The Shangri-La Diet
One of the most bizarre diets to become popular in recent years, the Shangri-La Diet was the brainchild of psychology professor Seth Roberts. According to Roberts, the diet was so named to conjure up images of the fictional Himalayan community because, just as Shangri-La is associated with peace and tranquility, Roberts said, “This diet puts people at peace with food.” The name is pretty whimsical, and the diet is plenty eccentric too. It only has one rule: Take 1-3 tablespoons of extra light olive oil and/or 1-2 tablespoons of sugar water twice daily, between meals.
According to Roberts, the body learns to associate especially flavorful foods with calories, thus leading us toward overindulgence in our favorite foods. The result? Uncontrollable weight gain. Roberts suggested that by consuming olive oil and sugar water, which have calories but little taste, you can teach your body to stop associating flavor with calories. Eventually, your body will want less of whatever foods you’re eating. The idea is that the body has a “set point,” a weight level that it seeks to maintain.
Roberts believed that the key to weight loss is controlling the weight your body wants to maintain through understanding how different foods can increase or decrease the set point. Specifically, he believed that by consuming olive oil and sugar water — what he called “zero-set point foods” — one could reduce their set point to a lower weight.
Other suggestions (but not requirements) of the Shangri-La diet: Stopping your nose up in some way to avoid smelling good foods, thus making them less flavorful, eating unfamiliar foods because unfamiliar associations help to lower the set point (one of Roberts’ suggestions was putting cinnamon on pizza), and eating bland foods whenever possible, such as pureed vegetables, plain soup broth, and bread with no butter.
It’s advertised as the “no hunger, eat anything weight loss plan.” The diet promises freedom from hunger and cravings through teaching your body to want less food. Once you’ve trained your body to want less food, you’ll be able to eat whatever you want because you’ll only want a small amount, and a small amount of anything won’t hurt.
The Shangri-La Diet is advertised as a paradigm shift in the understanding of dieting. Roberts argued that his system was based on a better understanding of how weight control systems work than other diets. His claim was that, until now, nearly all weight loss programs had incorrectly focused on severe portion control — demanding that one food type or another be subtracted from your menu. The Shangri-La Diet pledges that you won’t have to subtract anything in order to successfully lose weight. In fact, all you have to do is add a small amount of extra light olive oil or sugar water to your daily food intake, and you’ll be all set to start dropping pounds. Roberts said that the Shangri-La Diet is “almost as easy as taking a pill, and 100 times safer and less expensive.”
- Because this diet doesn’t require you to buy special types of food, there aren’t many added expenses.
- This diet doesn’t require any significant lifestyle changes, and doesn’t require you to stop eating your favorite foods.
Pros and cons
It’s cheap, and it’s relatively safe. Because your meals will most likely be composed of the same types of foods you were eating before starting the Shangri-La Diet, the diet probably won’t result in the loss of any important nutrients or vitamins. It’s also about as inexpensive as diet plans come.
The Shangri-La diet is appealing in many ways. It’s very simple, and doesn’t require any significant lifestyle changes. In fact, one of its key tenets is that you don’t have to subtract anything from your diet or life; you only have to add. There are no forbidden types of food, so it will appeal to those unwilling to give up their favorites. There’s none of the typical calorie counting or physical exercise that usually scare people away from dieting.
On the other hand, not too many people will be happy eating purposefully bland food, and taking regular spoonfuls of olive oil or sugar water can be unappetizing. The diet does not have any portion control guidelines, and makes no effort at changing what a person is actually eating. Just adding sugar water and olive oil to a daily routine of junk food isn’t going to help you lose weight or make you healthier. The diet assumes that people will desire less food.
And that’s where the most troublesome aspect of this diet plans lies: The logic of the Shangri-La diet runs counter to much of the current professional wisdom about weight loss, and the jury is still out on whether there is actually a legitimate scientific basis for Roberts’ set point theory. Much of Roberts’ evidence is based on self-experimentation.
In other words: the Shangri-La diet may not work.
- Even with small studies backing up Roberts’ olive oil claim, the science is shaky at best.
- This diet doesn’t require you to eat healthier, or control portion sizes. Adding sugar water and olive oil to a diet of junk food won’t help you lose weight.
There is some science supporting the potential of olive oil to increase feelings of fullness. A small 2013 study found that adding olive oil, or just the scent of olive oil, seems to boost satiety.
