Book Review: The Shangri-La Diet

I’m giving this one a qualified recommendation. About a third of it is really good. That part contains the recommendations to supplement your diet with sugar water and olive oil, explaining how and when. Unfortunately, the remaining two-thirds attempts to explain how and why the plan works. That part is mostly pseudo-scientific nonsense. The space would have been better used telling readers what to avoid in the American supply — something that is much easier to do when you follow the author’s recommendations. As diet books go, this one will do less harm than most. And the book is well-written, so even the nonsense is an entertaining read.

Originally published 2006

book picture

Despite its defects, which I’ll explain in greater detail as we go on, The Shangri-La Diet by Seth Roberts is worth a read. It has some concepts that you will want to use in your weight-control regimen. It presents some interesting statistics (in small bites), and one terrific analogy. Unfortunately, the analogy turns out to be entirely misleading.

Losing Weight with Oil, Sugar, and Water

The big truths he presents are that you can essentially turn off your appetite by taking

  1. Sugar water
  2. Light olive oil

According to Roberts, you can take them alone or together, but they work best if you take them by themselves, rather than in combination with other foods. They also seem to work best when you take them together, rather than by themselves. In other words:

oil + water + sugar => lower appetite

That information is much of what makes the book worth reading, along with some important details, such as the fact that hot water is better because you sip it slowly. The book also contains useful cautions about medical conditions for which the program is not advised. (Diabetes argues against the sugar water, for example, and some other conditions advise against the oil.)

Those are the good points. On the other hand, there are some some glaring gaps:

  1. An adequate theory
  2. An understanding of how olive oil is produced
  3. An understanding of how America’s food supply creates obesity.

Lack of an Adequate Theory

Roberts describes the set point analogy (below) as though it were a valid explanatory theory (it isn’t). He also brings to light some interesting science regarding the body’s adaptation to flavors. Unfortunately, neither concept rises to the level of a real explanation. For that reason, he misses predictions that could easily be made with a more robust theory — even when evidence to support those predictions is provided by people who have read his book.

The Set Point Theory

In this case, the analogy compares the human body to a thermostat, with an adjustable “set point”. Roberts does a better job of explaining that analogy than anyone I’ve read. The useful part of the explanation is that the set point is adjustable. It’s not something that’s fixed forever.

But the bad part is that while it is a terrific analogy, it’s not an explanation — and Roberts consistently confuses the two. A thermostat operates by measuring the temperature, and then turning the heat or on off depending on how it compares to the set point. The body functions in a similar way, but it’s not a function of the body’s weight.

Imagine, for a moment, that the body did work that way. How would it work, exactly? The body has several trillion cells. For a weight-based set point, every cell would have to send a message to some central processing site that said, in effect, “here’s how much I weigh”. After adding up the information from those several trillion cells, the information would then have to be compared to some magical and mystical “set point”, which would be independently adjusted by what you eat.

That’s a lot of complex machinery. But similar effects can be produced with much simpler machinery. The body can monitor the amount of sugar and fat in the blood stream. When they begin to drop below the amount the body knows it needs, it can trigger a hunger attack.

That explanation is a lot closer to what the body actually does. And it has more “explanatory power”, as well. For example, It can explain why people who eat dairy products tend to lose weight. Since they more sugar and fat in their bloodstream, their appetite stays down.

The Flavor Theory

The next interesting tidbit in the book is that we learn to like foods that supply us with energy. That learning can take place very rapidly, too. I remember eating something new once, and not being sure whether or not I liked it. By the next day, I liked it a lot. It was apparent that it had given my body something it needed, so my body acquired a taste for it — literally over night. It certainly wasn’t anything I had anything to do with on a conscious level.

From that interesting observation, Roberts leaps to the conclusion that since you desire foods with flavors you associate with being good, you should therefore avoid flavor. Citing some interesting scientific studies, he somehow concludes that having more flavor in a meal will cause you to eat more later on.

It’s an interesting theory. But the Mediterranean diet is sufficient to prove it wrong. People in the Mediterranean eat very rich, flavorful foods. Yet, they are not fat. If the flavor theory held any merit, they could not fail to be.

