the diet than the pills. I don't know how much physical pain he was in, but the emotional pain – where do you go when you're at the top?"



Ernest Hemmingway

Ernest Hemmingway (Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration, via)

Notorious drinker Hemingway hated a lot of things – William Faulkner, women – but he loved his absinthe, so much so that he devised his own absinthe-based cocktail, "Death in the Afternoon", which he drank frequently, along with a load of other cocktails. In a 1935 cocktail book he wrote: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."

"Now, that drink is actually quite nice," say the Volteface team. "But if he's consuming that at the start of the day on an empty stomach it's going to have quite an effect. Absinthe is very high proof. He's consuming something that's potentially 70 or 80 percent ethanol. Someone consuming that much on a day-to-day basis is dependent on alcohol."

How dangerous is this? 3/5

"Alcohol is actually more dangerous long-term than drugs, in many ways," says Harry. "Heroin, for example, is not a particularly damaging drug in the way people think it is. It's not like alcohol. It doesn't affect the vital organs – your liver, your brain, kidneys, heart. But alcohol and coke will put the body under a huge amount of strain – heart rate, blood pressure. There's also the worry here with mental health from alcoholism. Of course, Hemingway shot himself."



Lemmy (Photo by Flickr user Alejandro Páez, via)

Kilmister was on a daily dose of JD-and-Coke, speed and cigarettes for over 40 years. Leading up to his recent death, his manager said he'd cut down on his vices but was still drinking about two bottles of wine a day. But hey, at least he ate food – kind of. No vegetables, bar potatoes and green beans. Cold spaghetti, cold chips, cold steak. There are nutrients in there somewhere.


"While eating healthy doesn't counteract the effect of the drugs, it is going to help you recover more quickly and effectively. In Lemmy's case, he's not eating well," say the guys at Volteface. "In terms of what speed is going to do for his mental health, amphetamine psychosis is a well-known condition that people who consume amphetamines long-term can suffer from, especially if you consume large amounts. That's going to be a significant worry if you're consuming speed every day. With the Jack-and-Coke, that's a lot of sugar that he's putting in. But just as how his chief concern probably isn't eating his five a day, he's probably not desperately concerned about the amount of sugar – until obviously he contracted diabetes and it became more of a worry."

Sadly, Lemmy died of cancer, which isn't surprising to either Fisher or McBride.

How dangerous is this? 3/5

"You can probably do this with a reasonable amount of ability when you're in your twenties and thirties, but when you're in your fifties and sixties that's really dangerous," says Harry. "Speed and stimulant drugs put a lot of strain on your ageing body. That said, Lemmy smoked a lot and drank and died of aggressive cancer. Again, I think the fags and drinking would be the problem more than anything else."


David Bowie

According to biographer David Buckley, who wrote Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story, Bowie's diet in 1976 consisted almost entirely of red peppers, cocaine and full fat milk. Bowie later said that he hardly remembered anything from this period in his life, which doesn't sound great.


Buckley wrote: "While planning the follow-up to Young Americans, Bowie would sit in the house with a pile of high-quality cocaine atop the glass coffee table, a sketch pad and a stack of books. Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune was his favourite. Its author describes the book as a 'safeguard for protecting yourself against paranormal malevolence'. Psychic Self-Defense's instructions ('Sever all connections with suspected originators') seem like a paradigm for the isolated and suspicious mode in which Bowie conducted himself during this period, except, of course, for one of Fortune's key tenets: 'Keep away from drugs.'"

"Coke is an appetite suppressant, so it makes sense that he's only really eating milk and red peppers – because he's not going to be as hungry as he otherwise would be. It's going to help prevent him wanting to break his strict diet," explain the Volteface guys. "Besides that, milk has got nutrients in terms of fats and things, so I guess it's fairly well sustaining. It's better than nothing. Cocaine is by far the worst part of it, obviously. His mental health would definitely be affected if he's using every day. There's not really a strong correlation between how much you use and how bad the adverse effects are – you could have one cocaine binge and suffer from paranoia and anxiety and paranoid delusions. But if you're doing multiple grams a day it's almost inevitable that you're going to suffer from paranoid delusions at some point soon."


This, of course, is reflected in Bowie's behaviour as outlined by Buckley's book.