In a second part of the study, researchers tested yogurt enriched with only the scent of olive oil and found that the group that consumed yogurt without the olive oil aroma ate an average of 176 more calories each day than the group given the olive oil-scented yogurt.
One issue with the foundation of the Shangri-La diet is the claim that flavorful, tasty foods are fattening. While this may be true in some cases, it is definitely not a set in stone fact. For one thing, taste is a matter of opinion. More importantly, there are thousands upon thousands of recipes out there for delicious food options that are healthy too.
Of even greater concern is that the Shangri-La plan makes no effort to address any lifestyle factors, like physical activity or the psychological components of weight control. There are no guidelines as to how much or what food is being eaten; the diet simply assumes people will begin to eat less if they add sugar water and olive oil to their daily routine. Without taking on the more fundamental aspects of weight management, it’s hard to see how a temporary reduction in appetite will work to produce long-term results in weight loss. Finally, Healthline recommends that any diet plan be accompanied by an increase in physical activity.
18 Months on the Shangri-La Diet
March 29, 2011
Alex Chernavsky has kindly given me several years of weight data he collected by weighing himself daily. He read about the Shangri-La Diet in 2005 and several years later decided to try it. The graph above shows what happened: Starting at 222 pounds (BMI = 32), over 11 months he lost 31 pounds, reaching a BMI of 27. Since then — while continuing the diet — his weight has increased at roughly the same rate it was increasing before he started the diet.
He started by drinking olive oil and sugar water, switched to olive oil alone, and then, finally, to flaxseed oil alone of which he drinks 3.5 tablespoons/day (= 420 calories/day). He does not clip his nose shut when he drinks it but he washes his mouth with water afterwards. More about his method here.
Almost all weight-control experts would say these results are impossible: 1. Alex lost weight because he ate more fat. Fat is fattening say most nutrition experts. 2. Atkins dieters, who don’t say that, think the secret of weight loss is to reduce carbohydrate. Alex didn’t do that (and eats plenty of carbohydrate). 3. He didn’t restrict what he ate in any way. 4. He didn’t change how much he exercised.
Quite apart from how it contradicts mainstream beliefs, including Atkins, the data are remarkable because the change was so simple, small, and sustainable, the weight loss so large, the rebound so minimal, and data period so long.
An ordinary clinical trial has obvious advantages over such one-person data, such as more subjects and more data per subject. Less obvious are the advantages of this sort of data over clinical trials:
1. Long pre-diet baseline. Clinical trials never have this. It allows one to judge if weight increase post-diet, often called “regain”, is due to the weight loss or other factors. In this case the rising pre-diet baseline shows that other factors are causing slow weight gain over time.
2. Motivation. In a clinical trial, the motivations of the researchers and the subjects are different. The researchers want to measure the effect of an intervention; the subjects want to lose weight. If paid, they may want to make money. The difference in motivations causes problems. How closely the subjects obey the researchers and how truthful they are is usually hard to know. This data does not have that clash of motivations and incentive to lie.
3. Realism — what methodologists call ecological validity. These data, unlike clinical trial data, come from the situation to which everyone wants to generalize: people trying a diet by themselves at home without professional support or guidance.
4. Level of detail available. You (the reader) have access to something resembling raw data. In clinical trial reports, the data available is heavily filtered (e.g., shortened, simplified) and the nature of the filtering rarely described. For example, you rarely learn in any detail what the subjects ate. With this sort of data, but not clinical trial data, you can get a better sense of whether the results are likely to apply to you.
Seth Roberts, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a regular contributor to Quantified Self and will be leading a session on “How to Do Self-Experiments” at the upcoming QS Conference – more details on this session soon.
Steve Parker, M.D.
A while back, I was listening to “talk radio” in my car and heard Dennis Prager say that olive oil helps to suppress appetite, leading to loss of excess weight. I only caught the tail end of it, and let it go. Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., brought to my attention recently a scientific article regarding hunger suppression by fatty foods, such as olive oil. I found the time to research Prager’s statement.
The olive oil/appetite suppression link seems to emanate from Seth Roberts, Ph.D., who was (and still is?) a psychology professor at the University of California – Berkeley. He self-experimented with the theory that sugar water or olive oil taken on an empty stomach suppresses appetite naturally. He stumbled upon his theory on a trip to France when he noticed that soft drinks unfamiliar to him seemed to suppress his appetite. His theoretical underpinnings are based on rat studies, and on the idea – not his own – that our bodies have a weight set-point that mostly determines our weight.
