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The strangest, easiest way to lose weight


You have a legacy brain. We've talked about that a lot on this blog, and in my presentations. Your brain thinks you're still living in a cave. Although your mind knows you're in the 21st centry, your brain never got the memo.

A big part of the learning theory we use in the Head First books is figuring out how to "trick" your brain into thinking that learning Java is as important as watching for tigers. We pay a great deal of attention to what your brain cares about, especially when the concerns (tigers-but-not-java) are in direct conflict with what your mind cares about (java-but-not-tigers).

Besides caring about tigers-and-not-java--and the problems that creates when we're trying to pay attention, learn, and remember--our legacy brain does something else we all struggle with--it thinks you won't get much to eat all winter, so it better store it up while it can.

Your brain thinks that food is scarce for you, so it better hang on to it. In other words, for almost all adults (especially in the US), our brain wants us to be weigh more than our conscious mind wants. The brain never got the memo about how you probably aren't going to starve this winter.

Given how interested we are here into hacking and creating workarounds for the legacy brain issues, a new diet book that claims to take this approach got my attention. The claims are outrageous, the "plan" is absurd and counter-intuitive, but when the publisher sent me a copy of the book I figured it wouldn't hurt to try it. I say "wouldn't hurt" because it is ridiculously easy to try. And since the Freakonomics guys were recommending it, I figured there had to be something interesting. Plus... I loved the name: the Shangri-La Diet.

It's been two weeks since I started and oh-my-god.
It is almost impossible to describe what this "diet" (it's not really a diet) does. (All links are at the end of this post) A UC Berkeley professor named Seth Roberts claims to have found a way to trick the legacy brain into thinking it needs to weigh less. (Which means "lower your set point", for those who are familiar with that term)

It does not cause you to suddenly burn more calories.
It does not increase your metabolism.
It is not a drug.
It does not require counting calories.
It does not require changing what you eat (although for many people, it will anyway)
It does not require exercise (although I'm always going to strongly recommend it!)

[Update: It is based on quite a lot of different scientific research (rat studies, especially) that the author has managed to piece together into a theory and approach that works.
It is not simply a psychological trick.]

It claims to do just one thing--cause your body to want/need less food. Period. In other words, you know that feeling you have after you've eaten a huge dinner and you think, "I'll never eat another bite ever again" -- this so-called "diet" makes that feeling happen much earlier, after a much smaller meal. Quite simply, it reduces your appetite, but in a really freakish way. It is not an artificial appetite supressant; it works by using your body's natural appetite supressant--the desire to keep you at a particular weight.

For me, in two weeks, it's been working too well. I don't have a weight problem, so I wasn't interested in losing weight. I wanted to try it because it's fascinating, seems impossible to believe, and MAINLY for the claim that by reducing cravings, it helps you make better eating choices. My goal on this "diet" was that when it was time to eat, I wanted to find carrots and broccoli as viable an option as Ben and Jerry's. That hasn't completely happened (although cravings have virtually disappeared), but within three days, I was actually forgetting to eat. For the last ten days I've had to remind myself--as a purely cognitive activity--that "this is probably a good time to eat something." Is there a danger that I'll become too thin? Sure, if I'm not paying attention. But that's easy enough to correct--there's basically a body-back guarantee. If I just stop the program, I'll get my old body back soon enough...

I was worried that this loss of desire for food would mean a loss of pleasure when eating. But this is not food aversion--while nothing beckons you or even sounds particularly good, everything tastes just as wonderful as before. And it is the weirdest damn feeling... it's a kind of "not hungry" that is unlike anything I've ever experienced. It seems too good to be true.

And maybe it is... I only have two weeks' experience. Maybe the effect will wear off (although there's little reason to think that). And the research might turn out to be complete crap--some believe it might even be some kind of elaborate hoax. But I have two other friends on it now, and after five days, they've noticed the effect as well. So I'm not so much recommending it (since that would require more time) as reporting my thoughts about it, my short-term experience, and why I find it so fascinating.

