Flavor Signaling and The Shangri-La Diet

I just read a fascinating diet book that approaches fat loss by adjusting the body’s fat set point by weakening the signal between calories and flavor.

The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan
The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan is by Seth Roberts.

This book provides an alternate hypothesis to reversing obesity, but it doesn’t contradict anything that I’ve learned about nutrition over the past few years. The Shangri-La Diet offers an explanation, which if true, provides a framework for understanding why diets succeed or fail despite identical macronutrient ratios. This diet doesn’t restrict calories or carbohydrates but instead uses the goal of adjusting the body’s fat point by reducing the flavor signal. Note that I use the term Flavor Signaling to describe what is going on, even though that term isn’t used in the book. In short, flavors that are stronger, more frequent, and more predictable will push the body’s fat setpoint higher. Those that do the opposite, will lower the fat set point.

How The Diet Works

The diet is amazingly simple and could easily be tried by anyone, even those following another diet. At least an hour before one of your meals, consume unflavored sugar water and/or Extra Light Olive Oil. Both of these foods are flavorless and provide calories. The author and many of his blog followers have lost and more importantly kept off the weight using this simple technique. Although it sounds too good to be true, once you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint it makes perfect sense.

Evolutionary Explanation

Paleo man didn’t have a 24-hour grocery store and McDonalds. Nature varied the amount and variety of food sources. Some regions and some seasons provided more abundant and predictable food sources. For survival purposes, there would have been an evolutionary advantage to increasing the body’s fat setpoint during those times.

When food is more plentiful, we choose the food with the strongest flavor. When it is not, we take what we can get. Simply having tasty food around would have provided the hormonal signals to store more fat. The more frequently a particular food was consumed, the stronger that association. If a food was rarely consumed, then that flavor would not send the same signal to increase the setpoint, as that could be an indication of scarce resources.

Back To The Present

In modern times, we not only have access to endless amounts of food, but we tend to eat the same foods over and over. This strengthens the Flavor Signal. You feed your body a Big Mac and Pepsi every day and even though the meal may meet a normal caloric requirement, permanent fat loss rarely occurs because the fat setpoint doesn’t come down.

One of the things I’ve noticed about people with chronic weight issues is that they tend to be picky eaters. The common perception is of the fat guy who eats everything in sight. I don’t see that. The people who I see that eat the most diverse diets, tend to be thinner. Those with predictably limited diets, tend to have trouble losing weight or keeping it off when they are successful.

We have a huge problem with obesity in the poor. Poor people consume a lot of fast food and processed food. Seth Roberts calls these “ditto foods“. Foods that taste identical every time you eat them are ditto foods. They send a flavor signal of abundance and are quite addicting.

Why Do So Many Diets Fail?

One of the things that I tend to focus on when researching things is looking for points of failure. This is why I bash personal trainers who are blinded by survivorship bias. I’m more interested in learning why something failed than defending why something worked. Lots of diets work. They tend to work for a while and then the dieter gains the weight back. Usually, the dieter is blamed for a lack of discipline, but the failure rates are too high for such a simple explanation. Addressing the set point might be the answer.

Take Away Diet Lessons

Here are some takeaway lessons one can use from this book to improve their diet.

  1. Consume Extra Light Olive Oil and/or Unflavored Sugar Water – Do this at least an hour before eating. If you consume the sugar water, do it very slowly. The book goes into detail on dose size and answers common questions.
  2. Stop Eating Ditto Foods – Or if you do eat Ditto Foods, keep altering which ones you eat.
  3. Vary Your Menu – Get out of the habit of eating the same foods. On the foods that are the same, change the spices.
  4. Eat Slower Digesting Foods – Processed foods digest faster and have stronger flavor signaling. Choose slower digesting foods.
  5. Cook More – When you prepare your own meals you can alter ingredients, cooking times, and spices from meal to meal. This is the opposite of Ditto Foods.

Final Review

If I were overweight, I would have held off on this review and tried the protocol. Then I would have included my thoughts on the book along with my own results. However, I’m already lean and weight stable so I can’t test it. Even if this diet doesn’t work for someone, I really like it, because besides making sense it is a low cost and low effort.

My biggest tips for losing fat have been to cut the sugar and wheat. Sugar is obvious, but The Shangri-La Diet also strongly supports my case against wheat. It is processed and fast digesting. Also, unless you are always varying the type of bread, it can mimic a Ditto Food.

After reading this book, I did some more research and learned that this avenue of obesity research is gaining popularity. Additional resources include The Deconditioning Diet on Getting Stronger and the 8 part series Food Reward: a Dominant Factor in Obesity (Part 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) on Whole Health Source.


Add yours

  1. Did you read “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler? One of his points is that food manufacturers have made use of our evolutionary preference for sugar and salt to make foods that are literally addictive for a lot of us. I can see some value to that argument.

