Seth Roberts and the Shangri-La Diet

I cite Seth Roberts’ blog a great deal over at Linked Down. Seth is a Psychology Professor at Berkeley and an avid self-experimenter. I’ve learned a great deal from subscribing to his blog.

For those who don’t know, Seth Roberts created the Shangri-La Diet, which is a diet centered around reducing the association between flavor and caloric load. I haven’t read the book, so this is an approximation of how it works, but the gist is that the more correlated taste is to caloric load, the greater hunger can be, the harder it will be to cut calories, and the higher your body’s set point for weight will be. “SLD” hacks this relationship via ingesting flavorless calories within certain windows of time. These flavorless calories reduce the brain’s association of high energy density and high flavor. Interestingly enough, the macronutrient source of the calories may be unimportant: you can do SLD with oil, sugar water (so long as it is flavorless), or nose-clipping while eating protein. If you’re skeptical about this diet, I suggest taking a trip over to the SLD Forums and be prepared to see plenty of evidence that SLD works.

Even as I have not tried SLD, it is a fascinating idea and it seems that anyone who is serious about better understanding why we gain weight and what regulates hunger and adiposity must take it seriously enough to figure out how it fits into the big picture of human health. Barring that gargantuan task, it’s at a minimum another way to try and hack weight loss if your current regiment isn’t cutting it for you.

I mention all of this because I stumbled on a 2008 interview between Roberts and Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I’ve blogged about exhaustively. What a great thing to find that two people I admire had a thoughtful discussion and, even better, said discussion has been made available to me?

Blogging, science and the internet FTW.

Back to trying to understand how SLD fits into the grand scheme of human physiology. An interesting comment was made at the bottom of Part 13 of Roberts’ Interview of Gary Taubes:

I’ve thought a lot about how consuming tasteless food could supress hunger. My favorite theory is that it is similar to what happens when an animal is hibernating. The “magical” appearance of calories fools your body into thinking it is living off its fat and then it actually does so.

This comment reminded me of how the metabolic pathways while fasted are the same as when we consume a diet of only fat and protein. One effect of low-carb diets is appetite suppression. Could the common theme here simply be that both SLD and low-carbohydrate diets and/or fasting act to “trick” our bodies into switching to a non-hungry state?

Obviously that can’t be the entire picture because insulin is the storage hormone that is unleashed by carbohydrate consumption (though less so with fructose).

This issue is worthy of further thought.

  1. Todd


    I’m also an admirer of both Gary Taubes and Seth Roberts, whose books I read independently. And I also am fascinated by many of the same ideas that you are, including low carb diets, intermittent fasting, hormesis and libertarianism. Why is that you just happen to independently have many of the same interests that I do. There must be some underlying theme here.

    I do also want to posit an explanation as to why low carb (LC) diets and the Shangri-La Diet (SLD) both induce appetite suppression. I think the germ of the explanation is in Good Calories, Bad Calories, particularly the last two chapters, which deal with hunger. The explanation in both cases has to do with a reduction in basal insulin levels. In SLD, flavorless calories such as oils or small amounts of flavorless sugars provide a steady level of glucose or free fatty acids in the bloodstream while bypassing the pre-prandial (before meal) secretion of insulin. Even mild flavors, aromas, or other meal signals like even the appearance of delicious food will induce insulin secretions before eating, much like Pavlov’s dogs salivated to unconditioned or conditioned meal cues. Similarly, the carbohydrate in LC diets, if high enough and fast enough (as with high glycemic carbs) cause a sudden spike in insulin. In either case, an elevated insulin level tends to rapidly reduce blood sugar or fatty acid levels soon after eating, and this drop in blood nutrients is experienced as hunger.

    Taubes cites a lot of research that supports this for LC diets, and I’m just extrapolating it for SLD, based on some research I’ve read on how pre-prandial insulin secretions are triggered in both animals and humans.

    If you are interested, I started a long thread on the SLD forums that explores this point in some detail, and many others have weighed in with their personal experiences.

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