The downside:

* It doesn't seem to work for everyone. Some people claim it had no effect (I have a suspicion that some of the folks for whom it doesn't work weren't actually doing it with the kind of rigorous adherence to one simple rule that's required).

* Some people take much longer to see an effect, although it seems that most people notice it in less than a week.

* You must MUST be able to find at least one two-hour time window each day where you have nothing but water. Nothing with any flavor of any kind is allowed--NO EXCEPTIONS--during that period, including brushing your teeth. For most people, two hours is no problem at all... but you have to be extremely careful or you risk not just eliminating the positive effect, but potentially ruining your chance of using it correctly in the future.

* In the middle of that two hour window, you must ingest one of two things... either a tablespoon of sugar dissolved in water, or a tablespoon of extra light olive oil. If either of those are not do-able for you, you're out of luck.

* The sugar water comes with the potential for a blood sugar reaction, so if you choose that instead of the olive oil, you can reduce or eliminate the effect by sipping slowly. I heat up the water, dissolve the sugar, and sip it over a half hour like really weak, sweet tea. I tried the olive oil and hated it.

* You must also... well, no, there IS nothing else. Seriously. Nothing. Eat whatever you want, do whatever you want, just take in the extra calories from either the sugar or the oil, and there's nothing more. THAT is the Shangri-La Diet. Sugar, or oil. End of story.

While I've more or less revealed the diet here, the Shangri-La Diet book is needed if you're going to try it, or you're interested in the research/science behind it. There are a lot of subtle variations and tweaks and tunes, and recommendations based on how much weight you want to lose, etc. So, again, if you're going to try it, I'd definitely get the book despite finding most of the information about it on the internet.

Extensive article with comments on CalorieLab.

The original NY Times piece by the Freakonomics guys.

Shangri-La Diet book (on Amazon).

Aaron Swartz blog post about it.

Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publisher. However, it would have come to my attention because of the similarity of our approaches--hacking the legacy brain. Indeed, within a week of getting the book, I was sent a related link by fellow blogger Scott Reynen who thought I might be interested. I do not use Amazon affiliate links, so I am not benefitting in any way from recommending the book here or elsewhere, and I have no relationship with the publisher or author. In fact, I'm buying my own extra copies now for others.

Also, I'm not a dietician or nutritionist! I have absolutely NO authority in this field--this is simply my personal thoughts about it. (However, I did major in exercise physiology, and spent ten years in the health/fitness industry, including a stint as the Training Director for The Sports Club Company, the group behind some of the largest and most exclusive health clubs in the world--The Sports Club/LA, Sports Club Reebok/New York, etc. But I specialized only in exercise, and had nothing to do with diets and nutrition.)

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled "creating passionate users" topics ; )

Posted by Kathy on May 1, 2006 | Permalink


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» Strange Experiments Lead to Shangri-La from A Restless Mind
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I've been doing this on and off for years without the sugar/olive oil, although I can see how that might help.

I have a tendency to eat too much. It isn't that the food I eat is generally really bad, I just eat more than I need. However, with a little mental acrobatics I can noticably teach my body to want less food. I feel hungry less often, have cravings less and even come to despise the taste of junk foods.

The biggest challenge I have is getting the collaboration of my partner. It is really hard to keep this up if you have someone around you that isn't doing the same thing.

Posted by: Rick | May 1, 2006 3:17:41 PM

Kathy, this is the last thing I expected to find on this blog.

But what the heck. It does sound intriguing, and since I just tossed my stack of "things to read", I now have plenty of time to read the book :)

I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | May 1, 2006 4:01:30 PM

"OK, now back to our regularly scheduled "creating passionate users" topics ; ) "

Hey! I'm extremely passionate about wanting to regain the marathoning body I had prior to injury! I eat good food, but too much of it for the non-marathoner that I've become. If this works, I'll be extremely passionate about it too :-)

Posted by: Cyndi L | May 1, 2006 6:07:06 PM

So basically some guy wrote a book on using control to lose weight, slapped a fancy name on the cover and promoted to influencers like yourself?