    As for the sugar and/or oil before meals, I think he is NUTS. Seriously, that is the only word I can come up with, and I’ve been struggling with weight my entire life. Eating sugar on an empty stomach is asking for a huge sugar spike and crash. If I have even a tiny bit of sugar, I make sure it is after a protein- and fat-rich meal, or I at least have some nuts or cheese to accompany the sweets. If you have trouble with sugar – and I think most if not all obese people do – then I can’t see consuming sugar water. You might as well drink Mexican Coke! (the kind with real sugar instead of HFCS)

    And as for food variety – I lost over 100 pounds by eating essentially the same breakfast and lunch 5 times a week. I tend to do better when I’m eating a pretty repetitive diet. It makes food less “sexy” and more routine.

  2. @Marian – I have not read Kessler’s book yet.

    The author did say that diabetics or those with sugar issues should take ELOO and not the sugar water. Also, we are just talking about 1-3 tablespoons of sugar mixed with water sipped slowly over 30 minutes. It could even be broken into multiple servings.

  3. One more thing. His protocol is not a complete diet. It is a hack to be used to make your existing diet more effective in lowering your set point.

  4. I probably shouldn’t be so negative since I haven’t even read the book. I just have an incredible anti-sugar bias! It’s too soon to really tell, but I think that having ice cream or dark chocolate once a week is actually accelerating my weight loss.

    Re-reading your post, I see that he recommends it for only one meal a day. And I think the EVOO thing might be worth a try…although surely coconut oil would be better 🙂

  5. @Marian – He picks ELOO (not EVOO) because it has almost no flavor. Coconut Oil is outstanding for ketone production, but is probably too sweet for Shangri-La goals.

  6. I was introduced to Seth Roberts and the Shangri-La Diet by the Freakonomics website. I needed to lose some weight for the first time in my life and the standard American “healthy” diet wasn’t cutting it (whole grains, veggies, low fat). SLD helped me lose about 15 lbs in about 10 weeks. I did it with Flaxseed oil (for the health benefits) with a plugged nose to make it taste free. I then heard an Econtalk podcast with Art Devany. The second half of his interview was about the Paleo diet. I decided to give Paleo a shot. I think the SLD helped ease the transition from a diet with lots of bread/cereal/oats to with without any grains (something I never was able to do before for very long). I don’t follow the SLD any more since weight loss isn’t an issue anymore, but I think it works really well.

    By the way, as one Ectomorph to another, thanks for all the workout advice. I love your blog.

  7. @Russell – Thanks for the nice words and glad the SLD worked for you.

  8. Read this a year or two ago and wrote it off at the time – relying on refined oil or refined sugar for weight loss seemed to benot worth it for me (but I am relatively lean). Your piece brings up a question that i don’t recall having seen in the book: Do highly flavorful but non-caloric drinks have the opposite effect on our set point? Might it be that black coffee and tea raise our set points if consumed regularly? To say nothing of the artificial non-caloric sweeteners and fats we see today. Was that issue addressed? I had always considered my black coffee and espressos to be benign to neutral on my fat loss efforts but if they are raising my set point it could be that I need to forgo them (oh no!!!).

  9. @Geoff – Interesting thought. You are basically flipping the premise. I don’t recall that being addressed in the book, but your idea makes perfect sense. Probably more for sweet tasting zero calorie beverages like diet colas than coffee. That is just a guess though, although it could be working off a different premise. We increase insulin not only in response to foods that are sweet, but in anticipation of receiving sweet foods. I quit drinking Coke Zero about the time I was getting lean.

    Later the week I am going to dig through the comments on Seth’s site to see if your question has been addressed.

  10. @Geoff – I did some reading on the boards over at Seth’s site. Seems the verdict is that coffee/tea is flavorful and very low calorie, so it is OK. However, you don’t want to consume your tasty caffeine beverage during the same hour that you taking the flavorless ELOO or sugar water.

  11. Interesting stuff. Thanks for the research! Looks like my coffee is safe for now.

  12. I don’t mean to be a smart ass, but how does this “map” onto ancestral/evolutionary diets? What would be the corrolaries in the ancestral environment?

  13. @GWhitney – Let me just guess here. If food sources are unpredictable and early man stumbled upon an area rich in food, he would gravitate toward the food that is most flavorful. According to food reward theory, intensely flavorful food works with leptin in moving your body fat setpoint higher. It allows for periods of overeating.

    After I posted this, I watched Dr. Lustig’s video The Trouble with Fructose: a Darwinian Perspective. He theorizes that “at harvest” there would be abundant food – specifically fructose. More food than we’d be hungry enough to normally consume. But the body the body has a mechanism – be it food reward or something else – that allows for the overeating. This is a survival technique for heading into winter.

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