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October 12, 2007

Shangri-La Update

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not to turn 2Blowhards into a diet-blog or anything but ... Well ... (Blush) ... I continue to stick to the Shangri-La Diet, and I continue to lose weight on it too. (I wrote back here about what it was like to begin the Shangri-La Diet.) No big deal: Only about a pound a week is coming off. Still, the weeks do go by ...

I'm finding the experience not just pleasing from a losing-weight point of view but interesting in a variety of ways. For me, the most amazing thing about the Shangri-La Diet hasn't been that it works so far as losing weight goes. It's that it has been almost no trouble at all to follow. It's as simple as can be. That's why Seth Roberts, the Berkeley psychology prof who dreamed the diet up, gave it that "Shangri-La" name: This diet is almost too good, or at least too easy, to be true. (Roberts' website is here.)

I won't go into the details of the diet; you can buy the book if you want those. But I will spill the central discipline of the Shangri-La routine: It involves ingesting some flavorless calories (in the form of oil or sugarwater) several times a day. And that's it. No carb-watching, no fat-forgoing, no vegetarianism, no tofu, no endless rows of grapefruit to consume. You ingest your flavorless calories three or four times a day; otherwise, you eat as you see fit.

The fact is that -- for whatever reason -- you wind up eating less than you usually do. The theory behind why this should be has to do with how we evolved to flourish in Paleolithic conditions of scarcity instead of today's state of abundance and convenience; and about a calories-taste connection that gets forged, makes us fat, and needs to be broken.

Much more important than the theory, though, is the fact that the diet is easy and it works. Perhaps I've taken to eating like a caveman. Perhaps some flavor-calories connection in me is being broken. I have no idea. I do know, though, that after five weeks of going to very little trouble I've dropped five pounds.

From a dieter's point of view, I've found a number of things about the experience to be striking. One is the fact that the diet requires no willpower -- zero. You aren't put in the position of having to overcome your appetites and your instincts. Instead, the flavorless-calories routine changes your appetite, and soon after that your actual eating habits. You begin to want less food, and to feel full and satisfied sooner than usual. Yes, you do eat less -- but not because you're trying to eat less. You eat less because you feel like eating less.

What's double-fascinating is that this process is largely involuntary and unconscious. When I'm eating a meal, at a certain moment -- ie., when I'm full -- I simply put my fork down. That's it, I'm happy, I'm done. The uneaten food sits there looking good, giving me its usual alluring winks -- but I don't fall for the come-on. Instead, I smile and shrug. At the work buffet, I serve myself less. My arm reaches out for the usual one-more-scoop -- and then pauses in mid-reach. My brain goes, Nah, I'm not really going to eat that. And I return to my office with less on my tray. Like I say: No willpower required.

A few times, in a spirit or mischief and experimentation, I've tried eating as I'm used to eating (ie., a little too fast, and a little too much). It resulted not just in the usual grogginess but also in a feeling of "no need for that." No regrets, no self-recriminations: I'd carried out an experiment I'd consciously intended to carry out, and that always has its satisfactions. But once the results were in ... Well, no need to run that particular experiment again.

(By the way, I don't mean to overdramatize. It isn't as though the day after I started the Shangri-La Diet something went Shazaam, everything changed, and I woke up in Oz. It has been a slow accumulation of small changes. Still, they have been noticeable changes.)

But back to willpower ... The only self-discipline that the diet involves has to do with ingesting the flavorless calories. This has to be done two, three, or four times a day. You do have to find it within yourself to keep that routine up, day after day. For me, though, that's a snap -- a small effort akin to brushing my teeth. And slipping up every now and then seems to be of no consequence at all.

The important point is that making this small effort doesn't demand the impossible. It doesn't require you to wrestle your animal being into behaving other than it wants to. You aren't denying yourself the pleasures of the table. You aren't trying to learn how to live with a constant sense of hunger. You aren't denying yourself anything -- even dessert is still a possibility. You're simply remembering to perform a small chore several times a day. Everything else -- eating less, losing weight -- follows of its own accord.

For me, it took about a week for the appetite-suppression part of the Shangri-La experience to kick in. (Those who are far into the Shangri-La Way refer to appetite suppression as AS.) It was a funny and bewildering moment when it did. I reached out for the usual additional forkful -- and my hand stopped in midair. Nope, didn't feel like it -- and back my fork came, empty. My brain was thinking "What the hell?" but my body was saying "Had enough." My instincts were speaking -- only they were saying something different ("Enough") than they usually do ("More! More!").

