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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.

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Vacationing and diet setbacks

I’m back from my two-week hiatus whereby I partied with old college buddies at my best friend’s wedding in Olympia, Washington, and then took a week-long vacation with my wife — we drove around Mount Rainier and toured Seattle and Vancouver. The vacation was much-needed, and I took the opportunity to disconnect entirely from work for most of it.

Of course, the five days in Olympia were spent consuming untold amounts of junk food and drinking immense amounts of alcohol, day after day, all on reduced sleep and fighting jet lag. Said differently, I lost control of my insulin and fell off the health wagon! And of course, once off the wagon, I took full advantage, eating every cinnamon roll and chip in sight.

It happens, I guess. Setbacks happen.

The downside to this admittedly enjoyable carbfest is that I gained probably eight pounds of non-lean tissue. I’m ballparking that a bit as my weight went up about that much and based on some skinfold calipers, my body fat percentage went up maybe 2 – 3%. Using pre-vacation figures and comparing lean tissue to post-vacation figures, my lean tissue stayed virtually constant, thus the reasonably accurate guess that I put on about seven pounds.

Amazing what a couple weeks of bad-eating can do, right?

We got back this past Sunday and I’ve since embarked on getting back on track. This has involved some mini-fasts, exercising, et cetera. I can already tell some improvement from just a few days ago in my torso adipose tissue.

Thus, maybe there’s a bright side to this diet setback. I’m learning about my body — or at least, formulating various conjectures as to what is going on. Here are some thoughts:

  • Caloric restriction and eating a low-carbohydrate diet will key your body in certain helpful ways. Insulin sensitivity will rise, for example. The body will cycle through waste-proteins and move to cell maintenance and repair. I liken this process to battening down the hatches, throwing overboard unnecessary baggage and running lean.
  • The flip side of caloric restriction and low-carbing is that heightened insulin sensitivity means both a more acute reaction to carbohydrates when consumed and, well, your body has been running lean and is all about replenishing lost resources. So in a period of abundant carbohydrates and the utter lack of exercise, your body is going to go into full storage mode.
  • All of the above demonstrates how dynamic our bodies are. Flip a few variables and you will get an entirely different result. Fat stores are incredibly dynamic.
  • The first two or three nights after consuming immense amounts of alcohol and carbohydrates, I had to sleep above the covers as I could not get cool. Pure speculation, but I’m guessing that my body simply wasn’t ready to produce enough insulin to reduce my blood sugar to appropriate levels, so it was heat cycling away the excess calories (Adaptive thermogenesis?).

What I’m really curious about is how long it will take me to get back to my pre-vacation weight. Is two weeks too much to hope for? A month?

In the coming days, I’m going to experiment with different concoctions of fasting and exercising. I’m curious to try out Lyle McDonald‘s Stubborn Fat Protocol, which is essentially:

  • Drink 100 – 200mg of caffeine an hour prior to working out
  • Do ten minutes of high intensity interval training
  • Rest five minutes
  • Do 30 – 40 minutes of low-intensity cardio
  • Eat some protein an hour or two after working out, and then back to a meal a few hours after that

What I’m finding difficult in implementing the above is that I’m still fighting the reverse jet lag, which makes going to sleep at a decent time very difficult. In turn, I wake up late, and the SFP is almost certainly best implemented in the morning fresh off a fast.

Ideally, I can combine SFP with CrossFit to get a nice training regiment going. Regarding CrossFit specifically, I’m leaning to implementing a 3x week CrossFit training schedule whereby the days are not back to back. That level of high-intensity, in my opinion, puts too much stress on my body: I’d rather integrate CrossFitting with some SFP and/or low-intensity “activity”. Any suggestions?

Apologies for the brain-dump here, just been working through some ideas and brainstorming them out here on the blog. Whether they make for good reading is moot!

Feedback is welcome.

Update 09/05/08

Seems a week’s worth of dieting and exercise has already made some impact on getting me back on track. Of course, to echo my real interest — I want to see how long it takes me to get back to pre-vacation definition. I’m hoping it will be “easy come, easy go” while fully realizing that its a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it, particularly when that weight is fat.