As a result of the flavor theory, Roberts advises using light olive oil rather than extra virgin olive oil, and plain table sugar rather than brown sugar, raw sugar, or honey. If his theory his correct, then his recommendations make sense. But he is good enough to report people who are successfully using extra virgin olive oil and honey.

To me, that makes sense, because I believe it is nutritional density that explains the effects. When the body has what it needs to operate, there is no hunger. So it makes sense that a hundred calories or two in the form of olive oil and sugar would prevent you from eating so much at the next meal.

Taking the combination of olive oil and sugar between meals makes sense, too. When we eat frequent small meals, the hunger never grows to the point that we need to gorge. Adding it to an existing meal makes it easy to overeat, because of the time it takes for food digest. That makes it easy to overeat before the food “registers” with the body.

Understanding How Olive Oil is Produced

I can live with Robert’s recommendation for the use of sugar. I use honey, myself, but it’s good to know that if I’m at a fancy restaurant that’s going too take an hour to deliver the meal, a bit of sugar and hot water (plus some butter on a bit of bread) will most likely be a good thing.

On the other hand, I have a much stronger reaction to his suggestion that light olive oil is preferable to extra virgin olive oil.

As Roberts points out, “a calorie is not a calorie”. That’s true enough. Personally, I threw out calorie considerations two decades ago when I realized that a block of wood contains a ton of calories — but you’re never going to gain weight eating sawdust.

So not all calories are the same, and it’s good to eat healthy calories. So far, so good. But the problem with light olive oil is that it is much less healthy than extra virgin olive oil.

To understand why, you need to know a little about the refining process, so you know why the oil is extra light. The short version is this:

  • The first press produces a rich, flavorful oil. That’s the extra virgin oil.
  • “Cold Pressed” is best. (Heat harms the unsaturated Omega-9 fatty acids in the oil.)
  • The olives aren’t pressed just once, but multiple times.
  • In subsequent presses, more heat and chemicals are used to squeeze the remaining oil out of the olives.
  • Both the heat and the chemicals are bad for your health. The chemicals are bad by themselves. The heat turns unsaturated fats into trans fats, and oxidizes the saturated fats — both of which are inimical to your health.
  • Extra light olive oil is “light” in flavor and color because it comes from the very last steps in the process, when the most heat and most chemicals have been used, when there is very little oil left in the olives.

In other words, when it comes to your health, extra light olive oil is the worst olive oil you can buy. So I’m inclined to go with the extra virgin, myself.

On the other hand, if the extra light olive oil causes you to eat less of America’s fast foods, then you could well wind up with a net positive for your health. As bad as extra light olive oil may be, it’s nowhere near as bad as much of the food that is being served in America’s commercial kitchens.

That brings us to the book’s second major oversight: the impact of America’s foods on our nation’s obesity.

Understanding How America’s Foods Create Obesity

The book suggests that if you add oil, sugar, and water to your diet, you don’t have to be concerned about what you eat. To some extent, that’s true, if only because you’ll be less hungry and less compelled to eat whatever is available. As a result, you’ll be able to make healthier choices more easily. And when you make unhealthy choices, the results won’t be as bad, because you won’t eat as much.

That’s all good, but the book does a serious disservice to its readers by failing to point out that there are ingredients in the American food supply that you should avoid. As described in What’s Wrong with American Foods?, those foods have ingredients like:

  • MSG, which makes the food addictive
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup, which spikes insulin levels
  • Partially Hydrogenated Oils, which interfere with insulin metabolism

Those ingredients fatten you up like the proverbial calf, And obesity is just the beginning if their long term effects on your health.

The book stops well short of making that connection. It has a nice little graph showing how the rise in the number of restaurants exactly corresponds with America’s rise in obesity. But it stops short of making a cause-and-effect connection. After all, it could be that fat people eat out more, so more restaurants can stay in business.

If the number of restaurants per capita has gone up, it’s obvious that more people are eating out. But why is that? The graph shows that the trend towards an increasing number of restaurants in any given area started around 1980. What happened at that time? Was it the result of women’s liberation, which give women more opportunities outside of the kitchen? Was it the result of economic pressures that led to an increasing number of two-worker households? Was it rising divorce rates, that led to having fewer dinners at home? Or was it a combination of those factors?

Whatever the causes, the fact that more people are eating meals away from home can easily explain why there are more restaurants. But it does not explain why people are getting fatter. Only corporate malfeasance explains that.

