TCS Daily

Troubles in Shangri-La

By John Ford - May 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Seth Roberts, a psychologist at UC Berkeley has written a book called The Shangri-La Diet. In it, Roberts described some old obesity rat data and via "self-experimentation" developed a technique for weight loss that he hopes will change millions of lives.

While in France, Roberts discovered that he lost his appetite. He attributed this to the unfamiliar taste of French soft drinks. Through self-experimentation, he determined that a tablespoon of virgin light olive oil an hour before meals will do the same thing. (Don't try this with regular olive oil he admonishes, or it won't work.) Lose the appetite, lose the pounds.

If only weight management were that simple. Mankind will never lose its unerring attraction to the simple, the effortless and the quasi-plausible. Roberts himself said that in his search for weight reducing bliss, he wasn't looking for something hard.

However, the scientific method exists for a reason: to root out poor hypotheses and to direct research towards those more likely to be fruitful. If Roberts were truly interested in investigating his approach, he should have subjected it to the dispassionate rigor of clinical study and peer review.

His hypothesis is clearly testable with a controlled trial by a careful scientist willing to be proven wrong if necessary. That hasn't happened. Presenting a highly speculative idea as proven science to an audience unlikely to appreciate the difference between an academic psychologist dabbling in this field and seasoned experts who have devoted their careers to it is misleading at best and disingenuous at worse.

I heard Roberts discuss his approach on talk radio. He strikes me as sincere; naïve and simplistic, but sincere. I suspect that he is a true believer. However, there were problems with his presentation that made me question his forthrightness.

When asked if he had ever submitted his work to a professional journal, he claimed that he had and that it had been well-received. Notably, he failed to give the citation (although he did mention that it could be downloaded from his website along with other "unpublished" data).

He appears to have been referring to an article entitled Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight, which was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. As is clear from the article's title (and confirmed by reading) it was not about validating his hypothesis or conclusions. It was a speculative commentary on the use of self-experimentation as an idea generating tool. In fact, he has never published any articles on the Shangri-La Diet using accepted methodology in a refereed journal.

Any judgments I have about the plausibility of his theories are irrelevant to my argument. That I believe the Shangri-La diet will one day be a distant memory is no less speculative than Roberts' conclusions. But plausibility, real or illusory, is not proof.

My objection to Roberts is not that his ideas are implausible but that he should have subjected them to review by his peers before widely popularizing them to a public desperate for a simple, effortless way to lose weight. Rather, he published a book that as of this writing is number 2 on

All he needs now is an endorsement by Oprah.

Assistant Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.



On Shangri-La
First, my bias - I've lost 25 pounds on the shangri-la diet, at 2lbs/week for the last 2.5 months. My wife is seeing similar success. I've battled with obesity my entire life, and have had no end of physicians hand me a mimeographed diet sheet based on the USDA food pyramid and give me a simplistic lecture about calories-in-calories-out that is proven to fail on the vast majority of overweight human beings. Setting aside the fact that the mimeo-diet is biologically naive (some people are better at extracting calories from food, and are more efficient at retaining them), there's the problem of appetite. For many people, limiting the number of calories in their diet to the level of metabolic demand is an exercise in painful self-discipline, and endless days of hunger.

Now,about the book (with which I'm in no way affiliated) - Roberts himself acknowledges that his book was simply about self-experimentation that he shared because he thought it might work for others. On his blog, he acknowledges a sample size of 3 for his research prior to writing, which isn't significant. He seems painfully honest about the fact that he is only presenting what worked for him, and others on his blog.

I'm agnostic about whether his flavor-calorie association hypothesis is the reason *why* the oil scheme works for me. It could as easily be that he has hit upon a simple trigger for satiety that reduces appetite at subsequent meals. It's possible that might work with any oil, regardless of when it's taken vis-a-vis flavored foods. I simply chose to start out by emulating what worked for him, and haven't yet seen a reason to change a good thing.

However, from a health standpoint, let's think about the result of following the diet.

1) From my experience (and that of others I've read about on Seth's blog), taking the oil reduces your desire for fatty foods in subsequent meals. Hence, you're substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats. I doubt that the percent of calories from fat increases significantly because of that substitution. Mine hasn't.

2) Because the oil somehow suppresses appetite, subsequent meals are smaller and I've saved far more calories on lunch and dinner than I've consumed in oil (I conducted my own experiment on that with calorie-tracking software - I recommend everyone do this to confirm that the appetite reduction is saving them calories on net and providing a balanced diet).

3) Because you're enjoined from having anything with flavors an hour before and after your oil (or dilute sugar water), snacking is pretty much eliminated from the day. I don't smoke, but apparently, even that's eliminated during those flavor-breaks before and after the oil, so there'd have to be a fringe benefit for smokers. My caffeine consumption is also down, as after that first mug, I don't drink anything flavored until lunch.

4) Caloric input spaces out from 3 larger meals per day, to 5 smaller meals per day. I'd assume that has to be easier on the insulin levels.

5) If you use an oil like Smart Balance, you get your omega 3 fatty acids, and the anti-oxidant benefits of olive oil in one fell swoop.

