Book cover

The Shangri-La Diet
by Seth Roberts
Published: 2006
Read from: 31 Jul to 07 Aug
My rating: ๐ŸŒŸ ๐ŸŒŸ ๐ŸŒŸ ๐ŸŒŸ

This is something of an odd post. Originally published on 8 August 2006, I am republishing with today's date1 because it doesn't make sense to bury it in the back then. Back then, I weighed 10 kg than I do today and I credit this book โ€” which is not a โ€œdietโ€ in any meaningful sense of the word โ€” with much of that change. Iโ€™m not doing it any more, but I know I can go back to it if I feel the need, and it will get to work within a day or two. Seth Roberts was a fascinating person, and he is responsible for much of my interest in tracking aspects of my being. So, hereโ€™s the review โ€ฆ

Full disclosure: I started dieting a la Shangri-La a while ago, based on what I had picked up from various web sites. There wasn't an awful lot to it (more on that later). I certainly saw no need to spring for the book. But when Seth Roberts announced on his blog that his publisher was willing to give copies to bloggers to review, I leapt at the opportunity. The book duly arrived; I devoured it. Now to keep my side of the bargain.

When women gathered and men hunted, there wasn't always a lot to eat. Much of what there was would have struck modern palates as boring in the extreme. Nuts, roots, tubers, grass seeds, maybe sometimes ripe fruit or a bit of meat. The things that taste really good to us today -- sweet things, and salt and fat -- were in short supply. In fact, maybe that's why they taste good. So that they would be rewarding, so that we would seek them out, so that when they were available we would eat them to excess. Any calories we didn't use today we stored, as fat, till tomorrow, when food would once again be scarce. And when food was scarce, how much better it would be if we weren't ravenously hungry and focused on food all the time. We could cruise along, eating enough to stay as healthy as possible without going crazed in search of those sweet and fatty treats.

That, in a nutshell, is the evolutionary just-so story (which is not to denigrate it at all) behind the Shangri-La diet. We evolved in an environment in which the quantity and quality of food fluctuated. Ancestors who were capable of stocking up during times of feast and riding out times of famine left more offspring than those who did not. Today we find ourselves in a changed environment of endless plenty. But our basic mechanisms of hunger and appetite have not changed. So we continue to stock up calories. And we become fat.

Seth Roberts discovered that if he obtained some calories divorced from familiar flavours, he needed less to feel full and wasn't as hungry. He lost weight, without any effort. Better yet, the weight stayed lost. By drinking sugar water, or swallowing flavourless oils, with no real food (strictly speaking, flavours) for an hour either side of the "empty" calories, he fooled his body into thinking food was scarce. His body responded by winding down hunger and appetite.

I tried it, and was amazed. Hunger, and with it the need to eat, melted away. I am steadily losing weight. Best of all, it appeals to me because the explanation is so satisfying. Other diets make very little scientific sense. Calories are calories (except, as Roberts says, when they are not, that is when they are divorced from flavours). In the context of other diets, it is hard to discern any good reason why an excess of grapefruit, say, or a separation of protein and carbohydrate, should influence the inexorable logic that deposits calories superfluous to daily needs as fat. The idea that we have no good brakes on our desires for sugars, fats and salt is not new. Indeed it is one reason why scraggy forequarter meat from rubbish animals, mixed with abundant fat and a sweet bun and dressing, becomes an addictive American hamburger. Add to that Roberts' fundamental idea that the body has a set point for weight, which goes up as it experiences good tasting calories and drifts down in their absence and you have the makings of a biologically intriguing hypothesis that makes good sense and testable predictions.

The book recounts the background and fills in lots of the details, including all the scientific research that informed Roberts' ideas and makes them more plausible. As such, it adds to the already considerable amount of information already out there on the internet. If you're tempted to start the diet, you certainly don't need the book. You can just go to Seth's blog and the forums he set up and manages, and get the latest ideas fresh.2 You may have to sift through a lot of chaff to get to the nutritious wheat, but the good stuff is all out there somewhere.

So why buy the book? To reward Seth Roberts for meticulously experimenting on himself and, even more, for sharing his results so freely and openly. I feel a heel for basely not wanting to spend money on the book, seeing as all the information was out there for free. Seth doesn't have a tip-jar on his site. He should have, but until he does I am buying the book for friends and doing what I can to spread the word.

This review will stop now, but the story goes on. The opportunity it gives to explore two further ideas -- the further ramifications of stone age appetites in modern life, and Seth Roberts' reception among the Guardians of the Truth -- I plan to explore in later posts.3


  1. As part of my sporadic efforts to scour the logs for posts that cannot be found, in order to find them. 

  2. Alas, no longer. The Internet Archive has it, but I suspect it would be a pain to explore in detail that way. 

  3. Still looking. 

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