If you got the same quality food eating out that you get by eating in, dining out would not make you fat. Unfortunately, you don’t. Ingredients like MSG, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated oils are rampant in restaurant foods, and even more so in fast food joints. But the food services lobby is so powerful that they aren’t even required to label their average ingredients, much less suffer any restrictions on the ingredients they can use.

So it may have been societal pressures that led us to eat out more, but it is unethical corporate behavior, in my view, that has produced epidemic levels of obesity and disease. (The fact that the behavior is “unethical” is without question — because the science has been known since the 70’s, and even earlier.)

Of course, Roberts’ believes that foods prepared at home are less fattening because there is more variation in the flavors. It’s an interesting hypothesis. But it’s one that we won’t be able to test until the provably fattening, provably unhealthy ingredients have been eliminated from America’s restaurant menus.

My Theory

To repeat, the book was worth a read, despite its tragic flaws. It was worth a read for bringing up the intriguing concept that what amounts to a partial olive-oil-and-sugar-water fast can be an effective remedy for weight gain.

Roberts says he was eating about one meal a day on his plan. That’s intriguing, because in that one meal you can take in the fiber you need to keep your digestive tract working, as well as the protein you need.

Even once a day, you may be getting more protein than you really need, so your protein and fiber needs are more than being met with this plan. And the fiber is critical. After a long fast, your digestive tract gets out of shape, like an underworked muscle, and has to be slowly reintroduced to bulk foods. Eating once a day or more keeps that from happening.

So I find the core ideas intriguing, to say the least. The body needs sugar and fat to operate. The combination of olive oil and sugar water gives you quick energy from the sugar, and sustained energy from the oil. Plus, I’m guessing that the oil slows down the digestion of the sugar to a certain extent, by keeping it in the stomach longer.

When I first heard about this plan, I tried taking a swig of olive oil every now and then. It definitely reduced hunger. But when I followed it with a glass of water, I felt really full for quite a while.

Now, after reading the book, I’m freely translating its advice to mean extra virgin olive oil and honey water. At night, I’m taking them as a snack by themselves. And I have some at work, as well, to get me through that mid-afternoon slump.

This morning, I made a “faux milk” by drizzling olive oil onto my granola, followed by water. That’s a good thing for me, because I stopped taking dairy quite a while ago.

I followed the granola, olive oil, and water mixture with tea and honey — more water, and sugar. If my theory is correct, then the olive oil and sugar should make a difference, regardless of how it is consumed. If Roberts’ “flavor theory” is correct, then it won’t help.

Of course, I’m not the perfect candidate to test my theory, any more than Roberts is to test his, because I’ll be trying my damnedest to prove I’m right. But then, maybe that’s not so bad. With any luck, we’ll both win.


In short, I suggest that Seth Roberts has reached some very good conclusions using some very flawed reasoning. But I don’t wish to throw out the baby with the bath water. The conclusions are extremely useful, regardless of the theory used to explain them. If the book were long-winded or badly written, I’d give it a pass. But since it is short, well-written, and easily read in a single sitting or two, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation — not because it will solve America’s obesity problem, but because it will help those who know how to fill in the gaps.

