"The Shangri-La Diet" - Interview with Author Dr. Seth Roberts

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:37pm

It seems too good to be true. The skeptics invariably will scoff at the idea of a weight loss plan where you can eat what you want without counting calories, starving yourself, attending meetings, or exercising to the point of exhaustion. All you have to do is drink a seemingly magic elixir—the ingredients of which, by the way, are likely already sitting in your kitchen cabinet—and you can lose all the weight you want to lose and then some.

Buy The Shangri-La Diet

At first glance The Shangri-La Diet seems preposterous. How could a between meal dose of sugar water or olive oil possibly complete a weight loss puzzle the health care industry has spent billions trying to solve for generations? But then you start to read the book and doubt turns to curiosity as University of California at Berkeley Psychology Professor Seth Roberts unravels the secrets behind The Shangri-La Diet, a self tested "weight loss theory that just might benefit a few million people". Thanks to Dr. Roberts for chatting with The Diet Channel.

You are a psychology professor at UC-Berkeley. How does your psychology expertise lend itself to weight loss analysis?
I am a rat psychology expert. In graduate school, I studied animal learning. At the core of my weight-control theory – the theory that led me to my diet – is a concept straight out of animal learning: We learn to associate the flavors of a food with the calories it contains. Pavlov studied this sort of learning. Most weight-control researchers know little about it. The experiments that inspired my theory were done by a scientist named Israel Ramirez and published in 1990. Ramirez had not studied animal learning so he did not fully grasp what his results implied. Nor did other weight-control researchers. When I learned about his results, however, I thought of my new theory in seconds. Because of my background, it was obvious.

You were your own lab rat in testing your weight loss theories. How many different weight loss plan variations did you experience before you arrived at "Shangri La"?
About 10. Some variations I couldn’t do for more than a day or two, such as drinking vinegar. Other variations lasted years, such as eating food with a low glycemic index. I ate lots of sushi for a few months. Theory not theories, by the way – I only had one theory. It took years, trial and error, and luck to figure out the best way to apply it.

What has been the reaction among your colleagues in academia to a psychology professor writing the latest best selling diet book?
No reaction. They don’t read self-help books. If they become aware of it, I hope they’ll be amused, for the same reason that my students laugh when I say "pimple."

Why the title Shangri La?
The fictional Shangri-La was a very peaceful place. My diet puts people at peace with food. Food-related thoughts, cravings, and bad-for-me-but-hard-to-resist desires usually go away or are greatly reduced within days of starting the diet.

The diet revolves around what you describe as a person’s "set point". Please explain set point.
Your brain has a weight-control system that tries to keep your body fat at a certain amount. That amount is your "set point" – the weight your brain wants you to be. When your weight is above your set point, you become more hungry than usual and it takes more food than usual to feel full. When your weight is below your set point, the opposite happens: You become less hungry than usual and it takes less food than usual to feel full. Because of these changes, your weight follows your set point. If your set point goes up, your weight follows it upward; if your set point goes down, your weight follows it downward. The secret to comfortable weight loss is to lower your set point.

Tell us about "Ditto Foods."
Ditto foods are foods that taste exactly the same each time. Soft drinks. Breakfast cereals. Your favorite salami. Anything out of a package. Frozen foods. Anything from a mix. Chain-restaurant food. I introduced the term because I believe that ditto foods caused the obesity epidemic. Americans eat far more ditto food now than 20 years ago. Microwave ovens and chain restaurants have a lot to do with this.

Why sugar water and extra light olive oil?
They supply calories without flavor. Although sugar water is sweet, sweetness does not count as a flavor.

Though you describe it as a flavorless oil, swallowing a spoonful of extra light olive oil sounds awful. Is it gross or not?
Hey, nice website idea: grossornot.com, where people rate pictures of food. Many find it gross, many do not. It gets easier. I cringed slightly at my first tablespoon of oil; now I don’t cringe at all. In the Shangri-La Diet forums at sethroberts.net, there are lots of creative and helpful ideas about how to drink oil without discomfort.