The weight? Well, the pounds didn't start to come off for another week after the AS kicked in. That week's-delay was a funny episode in its own right. It was as though my body was reluctant to take my intentions seriously. My body was saying something like, "Yeah, yeah, we've seen you try to lose weight before, big deal. 48 hours and your good intentions will go poof." Then, after a week had gone by, the body caved. It said, "All right, all right, since you insist ..." And the pounds started to come off.

I'm surprised what a difference a mere five pounds makes. Not only is the belt cinched in a bit, my knees and my ankles are feeling appreciative; I have a little more bounce in my step. Getting up off a chair or up off the floor is a little easier than it has been in recent years. Happily, my enjoyment of food is, if anything, greater than usual. Although I don't eat as much as I used to, every bit of it is enjoyed. Instead of gobbling my way thoughtlessly through, I'm pausing to savor.

Two more things that I've noticed:

  • As far as I can tell, part of what the diet does is take the neurotic edge off the food question. I no longer eat just because food's available; I eat now only when I'm hungry. I don't gobble through entire plates-full of food just because they're there; I eat as much as I feel like eating, then stop. As for snacking, I hardly ever indulge. I certainly experience the fatigued, bored, and crazed states that used to lead to snack-attacks. They just don't manifest themselves as "I gotta chomp on something" any longer.

    In other words, I'm not taking when-to-eat cues from the outside or from twisted inner drives any longer. I'm taking when-to-eat cues from someplace far more matter-of-fact. When my body speaks, I listen to it. I hear what it tells me about what it needs or wants; and I execute (or I don't). Easy!

    The Shangri-La ritual has apparently amputated some small bit of craziness that I didn't know I'd been carrying around with me. It has de-neuroticized my system a bit. I can look at food -- and I can evaluate my appetites -- a whole lot more objectively than I once could. I'm very happy to be rid of the compulsiveness, by the way.

  • I'm finding it remarkable how winning some control over my weight is affecting my mood. I'm not just physically less heavy than I've been, I'm psychologically lighter too. I feel younger, bouncier, more hopeful. (OK, I'm also feeling giddy. Presumably that will pass.) I'm feeling perky not just because I'm slimmer but because, without going to tons of trouble, I have found a way to affect my physical fate. Where weight goes, this hasn't been a real possibility in my life until now. I'd been putting on a new pound every couple of years, and it had seemed like there was nothing to be done about it. Now, though ... The upshot: I no longer feel like a helpless victim of inevitable forces of decay. What a mood-lifter that is. Let the sun shine / Let the sun shine in ...

Incidentally, the main reason I find the topic of food, weight-control, obesity, carbs, etc interesting isn't that I'm obese, or that fat-control is a big deal in my life. (10 more pounds and I'll be at my college weight.) It's that it's indicative of How We Live Today. We inhabit a culture of excess. We're awash not just in chowing and snacking possibilites, but in cultural ones generally: images, stories, characters, music ...

I think most people would agree that this is a situation that's far preferable to starvation, or near-starvation. Yet we seem ill-made to manage life in these circumstances. Relying on our instincts can help us get through times of deprivation: eat as much as you can now because tomorrow may be the start of a famine. (Gobble up all the stories you can now, because tomorrow none may come along.) That's sensible behavior when supplies are, or might soon be, scarce.

But when conditions are cornucopian -- when food is everywhere, when cable channels and B&Ns proliferate in every direction -- what psychological-physical resources can we turn to to regulate our experience? There seems to be a void there; no mental-emotional modules have evolved yet for contending with conditions of plenty. Passing laws (anti-smoking, anti-trans-fat, etc) may or may not help. But certainly leaving all decisions up to our instincts tends to result in obesity, grogginess, and bewilderment. And giving over entirely to cultural surges and tides can be a real disaster. You lose yourself; you turn into a mere stimulus-response (aka "stim-rez") machine.