The set-point is like a thermostat that can be reset. Set-point theory explains that after a spell of weight loss, we usually return to our previous heavy weight because that’s where the thermostat (set-point) is set. We need to reset the thermostat. How do you do that? Drink either 1) one tbsp of extra light olive oil, or 2) one or two tbsp of fructose or sucrose (table sugar) in water, and do this not at mealtimes but at least one hour after meals, one to four times daily. Don’t eat anything else at the time of the supplement, nor for one hour thereafter. Total calorie content of these supplements is 100-400 calories per day. You experiment to find the dose that suppresses your appetite. And eat healthy meals of your choice. Dr. Roberts says the extra light olive oil is better than the sugar. Not extra virgin olive oil, which has too much flavor.
The pure, unadulterated sweetness of sugar, and the near-tastelessness of the olive oil are important, according to Dr. Roberts. They trick your weight set-point into resetting. At least this is the theoretical framework he gave to Prager and TheDietChannel.com in 2006. ABC News in 2005 reported he “suggests it works by suppressing a basic ‘caveman’ instinct from days when access to food was intermittent. The diet tricks the body from thinking it needs to eat every last bit of food before an impending famine.” My sense is: If it works, it works, and the underlying mechanism is less important.
Dr. Roberts easily lost 50 pounds with his method and wrote The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan to share with the world. The blogosphere and the authors of Freakonomics helped spread the word rapidly. In 2006, Dennis Prager allocated an entire hour of his show to Dr. Roberts, and volunteered that the olive oil indeed was suppressing his (Prager’s) appetite. According to the book reviewers at Amazon.com, the Shangri-La Diet clearly works miraculously well for some, not at all for others. You can find much more information and testimonials at http://www.sethroberts.net., perhaps enough that you don’t need to purchase the book if you want to give it a go. Last I checked, the paperback was $3.99 plus shipping at Amazon.com.
I’m not sure if this diet is a hoax or not. It’s possible it is a social psychology experiment. Maybe Dr. Roberts had a bet with someone that “anyone can write a popular diet book if they just use the formula.” You can find the formula at http://www.sethroberts.net under “Reviews and Media.” Listen to Dr. Roberts’ interview with Dennis Prager and decide for yourself. He sounds earnest.
I suspect it’s a hoax but, then again, Dr. Roberts may himself be a true believer. What’s the evidence for hoaxiness? The subtitle was my first clue: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan. Legitimate, scrupulous doctors would be embarrassed to use that phrase. The second clue is that Dr. Roberts seems to be a former contributor to Spy magazine. This is precisely the sort of hoax the editors of Spy would concoct. The third clue is that he uses just enough quasi-legitimate scientific theory and jargon to rope in many readers.
I was particularly interested in the olive oil aspect of the Shangri-La Diet since olive oil is the predominant form of fat in the traditional healthy Mediterranean diet. I searched PubMed.gov for scientific clinical studies in overweight humans showing that olive oil suppresses appetite and leads to weight loss. I found none as of October 12, 2008. Note that extra light olive oil is refined oil and has less of the healthy phytonutrients found in extra virgin olive oil.
Dr. Roberts’ program, and its apparent success in some users, exemplifies the idea that losing excess weight is, in part, a matter of trial and error. For example, the Atkins diet may work great for you, but not your next-door neighbor, who lost with Shangri-La, which didn’t work for your mother-in-law. To some extent, weight-loss efforts are “an experiment of one.” What works for you is partially based on genetics (idiosyncratic metabolic processes), personal preferences, early childhood experiences, financial resources, preparedness for change, personality type, etc. However, two themes unify most people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off long-term: 1) they don’t eat as much as in the past, and 2) they exercise more. Look for these when you search for effective weight-loss programs.
The aforementioned article brought to my attention by Evelyn Tribole suggests how olive oil and other unsaturated fats could curb hunger. Oleic acid, a prominent monounsaturated fatty acid in olive oil, is transformed into oleoylethanolamide (OEA) in the small intestine. OEA then activates a brain circuit that gives you a feeling of fullness, reducing appetite, and potentially promoting weight loss.
A 2007 article in the Journal of Molecular Medicine exposes a genetic variation that seems to prevent high fat consumption from contributing to overweight. Read about it at FuturePundit.com. The gene variant may be found in 10-15% of the U.S. population. Consumption of monounsaturated fats, as in olive and canola oil, almost seems to protect against overweight in people who carry this genetic variation. I’m talking about single nucleotide polymorphisms of the apolipoprotein A5 gene, specifically, -1131T>C. But you knew that, right? Nutritional genomics may eventually allow us to customize our food intake to work best with our personal genetic make-up.
