The Shangri-La Diet

food pyramid
Cartoon by Tom Cheney in The New Yorker. Buy his cartoons here.

Before you wonder why a weblog about the environment and business would be reviewing a diet book (Seth Roberts’ The Shangri-La Diet), here’s what piqued my interest:

  • The publisher (Putnam/Penguin/Pearson) is going all-out to market this book virally, using the blogosphere as a key launch-pad (I got my copy free). I’ve always believed that viral marketing success is strictly a function of individual perception of the value of the product, and hence more a reflection of the quality of the product and market research, rather than the quality of the marketing campaign. If this book becomes a smash (it’s #63 on Amazon today, so it’s already on its way, though it’s only #2302 in Canada) how much will that be due to the publisher’s efforts, talk TV appearances, plugs on the Freakonomics blog etc. and how much to word of mouth? Would it inevitably have sold as well, just more gradually, without any proactive publicity at all? The book’s author speculates on this on his own blog.
  • The diet is very much a ‘gift economy’ product. It’s very simple, and you don’t really need the book to get the benefits of the diet. So the business model intrigues me. Just as I’m watching the sales data for Neil Young’s new CD Living With War, which is streaming free on his site and blog and was launched with a viral flurry, I’m really interested in knowing: Will people pay for a book they don’t have to buy, out of gratitude or just sense of fair play, to compensate the author for the value they’ve received from his research and ideas?
  • I’m intrigued by the idea of using yourself as the only ‘test subject’ that matters, ignoring the testimonials and animal experiments and double-blind tests on ‘representative groups’, and especially the ‘ask your doctor if x is right for you’ crap, and taking responsibility for your health into your own hands. The learned helplessness that has us to believe we’re incapable of knowing how to treat our bodies properly without the advice of some ‘professional’ or ‘expert’ who’s being pumped with gifts, biased ‘research’ and free samples by Big Pharma, sickens me. Rather than being put off, I’m kind of impressed that the book’s research is the author’s own, personal, ‘unprofessional’ work, conducted diligently and systematically over years.
  • The diet ‘industry’ is big business, and I was curious to know whether it would fight back against a diet that could, if it works, put them out of business. So far there has not been much response (though this critic would have you believe that a couple of tablespoons of sugar in water each day, or a couple of tablespoons of canola oil per day, will kill you — this nutritionist disagrees, though I’ll leave it up to you to make up your own mind).
  • I am convinced that our food cravings are addictive behaviours. I was a junk food addict in my single years, and I am still addicted to foods with high concentrations of sugar and salt. The author suggests his diet also profoundly curtails cravings, which I think is even more important than its success at weight loss. “Only foods that always taste the same become addictive”, he asserts. While that may strike you as counter-intuitive (“I’ve never met a chocolate I didn’t like”) it does make some sense — in nature, this could be a learning mechanism, a means to prompt you to eat familiar (and proven safe, since they didn’t harm you last time) foods. Of course, a healthy diet is a diverse one, so addiction to sameness of flavour could also be bad for your health, but gatherer-hunter cultures in rich ecologies eat an astonishing variety of foods. Perhaps this very diversity, and the infinite number of flavour combinations, preclude addiction to, and hence preference for, any single flavour.
  • It is the strong, uniform, quickly digested flavour of junk foods (and ubiquity of access to foods with these flavours at supermarkets, vending machines and chain restaurants) that Roberts blames for the US obesity epidemic. The implication, if he’s right, is obvious and huge: Significantly increase the variety of flavours and flavour combinations we eat (with, or more likely without the help of the packaged-, junk-, and fast-food industries) and you’ve gone a long way to solving both our obesity and health-care cost crises. Oligopolies are not only bad for innovation and the economy, they are bad for our health.

If you want to know about the diet itself, here’s a link to Kathy Sierra’s explanation. It’s really as simple as drinking a tablespoon or two of flavourless oil (light, non-virgin olive oil or canola) and/or sipping two or three tablespoons of sugar (not low-cal sugar substitutes) heavily diluted in water over half an hour, each day, no closer than an hour to consuming any foods with flavour (that includes juice, tea, coffee, and even brushing your teeth). The claim is that this lowers your body’s ‘set-point’ (the weight your appetite aims to keep your body at). Increase quantities (maximum 3 tbsp/day sugar plus 2 tbsp/day oil) to lower your set-point and reduce weight faster, decrease quantities if you’re losing weight or appetite too quickly. Read the book for more on the science, FAQs, and complementary practices that can help you lose weight.

I’m only a few pounds over ideal weight now. But I am terribly unfit, though I began a rigorous exercise program two weeks ago and have stuck with it so far. In the past, exercise has not caused me to reduce weight, but rather just redistribute it and convert fat to muscle, so I look and feel better.