How -- in the midst of buzzing, flashing plenty -- to find some independence of mind and spirit? How to maintain some self-respect and dignity? How to create a sense of clarity -- how to be yourself -- when opportunities are both tempting and overwhelming? I suspect that these are questions that often puzzle many modern rich-world people. Perhaps the Shangri-La Diet holds some helpful secrets.



posted by Michael at October 12, 2007


Have you had any problems with between-meal fatigue, poor brain function, etc. a la hypoglycemic carbo-bonk? Or do the ingestions throughout the day get rid of those too, and not just hunger?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 12, 2007 4:18 PM

I like "carbo-bonk"! No, really, it's been smooth sailing. I feel perfectly fine and normal, if anything a little clearer and less bloated than usual. Fun. Weren't you trying the Shangri-La as well? How's it been working for you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 12, 2007 4:21 PM

I've been trying too, on your recommendation, and have taken off 3 pounds in just over 2 weeks. Not bad, if I can keep it up. Mind you, it'd take another 50 to get down to my college weight.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 12, 2007 4:33 PM

I think this is awesome. I feel like that all the time, and now I have something to recommend to people who want to feel the same way.

Posted by: Alan on October 12, 2007 4:46 PM

One question: is it mandatory to listen to the Shangri-La's while you're on the Shangri-La diet? I remember really liking "Leader of the Pack" when I was in 7th grade.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 12, 2007 5:00 PM

I haven't tried Shangri-La yet, but I'm definitely going to now. I quit pouring alcohol down my gullet and cramming powder up my snoot last year and promptly went from 140 to 195lbs in 3 months! I exercise like a fiend but the weight. just. won't. come. off. It sounds to me like the SL diet is exactly the kind of weight-loss approach my now 50 year-old body needs.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 12, 2007 6:18 PM

(Gobble up all the stories you can now, because tomorrow none may come along.)

I am going to get that damned oil and start this thing, but I refuse to give up my stories.


Posted by: communicatrix on October 12, 2007 6:42 PM

Thank you for sharing your experiences.

You mention doing the flavorless calorie bit 3-4 times a day. Given that you can't eat or drink anything with any flavor either 1 hour before or an 1 hour after, how do you find 4 two-hour windows in one day? (I seem to have trouble finding two.)

Posted by: Sixtieslibber on October 12, 2007 7:21 PM

Sixtieslibber -- That fourth one is tough, isnt it? I don't find three to be a problem: between bfast and lunch; between lunch and dinner; between dinner and bed. But where's the fourth window of opp supposed to come?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 12, 2007 10:35 PM

I've been doing Shangri-La for close to a year now. You actually don't need to take the flavourless calories any more than once a day, provided you can handle taking them all at once. As the book says, the appetite suppressant effect is lengthy and results from the lowering of the set point caused by the flavourless calories. Taking your entire daily dose at once is fine. I usually take mine in the middle of the night so I don't have to stress about the two hour window. I keep a bottle of extra light olive oil and a tablespoon next to my pillow. Being a restless sleeper, I usually wake up at least once or twice during the night. When I do, I'll slip in two or three tablespoons before rolling over again.

Posted by: Deb on October 13, 2007 4:33 AM

You can indeed take all the flavorless calories at once -- I do. I wouldn't recommend taking them in the middle of the night, however. Animal studies show that animals become active when food is available. You might start waking up in anticipation of the flavorless calories.

Posted by: Seth Roberts on October 13, 2007 10:58 AM

Seth Roberts and Robin Hanson have discussing the information value of self-experiments with regard to diet/health here. As I've stated before I put virtually no effort into living healthy, such is my faith in the technological advances of the future and unwillingness to give up bad habits.

Posted by: TGGP on October 14, 2007 1:29 PM

Sounds a lot like the Stillman "water diet" from decades yore that was supposed to make you feel full so you wouldn't desire food. I suspect the reason any diet works for a while is that you suddenly become more aware of what exactly you are eating and imbibing. This is analagous to my theory explaining why audiophiles hear tremendous improvements to their audio systems after making a change or trying some tweak like painting the edges of CDs with a green marker.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 15, 2007 5:04 AM

Seth Roberts:

Are academic comparative experiments planned? Get persons to stick to two or three diets for a year, including Shangri-la among them, and compare results?

Posted by: Robert Hume on October 15, 2007 11:53 AM

Sounds like you're eating the way Frenchmen do, or claim to. Is there any evidence that the traditional French approach to food duplicates the effect of the Shangri-La diet? If so, how?

Posted by: The Fredosphere on October 15, 2007 12:24 PM

Peter L. Winkler - Interesting speculation, but wrong I'm afraid. There's more than auto-suggestion at work here.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 15, 2007 9:30 PM

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