Sounds like every other diet book our there to me. Nothing really new here. Sorry Kathy, looking forward to your next post on marketing. I'll stick to the nutrition sites for diet info.

thanks anyhow

Posted by: George Harris | May 1, 2006 7:49:18 PM

Thanks for the positive comments about eating less, Kathy. The reality is, there is simply too much food and not enough Java. (And there may be something to this if someone thin is losing weight...)

Posted by: genevieve | May 1, 2006 9:01:13 PM

If you don't eat for four hours, then put a raisin under your tongue and give yourself a sharp poke in the eye you'll lose twice as much.

Posted by: Patrick Fitzgerald | May 1, 2006 10:22:57 PM

I suspect the effectiveness of this diet has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with psychology.

People with a weight problem generally have a negative emotional relationship with food. Often eating becomes a way of self-expression, possibly the only part of their lives they can control.

This book, by saying eat what you want, gives the dieter the permission to eat normally.

Permission is a very strong psychological factor in conformity experiments (e.g. Millgram's electric shock study). By saying eat what you want the diet is giving the dieter permission to have a normal relationship with food.

The two hours a day abstention period is a device that allows the dieter to practice not eating. Its only two hours and they can eat what they want at the end of it. Most people can manage this and when they achieve it they feel good about 'sticking to the diet', reinforcing the behaviour of not eating.

During the two hours free of stimulants you are likely to become re-tuned to your body's signals of hunger and thirst. Promoting a heathly, eat when you are hungry, behaviour pattern.

The sugar / oil requirement is odd. I think it serves two functions.

Firstly its a choice, giving the dieter control over what they consume. There is a lot of research on how choice and control effects stress levels.

Secondly its a ritual. A marker point that reminds the dieter about the diet and what they are hoping to do. It also acts as a badge, or a t-shirt, for the brand. e.g. being the one on the office who makes that strange drink once a day. Behaviour can mark your allegiance to something just as much as a t-shirt or tribal scarring can. Once you belong to a tribe, this reinforces your belief or 'buy-in' to the tribe's beliefs. This is beneficial in this case because you will loose weight and be healthier but also because you will promote the book to your friends, the authors and publishers are happy as well.


Posted by: Chris Tregenza | May 2, 2006 2:57:41 AM

I have some serious doubts about this diet, because it ignores the point of weight loss. Why does one want to lose weight? To put it in Kathys terms, what is the "?" in "It's the [?], stupid!" here?

For me it is "health". "Looking good" would be nice, but I'm not willing to sacrifice my health just to look good. Does the Shangri-La diet help me here? I don't think so. (or only a little bit). The main problem is not that we eat way too much, but that we eat crappy food and we eat it way fast. We eat way too much processed foods filled with trans-fats and HFCS.

The Shangri-La diet basically says there is no problem with eating crappy food with little nutrional value. That is just plain wrong. My advice would be to stay away from hamburgers and chips. Learn to cook, instead of eating microwave food, and eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish,.. Oh, and enjoy. Take some time to actually taste your food, and relax. You'll also want to excersise offcourse.

Personally, I just don't believe in quick diets, that promise lots of weight loss without any effort. They usually sacrifice your health to get quick results.

Posted by: Jan | May 2, 2006 5:25:49 AM

Ohh I simply cant understand why dieting. Just by doing it you can not stay fits. So many factors are related with good health and if one doesn't consider it dieting alone can't help.

Posted by: Paavani | May 2, 2006 7:01:13 AM

Wow Kathy. Lots of comments on this one.

I think I'll give it a shot before I declare it Good or Bad.

I know that eating Bad food won't make one healthy, but I also know that eating too much Good food will still make you fat.

Seems like trying the experiment shouldn't be too hard and doesn't seem like I'd be risking my health. So, sugar water or olive oil? Decisions, decisions...

Posted by: Burk | May 2, 2006 8:21:57 AM

Well... I did say it was absurd and that the claims were outrageous. But, I think it's still worth looking at the science behind it (granted, mostly rat studies, but it's the rat studies that have led to a great deal of what we now know about the brain). The heart of it is tied to the brain registering calories without flavor, and the associations it makes. Sugar has bizarre properties of its own...