Experiment Diary

Mon, 8 May 2006 (Day One — baseline)
Read the book over the weekend. Got a partial start on it when I heard about the concept last week, but I’ll use today as my official starting day. (So in the reports below, “Day Two” should be read as “somewhere between Day Two and a week later”.)Weighed 239. A lot of it is muscle but still, for me, that’s obscene. A couple of years ago, I got down from 229 to 205, after eight months of serious work outs and healthy eating. That was a good weight, but even then there was room to drop a few more. But since then, I’ve been going up, just as I have every year since college. (I was a skinny 160. Then I was trim and healthy 180-190. That was in my 30’s. Then I began working for a living and eating all of meals at fast food joints. A while later, I was at 200. That wasn’t so bad. But at 210, I was definitely overweight. At 220, I had a noticeable gut. But now, at 239, I’ve got a watermelon. I do much better than the average joe, but the long term trend is definitely in the wrong direction.
Tue, 9 May (Day Two)
There has been one significant change already. Caffeine levels have gone way done. I don’t need as much to stay awake and be mentally productive. I’m not quite as sharp as when I’ve had several cups of coffee, but I’m not falling asleep without them.Coming down from 5 cups of coffee to a couple of cups of tea has been intense, though. I had headaches bordering on migraine for the first couple of days. They’ve finally started to subside, thankfully. But it has been a healthy, positive change.
Wed, 10 May (Day Three)
Not much in the way of weight loss, as expected. I weighed 237-1/2 on the scale at home, but that 1-1/2 pound difference could easily be due to the time of day. On the other hand, I only had a small sandwich for lunch and a couple for dinner. Other than that, it was olive oil, honey, and water three times. (A tablespoon of olive oil and honey each time.)
Thu, 11 May (Day Four)
Yesterday, I was eating a lot more lightly with a small sandwich at lunch, a couple of them plus a few goodies for dinner (banana bread and a cookie or two). Had the oil/honey combination for a late snack. Today, I got up earlier with more energy. Pollen levels could be dropping, which would account for that. But I ate even lighter, and that has nothing to do with pollen:Breakfast: Granola & tea for breakfast (with EVOO & honey)
Lunch: A large sandwich, a glass of tea, and a banana.
Dinner: Another small bowl of granola, an apple, a few cookies, and a licorice snack.

I find that I’m eating more fruit. Not a lot. Not working at it. Just grabbing a bit of fruit from time to time, because I’m not all that hungry but it would taste good and be a nice light snack, or a nice addition to a meal.

Yesterday, I also began trying to phase in the “Flip a Switch” plan, where you do some exercises, some stretching, a few light exercises, or some meditation and visualization at regular intervals throughout the day. I haven’t read the book yet, so I’m guessing a lot, and I’m only doing a few things now and again, instead of regularly. But I’ve already noticed that it’s a big help for increasing the metabolism and keeping energy levels high. (I start the day with a good bout of “cat stretching” as the tea kettle heats up — squeezing every muscle at once as I stretch out. It’s very good for getting the blood flowing.)

It’s very odd that the Shangri-La Plan and the Flip a Switch plan should find me in the same week, but the combination is terrific. One keeps the calories down by keeping nutritional density up, the other keeps the metabolism up with frequent, small bursts of activity. When you add those two to the knowledge of what to avoid in the American food supply, it’s a powerful combination.

Then I saw an article on Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code in a special Newsweek issue devoted to the suject. He looks lean and fit. He has an old fashioned hour glass that uses when he writes. When the sand runs out, he does some pushups or situps and things. Heck of a good idea.Fri, 12 May (Day Five)

Couldn’t help myself. Had to get on the scales last night. Went to a 8pm fund-raiser. I was hungry, but not ravenous. So I had a baby carrot. Then a pearl-sized tomato. And another one. A few minutes later, I had another baby carrot. Several minutes after that, a tiny cube of cheese. It wasn’t enough, really, but I felt fine.Got home and weighed myself. 235.5. That’s two anomalies in a row. If it’s a trend, it’s a doozy.

Breakfast: Granola with olive oil and water, tea with honey
Lunch: 2 baloney sandwiches, 2 cookies
Afternoon Snack: EVOO and hot honey water
Evening Snack: 2 baby carrots, 2 grape tomatoes, 1 cube cheese (Too little. I was ravenous at dinner.)
Late Dinner: 2 PB&J sandwiches, honey water, 3 cookies
Dessert: Granola with olive oil and water, tea with honey (Overly hungry. “Dessert” was a necessity.)

I have a personal modification to the plan that seems to make a difference. I take a lecithin pill with the swig of olive oil. Then I begin sipping the hot honey water Lecithin is necessary for fat digestion, so it may help to explain why the plan is working so well for me.

Sat, 13 May (Day Six)Drat. 239.5. So much for a trend. I’ve probably been measuring my body’s water content — that’s the only way to see weight changing so fast. Oh, well. Still, energy is way up in a quiet, non-frenetic way — and caffeine is way down. Instead of being exhausted and spending the weekend in recovery mode, I’ve been getting things done. I’m eating a lot less of the sweet stuff, too, which is great for my teeth. So the OO+Honey snack plan is a keeper, regardless of the weight. I’m going to have to stick with it for a few weeks, though, to give it a fair comparison with the “no flavor” plan recommended in the book.

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