Again, I don't know if Roberts' hypothesis about a flavor-calorie association is valid, and it'll be great if it's tested rigorously. But at least Roberts is trying to think outside the rigid box of the mimeo-diet establishment.

Self-experiment is at times the only way to introduce a novel idea. Walking into the unknown and later reaping the results and then trying to make a buck. The general public has already been covinced that "If he can do it , so can I", the umbrella philosophy of one size fits all, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and hundreds of sub-limited messages, than gives one the illusion of pro-activeness. I have been in the nutrition-fitness indusrty forty years, own my own wellness center and Gym. There is no one size fits all in anything, it is just another, way to take advantage on an ill informed public, like Atkins Diet of no brain food, contributed 6 million dummies, now my colonic irrigation business has gone up 40%, cleaning up past mistakes from false nutrition gurus.

Well, I've lost over fifty pounds so far
I've tried a lot of diets, after all, I'm fifty, and this is the first that worked for me.

What is really amazing is that anyone I've been able to get to try it for a week has started losing weight. It is easy to try, simple in execution, and can be started without much in the way of purchasing.

I used to eat about four thousand calories a day. Now I eat about 1600 and am content. Strength is up, so is endurance (I lift weights meogenically and practice Judo).

Remembering that weight loss surgery, of most kinds, only lasts seven years, start to finish (surgery to return to starting weight), I think there are a lot better targets for complaining about.

My personal take on it is that you can try the diet for a week and see if it works for you. If it does, at some point you can buy the book for additional details and tweaking, visit the forums for ideas (like the improved way to drink the oil), and keep it up.



Dietary changes
Changes are all important, the body changes rapidly through cellular regeneration. The average time for vital organs to regenerate, not all organs regenerate at the same rate, however an average is 8weeks. So the information for change in cells takes 8 weeks. Diets to find or see results need to be at least 8 weeks long. Not everyone has the same reponse to food items, example wheat products, not very healthy and yet the vast majority of Americans and Europeans are saturated from many years of Wheat products, your biology was attached to the economy, So wheat, meat and dairy, number 2-3-4 industries in this economy, unfortunately all this is unhealthy. Meat, wheat, ansd dairy you can do without, and be healthy, or your enslaved by attaching your biology to economy, Benjamin Franklin said, "A good citizen, is one who's biology is attached to the economy. Atkins all maet diet, has no brain food because his food choices don't get through the blood brain barrier to nourish his brain, which nourishes the Endrocrine system which has a direct effect on immune system. So a country that is 60% fat, has been nourished on no brain food, for 150 years, that doesn't have the smarts or energy to exercise, you sell them anything because they don't know any better.
All diets will work for short periods of time, just because they are different, most people haven't the patience to hang in there for 8 weeks, they loose it around 5 weeks and go back to their cravings. Over fifty, I'm 57, my diet is 70% omega 3, out of that 70%, 60% is raw fruits and vegetables. Fish, sardines, tuns raw and cooked fish, no shell fish, no shrimp, no lobster etc. What is meogenetically, sorry not famaliar with this, try to explain it to me, and I will tell you, your most important reason to exercise.

My experience is the same
I've been on this since November. The diet is like sanity, the mental changes are amazing. The weight loss is nice, though I was resigned to not losing weight and I'm pleased to be down 57 pounds so far.

You said it very sharply, so I don't have much to add.

Down 57 in 6 months
That's great, how much more to go? It's hard to make comments, without having detailed information about, food format What When and How often, Exercise, What when and how often, age and past experience, or lifestyle description.1979, I cut out red meat,deep fried, salt and sugar. My body changed almost overnight, body order, bathroom habits, sweat everything changed. I added more raw fruits and vegtables, fish, sardines etc. and my memory, reading for hours and not falling asleep, sleeping at night was improved because of no late meals, and only protein and fiber 2 hours before bedtime. From then on I realise the difference between Omega 3 and omega 6 molecules and their relationship to brain nourishment. Also taught myself to fast on non training days, my case Sundays,only water, this helped cleanup and interior repair. Now at 57 years old I still maintain these principles, plus I learned that the bodies diet has to be changed every 8 weeks, slight adjustments and refinements, because the cells have memory, and need the change to make differences, Check me out here

My reply to Dr. Ford
An obvious problem with this critique is lack of evidence. Dr. Ford seems to be saying that my book is dangerous but on its face this is absurd. My book suggests that people consume vegetable oils or sugar water. Billions of people already consume these substances in amounts larger than what I recommend. Compared to the drugs that Dr. Ford prescribes every day, they are extremely safe and well-studied. If Dr. Ford is implying that these foods have dangers that he knows about but the rest of us do not, he should be explicit about it: Say what the hidden dangers are, and provide evidence for his claims.

Other problems are less obvious:

First, Dr. Ford has ignored facts that do not support his conclusions. If you search the Internet for people who are trying my weight-loss ideas, you will find many for whom it is working, often very well, and only a few for whom it has failed (harmlessly). Dr. Ford says nothing about this.