But I continue to have evening cravings, especially for sugar and salt. Unless I have morning meetings, I get up at 9am and often work until 2am, consuming nothing except tea (one milk, one stevia) until about 3pm (a small late lunch, toast with homemade fruit juice), followed by a full dinner (my wife is an excellent cook, so I eat whatever she makes) and then a distressing amount of junk in the evenings. So I’m going to try 1 tbsp of canola at 2pm each day and see what happens (I just took my first dose; not disgusting at all). Will the new exercise program mess with my metabolism and screw up the diet? Will my unbalanced eating schedule interfere with the diet’s effectiveness at reducing cravings? Will the economies of Idaho, Atlanta, Oak Brook IL and Hershey PA collapse as millions get the monkey off their back? Will I die a terrible deathfrom consuming fat straight instead of processed and hydrogenated?

Stay tuned.

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17 Responses to The Shangri-La Diet

  1. James Pargiter says:

    I picked up the book already knowing about the diet from Seth Roberts’ guest blogging on the Freakonomics site. I’m very optimistic about it. Regarding your thoughts about the diet industry fighting back, I’d be willing to bet that it will be the diet beverage manufacturers that will fight hardest soonest. Creators of other diet programs will have a tough time refuting the anecdotal evidence of the diet’s efficacy. Producers of diet foods will probably see a new market for taking advantage of flavour variance – one of the ideas in the SLD theory. Diet beverage makers will probably be hit hardest if the book takes off though, when the revelation takes hold that the flavour of their low-calorie/no-calorie beverages can actually contribute to weight gain. I foresee a short but strong diet beverage marketing blitz in the near future.

  2. Joan says:

    Dave: You’re craving calories in the evening because your body is still trying to catch up from being semi-starved for most of the day. Try having a real breakfast and lunch every day for a while (and not just starch, sugar and fat – eat some protein and veggies for pete’s sake!). And keep up that excercise program! I don’t want to lose you to an early heart attack – would miss your blog too much!

  3. Gary J Moss says:

    Despite the bad press a low-carb diet has gotten from the misinterpretation of what Atkins propounded, carbohydrate restriction is a good way to lose weight for many (though people are different, so I won’t say that it’s good for everyone). A healthful low-carb diet is also moderately low in fat, and being low in both carbs and fats, it’s also low-calorie.The point is in the selection of your carbs and fats. As in traditional weight-loss diets over the decades, high-fiber fruits and vegetables are acceptable carbs. Conversely, the ingestion of foods made from refined flours and sugars with little fiber make losing weight very difficult. Additionally, you should make sure you get sufficient omega-3 fatty acids (from fish or fish oil). And olive oil is a good choice for salad dressings.As far as the Shangri-la Diet is concerned, I can’t pass judgment on it because I’ve never tried it. But it’s true that fructose water is not a good idea. You would be better off to sweeten your water with ordinary table sugar. Fructose without fiber (i.e. fructose without the fruit) is not healthful. You can read up on it by going to these Wikipedia articles: corn syrup is particularly bad for good health. The wholesale addition of this manmade chemical, along with hydrogenated fats (trans fats), to our processed foods during the past century is responsible for a lot of cardiovascular disease and obesity. If you want to put spread on your toast, use butter, not margarine! And don’t drink sodas, which for fifty or so years now have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar. Insidious crap!

  4. Gary J Moss says:

    Drat. All my new paragraphs were lost!

  5. Very interesting article. I am new to your site and I look forward to your future work. Thanks.

  6. Gordon Filyk says:

    I think that most canola is genetically engineered. I would stay away from that.The variety is important, as you said in the article and relate often on other subjects.We need to skip any diet that attempts to homogenize a person’s eatinghabits.

  7. theresa says:

    Sounds like a good book with a lot of good ideas. I’m not going to buy it, mainly because I don’t buy diet books but I’m also turned off to the Freakonomics connection – I bought that book not because I read about it here but because it jumped off the shelf at me in the bookstore, there was just too much hype in it for my taste – especially the hype about the author not just on the jacket but within the pages of the book. Apart from that, the diet sounds interesting, as diets go. The theory of craving being related to “sameness” of food goes along way to explaining why nobody ever had a craving for fruitcake – just too many suprises in there with all the fruit and nuts. I don’t find myself craving foods that I have to actually taste and think about. Most people don’t care to approach their food with trepedition but maybe they should. Interesting reading about new diet theories but not enough to justify buying a book – especially if it makes me feel like I’m following a set of instructions layed down by somebody else.

  8. Craig says:

    Excellent post as usual. I wanted to add a few points to the discussion for what they’re worth.First, on the dilemna of whether or not you should purchase goods whose contents or ideas are available without doing so, the most excellent band Harvey Danger recently released their album for free online. They discuss their rationale here: the whole diet thing, as of January my wife and I have been obsessively aware of our food intake by tracking it with a computer diet tracking program. The program calculates and keeps track of calories, fat (by type), fiber, etc. so you don’t have to constantly punch numbers into a calculator. There are other nifty features but what they all have in common is that they make you aware of what food means to you and your body. I use it to track my weight and changing body dimensions and have seen the impact my diet can have on both. I have also used to become aware of the nasty “stealth food” that I used to eat throughout the day but would then forget about.I’ve found that — especially in the beginning — I was eating a hell of a lot more than I ever had the courage (or awareness) to admit. Tracking it gave me the data I needed to make better decisions. Armed only with this heightened awareness of what I eat and what it means to my daily caloric intake, I have been incredibly effective in shedding pounds. I have lost an average of 10 pounds per month with little or non hunger pangs or feelings of food deprivation — I have just hit the 40 pound weight loss mark. As a matter of fact, if I am below my daily target I often splurge with a dessert after dinner. Probably not the most disciplined reaction but I found that if I am sensitive to my cravings, accept them for what they are, and am fully aware of the consequences, I make much better decisions and, in the end, am healthier and slimmer for my troubles.So, interesting as this diet sounds (and believe me I am intrigued at the science of it all), I will stick with the good old fashioned “watching what I eat and exercising more” approach.