Again, I encourage ya'll to have an open mind until you've at least looked at the research and his theories about the science behind it. (Granted, he makes some big leaps here and there, but there's evidence to suggest those leaps might be right. He's the first one to have put all the pieces together from some of the studies that date back 30 years or more, motivated to go down that path by his own self-experimentation--a fun story on its own.)

George: It's not about control; his whole point is about making control a non-issue. You won't need control, because you won't be in a huge fight with your brain over just how much you need to weigh.

Patrick: True on the whole poke-in-the-eye thing, but downing a little sugar water is somewhat less painful ; )

Chris: You may be right, although I don't think that can explain people like me who aren't overweight and for whom two hours without anything but water defines most of my day anyway--my day hasn't changed one bit other than that one drink. But I think a lot of what you said is probably a big part of it, especially that you don't have to do anything. And while I HEARTILY agree with you about the effects of "tribe", I would put drinking sugar water at the bottom of the list of things that have tribe characteristics. It's pretty much the opposite of things with community support and involvement like, say, Weight Watchers or Atkins.

Jan: There's nothing in here that asks you to sacrifice your health. But I agree with your advice, and indeed the author makes the same claims in the book (has a whole chapter on what's wrong with processed food, etc.). His notion (which seems to be true for me, since eating healthier was my goal for this, not weight loss) is this:
While you CAN eat anything you want, if you do this calories-without-flavor brain trick, you just... won't. Without really thinking much about it, it takes away the associations your brain makes with certain foods, and you quit wanting them.

In other words, it's not a requirement that you make any changes, but the end result is that you will... without having to try. True, it hasn't made broccoli as appealing to me as ice cream, but it's probably closed 80% of the gap.

I don't believe in quick diets either, but this isn't technically a diet--it's a way to stop your brain from fighting you on the whole long-winter-in-the-cave thing. Or at least that's the claim. This could, though, as you said -- lead people into unhealthfully quick results. For some people it works so well that if they're *greedy* about weight loss, they'll lose muscle mass and end up in worse shape than before they started. (But that's why I've never recommended diets, even as a fitness trainer. Exercise is always the better way, especially combined with eating less processed food, etc.

Burk: I have no idea if it's really good or bad, but it's very strange, and for me--as I said--working TOO well. There is another explanation... that it's simply a coincidence that I've lost most of my appetite (especially for the bad things). I considered that, and that's why I waited for two weeks to see if anything else turned out to be wrong with me (even had another check-up just to be sure this wasn't some new problem with MY brain).

I can't really believe I'm defending this diet I know almost nothing about, but I think it's the bizarre nobody-can-believe-it-could-possibly-work part that I like. Almost nobody thought the Head First books could possibly work--regardless of the research behind it--and today they represent half of the O'Reilly bestseller list on their main page. So, I encourage y'all to have an open mind ; )

Besides, we don't seem to be doing all that well with any OTHER diet program, even the more traditional research ends up contradicting itself... "Fat is bad." "No, we were wrong... Fat is Good and Carbs are Evil." People can make the most progress by eating very sensibly and exercising, but if it were that easy--the weight loss industry wouldn't be a multi-billion dollar one, and obesity wouldn't be a continually-rising health care crises in the US. I say sugar water is at least as worth a try as anything else. And if at least part of what Chris says is right, it's an easy way to get people to make a positive change.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 2, 2006 9:17:10 AM

I know that eating Bad food won't make one healthy, but I also know that eating too much Good food will still make you fat.

That's true, but good food tends to be less calorie dense than bad food. So eating too much good food tends to be more difficult than eating too much bad food. I'm just saying, start with eating healthy, never skip breakfast, only eat healthy snacks and excersise three times a week. If you still don't feel a lot more healthier and slimmer after 2 months, then Shangri-La might be usefull. I think that would be rather rare.

Posted by: Jan | May 2, 2006 9:29:47 AM

Ah, so if I understand this correctly, it does talk about what food to avoid, and what food is good for you. The sugar water is like a little trick to help you stick with it. In that case it does look pretty interesting.