Second, factual mistakes. (1) “If Roberts were truly interested in investigating his approach, he should have subjected it to . . . peer review” – implying that I did not. In fact, my Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, which contained my weight-loss theory and support for my weight-loss methods, was peer-reviewed. So was a related article in Chance, which I told Dr. Ford about by email while he was writing his critique. Two is not zero. (2) He says I “present[ed] a highly speculative idea as proven science.” I did not. If he reads my book, he will see that I present a theory, a weight-loss method based on that theory, and promising early results. (3) He says my Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper is “not about validating his hypothesis or conclusions [but] a speculative commentary on the use of self-experimentation.” Actually, it is a long empirical article with a great deal of data – to call it “commentary” is misleading. The evidence in that article supports the theory of weight control on which my diet is based because the theory helped me discover new and surprising ways of losing weight. (4) He claims that self-experimentation is not “accepted methodology.” In fact, the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for work on ulcers in which self-experimentation played a key role. Awarding someone a Nobel Prize constitutes acceptance of their methodology. As does publication in an oft-cited peer-reviewed journal.

Finally, Dr. Ford is a medical school professor. For a long time, medical school researchers have contributed no useful ideas to our understanding of how the average person can lose weight. At best, they have tested ideas that others have come up with. Could Dr. Ford’s rigid methodological beliefs have a downside? At UC San Francisco, my local medical school, the last time I looked at their online curriculum, about five years ago, medical students were being told to tell patients that weight loss is a matter of calories in versus calories out, therefore eat less, exercise more. Such advice was popular among doctors in the 1950s. It was no better advice then than it is today; it is based on a seriously-incomplete understanding of weight control. If that were my track record -- failure for more than 50 years -- I would be more open to new approaches.

I agree with Dr. Ford that my weight-loss ideas are not “proven science” and that “seasoned experts” (including medical school professors) may help the rest of us, including me, evaluate them. But I also believe strongly that non-experts can help the rest of us evaluate them. This is why I consider the Shangri-La Diet forums at – full of non-expert views and observations -- to be very important. Dr. Ford and I probably differ here. I suspect he considers these forums useless, or nearly so, for what he calls “scientific” or “clinical” purposes. Time will tell which of us is correct.

My Reply to Dr. Roberts' Response
I have posted my response to Dr. Roberts' reaction to the article on my blog here:


shangra la
I don't know about this diet to much, just came across it, but is seems to me some are so enthralled by the idea that subconsciously they restrict calories to help it along and thus lose weight and credit the shangra la diet. could that be the case here?

I find the good food and bad food idea is outdated. Meat is not bad, neither is milk, or dairy, unless you are allegic, and true allergies to these things are rare. His idea says you lower setpoint, but my experience and research peer reviewed info (central pubmed, medline as an example) shows that trying to eat less below setpoint causes all the things other diets cause, food bordom increase appetite, weakness, and lack of motivation to continue on that eating pattern.

I can't see how eating less (diet pills can reduce appetite too, I can't see how sugar or oil can do that, maybe it can temporarily until you body compensates)lowers setpoint.

I have heard it called lipostat, which is probably a better term, setpoint is what your brain sets, and cannot be forced down or up for that matter, it is determined by how the body preceives it's enviroment, any threat to survival affects the lipostat. You cannot force it down by dieting, even if you manage to maintain the weight loss for a long period the lipostat hasn't gone down, your body is just not as effecient in getting you to eat more, sooner or later it will get it's way, depending on your genetics. just because someone lost weight by eating lower caloires and can maintain it for years doesn't mean their lipostat has gone down,

it just means the genetics for countering your dieting is weak, your body hasn't produced all the steps (chemicals and such) to get you to replace your fat stores to that lipostat point. It still gets damaged from such dieting. Semi starvation diets which eating less basically is whatever level that takes below maintance stills causes serious harm to your health, even if it doesn't show up right away or your not looking for it and dont recognize it.

We know how to raise setpoints (eating less) or maintain them but no one has found out how to lower it significantly so you don't spend the rest of your life fighting to maintin the weight loss where your body makes you stay lower weight regardless how much you eat (naturally you will eat less if you go above setpoint) and if you go below lipstat point then your appetite increases to get you back up to it. I found studies on pubmed central that studied this very thing.

One title was 10 weight myths (or obese myths) can't remember exactly.

if this diet helps you and you are not suffering from the side affects of dieting (food obsessions, lack of desire to exercise, increase desire for fattier foods later on in the diet, and chronic hunger over time) then by all means try it, otherwise you might be doing yourself more harm then good.


food for function
I'm not going to write a book here, especially when it's already written. Dr. Norman Walker, book, Becoming Younger, and since your there already, Norman's Colon clean. And remember eating changes as you age. If your eating at sixty, like you did at 40, your ignoring the ageing process and you will pay dearly. There is no one size fits all, even the individual needs to change eating habits in order to age gracefully. Psycho-somatic, yes it can be in the mind, you get what you pay attention to, psycologists have used sugar pills for mental enthusiasm since the mid 1500, yes your partially correct.

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