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What is the Shangri-La Diet?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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While many diet plans limit total caloric intake or emphasize certain types of foods over others, a radical food plan called the Shangri-La Diet places no such restrictions on a dieter's daily meals. Instead, dieters following the Shangri-La Diet can eat practically anything they want at regular meal times, but they are encouraged to drink a bland sugar water concoction or tasteless edible oil between meals. This is supposed to affect the dieter's connection between the taste of foods and the calories they contain. Eventually, a faithful adherent to the Shangri-La Diet should lose weight, along with the desire to indulge in heavy amounts of high calorie foods.

The Shangri-La diet was developed by an assistant professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley named Seth Roberts. Roberts theorized that our metabolic rates were set during a time of feast or famine during the time of the cavemen. When food was in abundance, cavemen would eat as much food as possible and most likely gain significant weight in the process. When food became scarce, the cave men's bodies would adapt to the slim offerings and become less hungry. Roberts calls this variable level of hunger and satiation the set point. Many modern dietitians believe there is indeed a set point which the body does seek to maintain, but Roberts believes that this set point can be raised or lowered through diet.

Under his Shangri-La Diet plan, dieters are urged to stop associating flavorful foods with the need for sustenance. If someone really enjoys the taste of pizza, for example, that person is likely to indulge heavily at meal time, which in turn will raise his or her set point. Roberts believes that by consuming a bland but satisfying sugar water solution or tasteless oil such as canola or extra light olive oil before or after meals, the dieter will eventually lose the desire to indulge in flavorful but fattening foods at other times. Roberts himself claims to only eat one small meal a day, since the Shangri-La Diet plan has lowered his own set point to a minimal maintenance level.

Critics of the Shangri-La diet suggest that the ingestion of fructose-based sugar water between meals is a dangerous practice. Fructose is a sweetener derived from corn, not fruit. The liver has a difficult time properly metabolizing fructose, so any diet requiring daily doses could lead to serious health problems. In addition, there is little scientific evidence that a person's set point, provided it actually exists, could be affected by a simple change in diet. The Shangri-La Diet, much like other so-called "fad diets," calls for a lifetime change in a person's eating habits, which can lead to yo-yo dieting and an artificial dependence on the sugar water or flavorless oil for weight maintenance.

The Shangri-La Diet's main appeal lies in its non-restrictive nature. Dieters on the Shangri-La plan are encouraged to follow a low glycemic diet similar to the South Beach diet plan, but the eventual goal is to wean people off the addictive association between taste and caloric intake. When the dieter's brain experiences unusual or bland tastes, Roberts suggests, it has no frame of reference with which to connect those flavors. Without that mental association, a Shangri-La dieter won't be as tempted to overindulge in plain sugar water or tasteless oil. Eventually this disconnection should extend to other foods as well. This stage is one of the key steps in the Shangri-La Diet plan.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1004339 — On Jan 19, 2021

I think that Seth was on to something big, but he played around with it a little and went off track. First off, its a common practice for many of the old timers in Italy to take some olive oil first thing in the morning. Secondly, people take oil at night when they want to cleanse their liver, which contributes to lowered metabolism so all of this is healthy. The sugar water probably cancelled out his appetite, but probably not as effective, but for him, in France, plus walking a lot, it worked.

Then came the trouble when Seth started playing with other unhealthy fats like eating a stick of butter (?) as a human guinea pig, trying to see if it as just as effective, and that contributed to his heart attack with the ups and downs of experimentation on himself took a toll. People do lemon with a shot of oil at night and swear by its effectiveness for weight loss. The ONLY reason the initial diet mentioned "bland" foods as it was comparing natural foods to the crap (!) processed highly intensified flavored foods sold, and probably is right that eating natural tasting and not processed foods would be key, not necessary bland, but by comparison to today's processed foods it would be considered so.

By serenesurface — On May 08, 2011

I think this diet has a huge psychological aspect to it. I think it's called the placebo effect right? You know when they give a placebo, something that has no literal effect, to a patient saying it is medication. And it really works as medication because the patient believes in it.

Maybe the sugar water or oil really makes people have less cravings and they feel fuller because they believe that it will do that.

By ddljohn — On May 06, 2011

I like that this diet is non-restrictive because I think that restrictive diets makes us feel deprived and then we overindulge in the restricted foods later on and gain back those pounds.

I think, all in all, this diet should be studied more. It may be as promising as it sounds. Do you agree?

By candyquilt — On May 05, 2011

It's an interesting idea but I think I agree with the critics in that unless there is some strong scientific proof, the shangri la diet doesn't sound entirely convincing that it does what it's meant to do.

By anon41263 — On Aug 13, 2009

"The Shangri-La Diet, much like other so-called "fad diets," calls for a lifetime change in a person's eating habits"

This seems to be a gratuitous comment. Wouldn't it be the case that *any* diet, whether a a "fad" or not, requires a lifetime change in eating habits in order to be successful?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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