As for the milk and peppers? "Bowie's diet prevented him from starving to death, but it was severely short on vitamins and minerals, as well as amino acids," explains Petronella Ravenshear. "His diet would have led to multiple deficiencies as well as muscle breakdown and general malaise. Maybe he thought he'd get the protein he needed from the milk and vitamin C from the pepper, and figured that was all he needed to stay alive. It goes without saying that there's a big difference between staying alive and staying well. Milk contains too much calcium and not enough magnesium – and magnesium is not only vital for energy, but also for relaxation. Magnesium deficiency literally leaves the body unable to relax and can result in muscle cramps and heart problems, including high blood pressure. This diet is also low in B12, which is vital for the nervous system, digestion and sleep."

How dangerous is this? 3/5

No one would survive long-term on this diet, but this specific menu only lasted for a short period in Bowie's life. "Bowie was a regular drug user, but he had lung cancer because he was a chronic smoker. Booze and smoking are the sorts of things are more likely to carry you away than drugs – which pose more of a threat through overdosing than anything else," says Harry. "[Alcohol and cigarettes are] likely to do long-term damage."



Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks was bang into her cocaine. She believes that, over the years, she spent well over $1 million on it. On top of that, according to the biography Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumours, she was consuming a load of Courvoisier, Heineken and weed.

"This is a relatively normal combination," say the Volteface guys. "There's probably a million people in the UK who consume cocaine, tobacco, cannabis and alcohol on an almost daily basis. There's a lot of people doing it. Possibly not a gram of coke a day, though. If you consume cocaine and alcohol together it forms something that acts like cocaine but will have a more potent, dangerous affect, essentially. Health-wise, it's not great. The reason why it's quite dangerous but attractive to a lot of people to take coke and drink is obviously because the cocaine wakes you up from drinking all the alcohol, which allows you to drink more alcohol. The danger would come for her when the cocaine wears off and you've just drunk more alcohol than you otherwise would have done – and if you're doing cocaine and alcohol every day, almost inevitably your consumption is gradually increasing as well."

As Nicks has admitted, her addiction became hugely problematic – something she only took control of after her doctor warned her that she was risking permanent mental and physical damage, as well as heading for a brain haemorrhage or an early grave.


How dangerous is this? 3/5

Although this is obviously hugely dangerous, Stevie was ultimately able to break through her addiction to cocaine, and is still very much alive. "The body is able to recover very quickly," says Harry. "Even if you get cirrhosis of the liver, it can regenerate. It's perfectly possible to be a coke freak for ten years and then stop and be totally OK long-term."


Hst Hunter S Thompson (Photo by Wikimedia user Rs79, via)

For this bit it's simpler to just post his daily routine as charted by E Jean Carroll in the first chapter of her 1994 book HUNTER: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson:

"Based on that diet, he's getting enough nutrients, at least," say the guys at Volteface. "He's not suffering from David Bowie's problem of lack of variety in terms of the food. But that's a lot drugs to be consuming. Just on the fact that he's taking acid every day. If you consume psychedelics there's usually a period when they then cease to be so effective. Following that, he's not going to be hallucinating, or tripping to the same extent as a naive user or an occasional user. But you can keep doubling your dose. There's no overdose for LSD, so you can just keep taking more and more. You can build up a tolerance to any drugs, which he clearly has if he's consuming that many drugs. It may be that he needs to consume that much because if he doesn't consume that much he will go into withdrawal or experience some kind of side effects. He can probably only feel the desirable effects if he consumes that much, as well.


"He's drinking a huge amount of booze and then also taking [sleeping aid] Halcion alongside that, which is a pretty dangerous combination. It can kill you. The workings of Hunter S. Thompson's liver are probably just as mysterious as the workings of his brain. He did well to survive that long on that diet."

A huge contributing factor to this point – and the lifespans of others leading this kind of this life – is wealth. "He'd have healthcare and people around him to support him," add the Volteface team. "A lot of people who consume large amounts of drugs and don't last that long – or even smaller amounts of drugs and don't live that long – is partly because they don't have that support where they can check into the biggest and best hospitals. It's much easier to be a well-heeled drug user than to be a penniless drug user."

How dangerous is this? 4/5

"He's all over the shop, living on a total chemical carousel," says Harry. "He didn't die directly from the drugs, but he shot himself. If you're out of it you're not grounded in the real world. It's impossible to say what damage it was doing to his body, but it probably wasn't doing his stability a lot of good. Coke and caffeine would've put his heart under a lot of strain. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be around Hunter S. Thompson – he'd be completely unpredictable on this cocktail of drugs. It's more to do with your mental state than your physical state."


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