Posted by: Jan | May 2, 2006 9:41:58 AM

You're a remarkably interesting person. :o)

Posted by: JimDesu | May 2, 2006 10:22:32 AM

I'll try it. I'll try anything once. It does sound outrageous, but I also know that a good deal of why we overeat is partly psychological. It's something they start discussing about parenting these days, that you don't necessarily want to tell your children to clean everything off their plate.

Not like my generation where you were made to feel guilty if you did. What happens when you go out to eat and have the typical American restaurant portions?

So, yeah, I'm dubious but I'll try (most) anything once.

Posted by: Jason O | May 2, 2006 11:51:14 AM

I read this last night, then woke up this morning thinking -- I know just how to describe this: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

"Just a spoon full of sugar helps the [weight] go down -- in a most delightful way!"

Sorry -- I couldn't resist. ;-)

Posted by: Sally | May 2, 2006 12:59:16 PM

Thanks for posting this, Kathy, I'm really intrigued. I've been going up and down in weight for many years, cycling through various diets (Atkins, South Beach, etc.) generally I can lose weight in the summer when I can get out and walk/play a lot and somehow the emotional need for calories seems to wane. But come winter I just gain it all back as my resolve to maintain a speciality diet cracks.

This year I've been trying more excercise, which is good, but my weight has been constant -- presumably I just eat more as I burn more calories.

I'm a pretty big believer in the Set Point, so if there's a way to control that, that would be a major breakthrough.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | May 2, 2006 1:30:31 PM

When I first read about this diet I thought it was rubbish, but now that I see smart people defending it, I am intrigued. I found your comparison with the Head First books interesting. While I love your blog, the Head First book I read (Design Patterns) did do not work for me at all. On the other hand, I did not find losing weight all that hard (I lost 100 pounds by eating healthier and exercising more). I guess research can prove a lot of things, but in the end everybody is different.

I think the unhealthy part of this diet is that you'll consume (according to one of the links you posted) 300 calories of nutrient-less food. That's 20% of a 1500 calorie diet. If you are eating a low calorie diet, you should make sure that all calories are full of vitamins and minerals. If you're following this diet, at least make sure to eat very healthy (lots of vegetables and fruit) and consider taking a multivitamin.

Posted by: Helena | May 2, 2006 2:39:21 PM

I don't know very much about this "diet", and, as a wellness and fitness coach, I really don't want to know much. It's true that you can "forget" to eat, but it's actually MUCH more healthful to REMEMBER to eat, and on-schedule. It's very hard to over-eat if you have smallnutritious meals 5-6 times a day.

This author's sugar and olive oil supplements are easy to understand: the sugar is providing carbohydrate so your tissues don't entirely each each other (the body will cannibalize your tissues --like muscle, etc-- first, so it can save the brain for last) and the olive oil is a fat source, once again for the energy in the fat.

Any 'weight loss' is temporary with this "diet". Only decreasing adipose tissue ("fat") and increasing active tissue (lean muscle, more blood vessels, capillaries = increased metabolism) will you sustain a leaner body. This can be done only by:
-decreasing food intake each meal (but eating often)
-eating nutrient-dense foods and not garbage
-drinking water to flush & hydrate the system
-exercising (and building lean muscle)

Everything beyond these details come down to mind- and habit- control. It's not as if you can ONLY 'eat clean', but you should eat nutritiously most of the time, and diet is 80% of your fitness goals anyway.

As I said, I teach this to clients (and on my website) every day.

Best to you, be healthy,

Posted by: Lauren Muney | May 2, 2006 4:01:36 PM

Here's an uber simple and effective way to lose weight: don't eat meat. You'd be surprised how effective this strategy is plus you get the bonus karma points for not causing suffering.

