Battlepanda: Monday Book Blogging: The Shangri-la diet


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monday Book Blogging: The Shangri-la diet

The Shangri-la diet by Seth Roberts

This book is the first and (thusfar) only freebie I recieved as a blogger. I've gotten other offers, but now I live in Taiwan and I guess the publishers are not willing to lump the international postal for possible publicity in such a pee-wee blog as this.

I can't really blame them for saving their money. After all, it took me long enough to blog about my first free book, which they sent my way all the way back in March.

What to make of the Shangri-la diet? It's the brainchild of the somewhat eccentric Seth Roberts, who has performed various experiments on himself over the years that turns the dominant scientific paradigm of using many random subjects in experiments upside down. In his experiments, n always equals one -- himself. However, this aproach also have its advantages. Because he is always experimenting on the same subject (himself), Roberts does not have to worry about finding groups of participants that are like enough to be compared to one another. He is also able to do multiple related experiments over long time horizons that would test the patience of most (even paid) volunteers. Robert's experiments always had a self-help edge -- what is the most efficient way to fall asleep? How does one get rid of acne? While this might cause some who are already predesposed to question the value of his work to dismiss it altogether, I admire his discipline and cheerful ability to ignore scientific orthodoxy on how research is to be conducted.

The basic premise of the Shangri-la diet is both laughably simple in execution and rather unlikely in theory. The idea is, taking empty calories like sugar water or oil depresses your appetite, as long as you do not combine those empty calories with any flavor. This makes you thin, not by working any magic with your metabolism as so many other cough*quack*cough diets promise, but by depressing your appetite. The blander your food is, the idea goes, the weaker your connection between good, flavorful sensations and calories. One can conceptualize it as a kind of operant conditioning to wean you off your cravings for taste. Robert's evolutionary biology reasoning goes thus: our body have a set weight we are compelled to return to. When we are above or below our set weight, our appetite increases or decreases accordingly. So trying to eat will result in weight loss in the short term, but more hunger in the long term, making further weight loss an uphill struggle. Now here's where he makes his big leap: people have a higher set-point during times of plenty because they know they can maintain a bigger body as there is more food around. Conversely, people lower their set-points when times are lean because they know there is just less food around. Flavors function as signals for your body as to how plentiful the food is in your environment. By eating foods with little or no flavor, the message is we're living through a famine, cut back accordingly.

OK, it's wacky. One would think that our bodies would be programmed to eat more if it sees food around and it thinks its in a famine. But is it any wackier than the "fatter people have lower metabolism" stuff we all were suckered by for so long? Sure, the whole "deprive your body of flavor" stuff does not go down well with my gourmet within, but hey, I drink too much soda anyhow. Would it really be that much of a deprivation to drink the same syrup without the smidgeon of artificial flavor and caramel color?

Good luck to Roberts and all the Shangri-la dieters. I really want there to some basis to this despite the fact that it is, prima farcie, nonsense, because it would be so cool if somebody solved the obesity crisis through such a freaky means of scientific exploration.

(Oh yeah, I forgot that this is a book review. As far as the writing is concerned, it's the standard mix of testimonials and method and a quite a bit of theory. Seems a little bit overstretched to me. After all, how many times can you say -- "drink some syrup or oil with no flavor. There, you should depress your apetite and get thinner now". However, I have to wonder. Vodka is a source of calories without flavor. Would taking shots of vodka independent of food conform to the criterions set by the Shangri-la diet? If not, why not? And if so, shouldn't the Russians be the sveltest people in the world?)