A number of people, including Dr. Roberts, swear by the Shangri-La Diet. It works for them. I don’t think most of them are lying. Maybe they are in the subset of the population with the appropriate genetic variant.
It would be easy to design and execute an experiment on 100 subjects to test the efficacy of the Shangri-La Diet. Until that’s done – and it probably never will be – you could inexpensively try the Shangri-La “experiment of one” on yourself. From what I’ve read, you’ll know within the first week if you achieve the natural appetite suppression that substitutes for the willpower and discipline required by effective diets. As always, get your personal physician’s OK first.
If it is a hoax, I complement Dr. Roberts on his ingenuity. His book was a bestseller in 2006. For those he may have duped, it didn’t cost them much and probably caused no harm.
-Steve Parker, M.D.
Corella, Dolores, et al. APOA5 gene variation modulates the effects of dietary fat intake on body mass index and obesity risk in the Framingham Heart Study. Journal of Molecular Medicine, 85 (2007): 119-128.
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The Shangri-La Diet: Why No Revolution?
David Mandel, CEO of Alliance United Insurance Company, asks a very reasonable question:
Despite all the success stories regarding the Shangri-La Diet, and the mainstream media stories in 2006 after the book publication, the diet never picked up and seems almost unknown today.
Whether this is right or wrong depends on expectations. In December, SLD got a great push from being on the website of Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Body under the attractive title “Alternative to Dieting”. Tim’s book was published in December and registrations to the SLD forums jumped dramatically. Yet even before that, forum traffic was growing. Traffic of course grew when the SLD book came out, later shrank, and now – surprisingly – is growing again. My interpretation is that the initial growth was caused by mainstream publicity and blogs. The current growth is caused by word of mouth.
If I google “Shangri-La Diet” I get about 800,000 hits, a decent amount. “Sonoma Diet” – the book came out the same time as mine – gets 200,000 hits. “Eat Right For Your Type” and “Eat Right 4 Your Type” get a combined 150,000 hits. That book was a huge hit when it came out in 1997. The usual pattern is Google hits go down, but SLD hits have gone up over the years.
On the other hand, given that my book contained a new theory of weight control that made about 100 times more sense than the usual ideas and led to counter-intuitive new ways to lose weight that actually worked and that obesity is often considered the world’s #1 health problem – yeah, it is “almost unknown” compared to what one might have expected.
I was wondering if you had any insight as to why it did not go viral, if nothing more from word of mouth from success stories sharing with everyone who will listen to their excitement. It seems all but impossible to me that something this simple, and universally successful which can benefit the masses has managed to not go mainstream in all these years. I am utterly baffled, and assumed there must be a big downside, but all my searching online has revealed nothing but the success stories and initial feedback, mostly from 2006 and 2007, and little since. I am just overwhelmed with curiously as to how this did not become the norm for everyone.
When my agent circulated the proposal for the book, one editor regretfully declined to bid on it because she said the book was “15 years ahead of its time.” Perhaps she was just being nice, but when people tried the diet, and it worked, they wouldn’t tell other people because the diet sounded crazy. Which means it really was far ahead of its time. Good Morning America filmed me for a short Freakonomics-related segment and they played it for laughs: crazy professor.
So that’s my explanation for why it has spread more slowly than one might have expected: fear of ridicule.
What Maryann Jacobsen, RD, Says:
Does It Work?
Roberts’ web site has a section devoted to the “science behind the diet,” featuring testimonials from people who say the diet worked for them. Aside from that and Roberts’ own report of losing 35 pounds when he tested the diet on himself, there are no studies backing up this plan.
Is It Good for Certain Conditions?
If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, or diabetes, this isn’t the diet for you. It doesn’t address the nutritional issues you face when managing these conditions, like sodium for blood pressure or carbohydrates for diabetes. Also, the daily drink of oil adds calories most people don’t need.
The Final Word
The strength of the plan is how easy it is to use. It may also help you better understand when you’re hungry or full.
The downside is that it doesn’t encourage healthy habits for the short- or long-term. This diet might appeal to you if you don’t want to follow a strict plan or want any food or drink to be off limits. It’s unlikely to work for you if you need a lot of structure or have health or emotional issues related to your weight.