Posted by: g | May 2, 2006 9:51:13 PM

For me, the explanation for this so called "diet" is quite obvious. American people have such bad eating habits that they need to trick themselves not to eat ANYTHING FOR TWO HOURS. Let's be honest, in any other part of the world, not eating for two hours is just something you do everyday.
So off course, I strongly believe in the fact that forcing yourself not to eat for two hours, if you don't do that naturally everyday, can help you reduce the feeling of hungriness and therefore help you get slim. And concerning the oil OR sugar (I could also recommend a nicely spiced glass of water...), they are just here to make you believe there is indeed a concept behind this diet, kind of a placebo effect in fact.
So I'd say it can be an effective diet... for the people with really bad eating habits, but you should be careful with it because any kind of self conditionning can become dangerous when not well thought of (you could really loose your appetite...).

Posted by: laurent | May 3, 2006 2:08:28 AM

I think some of the people criticising the diet seem to forget that the most straight-forward diet (eat less, eat healthy, exercise more) simply does not work for everyone. It seems that it doesn't work even for the majority.

Sure, it works in theory, but in practice it doesn't. The overwhelming majority of overweight people just don't have the willpower of sticking with such a diet. There are exceptions, of course, but the fact is that the western world does a have HUGE (sorry for the pun) obesity problem. Most of the overweight people do want to lose weight and are constantly trying to. And failing. Again and again.

In contrast, the Shangri-La diet, if it indeed works as advertised, makes losing weight pretty much automatic. Say your weight is now 120 kilograms. Soon after you start the Shangri-La diet, your body starts to think that your "target" weight is, say, 80 kilograms. And it is damn hard to fight against your set point. It is not as if you could consciously make yourself hungry. If you don't believe, ask those millions who have tried to lose weight but failed!

Shangri-La diet is, if you don't mind computer programming terminology, somewhat orthogonal to aspects such as healthiness and exercise etc. For millions and millions of people, too much weight itself is the most acute health problem. Eliminate that, and you've at least won one major problem.

Posted by: Jarno Virtanen | May 3, 2006 5:34:32 AM

I love how thin people assume that all overweight people are eating crappy food. I eat a great, whole-foods diet with good veggies, meats, fruits, nuts, and some dairy. I haven't had an item with HFCS in years! YEARS! I don't do sugar, flour, or corn syrup. And I don't OD on red meat (maybe once a week or week and a half). I eat salmon twice a week. I have flax every morning for breakfast.

AND I work out for an hour every single day. I run, mostly, or I do an aerobics video with weights.

I have put on five pounds when I already needed to lose 10.

Due to some female issues, I am simply unable to lose weight. I've been stuck at this weight for a long, long time.

Tell me: what harm could it possibly do to add a tablespoon of sugar or oil a day to my healthy diet? Even if it is snake oil or mind over matter or placebo, there's still no harm in it. Because if your brain thinks it's going to work, then, by golly, it probably will. Gotta love the mind/body interchange.

Thanks for posting this.

Posted by: dogfaceboy | May 3, 2006 6:59:36 AM

My goodness! By people's reactions, it sounds like this diet is asking people to eat poison. Look, it's not even a "diet": it's a way to suppress your appetite so that you eat less, and it does so by aiming at a brain mechanism that associates eating more with tasty food. With this approach, it doesn't mean that you'll be anorexic either, or that the appetite will totally disappear (i.e., you starve to death, obliviously). If your weight becomes less than what you think it should be, cut back on this olive oil/sugar water stuff and get your appetite up a bit more.

If you haven't been able to lose weight, it's because your intake of calories has been equal to your expenditure. Suppress the appetite this way and you'll eat less, take in fewer calories and lose weight.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or in this case, the proof of the pudding is in not necessarily wanting to eat the whole thing.

Posted by: Ray | May 3, 2006 8:26:50 AM

I'll try it. I'm not overweight but I have a layer of "thick skin" I'd like to trim. More intriguing to me is the idea that it suppresses the hunger feeling. I *always* feel hungry. I often feel so hungry it feels like I'm starving. Even if I don't lose weight, if I stop feeling hungry this will be worth it. I drink a lot of water and certainly have more than a 2 hour window of not consuming anything but water.

Posted by: Matt | May 3, 2006 9:55:25 AM

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