  9. Candy Minx says:

    I am going to look into that diet book. But honestly, I think the best way to look after ones health is by eating like a preagricultural primate. I already do take a shot of oil before a mean, flax seed oil. so that surprised me to hear about that idea. I would recommend flax seed over canola any day. No prison foods. That means, rice, donuts, noodles, bread, potatoes.Eat salmon, bison, beef, eggs and eat something from the cabbage family every day. The supreme source of fiber is in the cabbage family: brocoli, kale, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, all cabbages. Drink 4 litres(count them by actually measuring) and take vitamin B and E natural source. If you’re femail take natural source iron. You’ll be a beautiful weight. Eat lots of vegies, if you eat fruit, eat berries, and amke sure at the same time as protein…like with cottage cheese or yougurt.You will look like a million bucks.If you are concerned about heart disease at all costs do not eat the starches/prison food, especially wheat.See…wheat essay at…

  10. Well, about the time I’d lost 44 pounds I contacted the author (before the book was out) and offerred to send him some money via paypal.He turned me down. Since the book has come out I’ve bought and given away a couple orders of it from Amazon.First, some people just don’t get it without the book. Sigh.Second, some people just don’t get it from being told, only from reading.Good points, though about what happens when you give things away.Roberts is interesting in that the book wasn’t in the works when he gave the diet away. That only came about afterwards. Having talked with him (only three times, only by telephone) he seems bemused by the entire experience. He had some ideas, they worked for him, people asked about them, and over the years they had success. He wrote a paper about it.Someone ran across him. Next thing he is being mentioned in high profile places, gets some news attention. Then, after the diet is on the web and there are two waves of web based people using it (I’m part of the second wave), someone suggests a book and gets him together with an agent.At that point he realizes that he has already given the diet away.But, it seems to be working out ok. Giving it away seems to have created a strong core of people with positive experiences that has made the basis for word of mouth when he lacked a number of other methods for breaking out.He will be on the New York Times bestseller list this week-end. That will be the break-out event, all in all.After all, the internet is like a badly lit library. A book is like reading in the light (you can read text in print about 3-4 times faster than text on a screen).Stephen

  11. Chris says:

    I ordered the book last night but started it yesterday and have noticed a difference in my eating habits already.

  12. Mary says:

    I started this diet last week and already have a couple of pounds off, but the miracle is I do not have any cravings. In fact I want vegetables and salads more than anything. I am not interested in sweets, and I feel good. I have to be very careful to eat, because I could eat too few calories – never a problem before. This is a new way of thinking for me. I always wanted to eat dessert first. But I find that I am satisfied with half the amount I ate before, and I can plan my meals around vegetables, grains and fruit. I feel that I finally have some control over what I eat. I don’t need self control over sweets because I just don’t want it. Hope this lasts!! Also, I have been an occasional smoker, the first couple of days, when I would light a cigarette, I would get a funny taste and didn’t want it, I haven’t had one for4 or 5 days and don’t want one, and don’t want to eat everything in sight. I wonder has anyone else had things like this happen? This diet is so easy and works so good for me.

  13. Monicka says:

    I started the diet on May 1st after seeing Seth on a Canadian news program. I googled Seth Roberts and all the info came up including the procedure to follow but I still bought the book. I have lost a total of 10 pounds as of this morning and like the previous post have noticed that I much prefer healthier food over the less nutritious choices I would have preferred in the past. It is still early but I think the man may just have something here.

  14. Just following up, good to see other people posting who have gotten good results.

  15. Miller says:

    The point of the book isn’t the instructions: those are simple (step one, take up to 400 calories of flavorless oil or sugar water, step 2, make sure you don’t have ANY flavors an hour before or an hour after the oil/sugar. The End).The point of the book is explaining the origin of the idea, the science behind it (yes, there is science behind it) and extrapolating the research into other methods to help lose weight.The book is worth it because it’s an interesting read, not because it’s a diet book.I’ve lost 15 pounds in 2 months. It works for many.

  16. cindy says:

    I downloaded a software, used it for quite sometime, and I gave a ‘donation’ to the creator. I gave the person the same amount if I have to download similar software from a ‘real’ software company. I paid because I believe in fair-play.

  17. Cherie Shields says:

    After reading all the posts, I was wondering if the diet will work with just the oil rather than the sugar. With all the bad effects sugar has on the body, it might be better to just have the oil. I use oil in salad dressing each day (full of flavor) so I don’t see how having a teaspoon of oil would be so bad. Any thought about an all oil approach to this diet?

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