Can you really "eat anything" on this diet?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that no foods are forbidden or even restricted. No, in the sense that there are certain foods – the oil and sugar water – that the diet requires (although in an extra-credit chapter I describe ways of losing weight not involving oil or sugar water). I could have called it the "eat anything else" diet. As long as you drink oil or sugar water, you can eat anything else.

What are your thoughts on junk food and fast food?
For a weight-control perspective, the problem with junk food and fast food is not fat or sugar or calories; it is that they taste exactly the same each time – they are ditto foods. "One taste worldwide" was a McDonald’s slogan. Back in the 1950’s, people were not eating a low-fat diet. They were not eating low-carb (avoiding sugar and bread). They were not trying to eat small portions. (And they were not getting much exercise, either.) Yet they were much thinner than us. The reason is that they ate much less ditto food, including less junk food and fast food, than we do.

What are the best Shangri-La success stories?
A few people have lost about 100 pounds and kept it off; you can read about one of them on the "success stories" page of sethroberts.net. Tim Beneke used my ideas in a new way to lose about 100 pounds and keep it off; you can read his story in the comments section here. Numbers, however, do not do justice to the emotional effects. "After the very first day [on the diet], I finally for once in my life had real hope," wrote someone in the sethroberts.net forums. "The Monster has been rocked to sleep," wrote someone else.

Why differentiate between sucrose and fructose?
Fructose is digested more slowly than sucrose. It keeps your blood sugar more constant.

Are there any other health benefits to having a daily dose of extra light olive oil?
Olive oil and canola oil are "good" fats, believed to reduce risk of heart disease if substituted for "bad" fats. Many people report that it gives them softer skin. I noticed that, and softer hair, too.

How much weight can a person expect to lose?
If you are thin (say, BMI < 22), little or no weight. If you are fat, quite a bit of weight. Maximum weight loss so far has been around 100 pounds.

What will a person experience while on The Shangri-La Diet?
Loss of interest in food. Fewer thoughts about food. Irresistible food becomes resistible. When eating, you become full much sooner. You leave food on your plate for the first time in . . . well, ever. The forums at sethroberts.net have several hundred detailed descriptions of peoples’ experiences.

Have people experienced any particular problems as a result of the diet?
Several possible side effects, good and bad, are described in the forums at sethroberts.net. It is usually hard to say whether they are due to the diet or to the change in eating habits that it causes – less caffeine consumption, for example.

The main thing to be cautious about is drinking sugar water for long periods of time, such as years. High blood sugar levels, which occur if you drink sugar water quickly, slowly damage your body.

Which other diet plans, if any, do you find to be complimentary to Shangri-La?
I don’t know of a diet plan that you can’t do at the same time. The Shangri-La diet is compatible with almost any philosophy of eating.

What are your thoughts on curbing the tide that is the American obesity epidemic?
As I said earlier, I believe the obesity epidemic has been caused by ditto foods. Ditto foods – also known as repeat business – are the backbone of the food industry. To reverse the trend, the changes will need to be far-reaching. Parents and school teachers can help children learn to cook and enjoy cooking. Home cooking is the opposite of ditto food. They can also teach children to be food connoisseurs; connoisseurs avoid ditto foods. But the most effective changes, I believe, will eventually come from the food industry because there is a great deal of money to be made. Food manufacturers can help consumers vary the flavors of packaged food in various ways, such as including many different spice packets. They can also, using new manufacturing techniques, produce foods that intentionally vary in flavor. These flavor-varying foods might be labeled home-cooked flavor.

Is Shangri-La a solution for overweight children?
The ideas of the book, yes. The key idea is that children are becoming obese because they are eating lots of ditto food. The children of too-busy parents, I’m afraid, may eat only ditto food.

Best part of being the author of the latest best-selling diet book?
Reading the forums at sethroberts.net. I am addicted. "This isn’t really a diet," someone wrote, "it is a new beginning in the world of food." There are dozens of comments like that.