(Intentionally) Spoiling your Appetite

I’ve been reading about some interesting self-experimentation undertaken by a guy named Seth Roberts, a psychology Professor at UC Berkeley.

He’s got a new book out called the Shangri-La Diet. It’s been described as “absurd, ridiculous and remarkable,” which is a pretty good description of it’s central ideas. For the scientifically-minded, here’s a well-written introduction to the idea.

The three tenets of the diet are as follows:

  1. The human body has a body-fat “set point” and modulates appetite to maintain that set point.
  2. Food that is both calorie-rich and flavorful creates a strong Pavlovian association.
  3. The set point has a natural downward tendency but it is raised by consuming the aforementioned foods.

Argument 1, I think, is pretty easy to buy. Starving yourself at one meal typically doesn’t do much to lower your weight, since you’ll make it all up at the next meal.

Argument 2 is also pretty easy to swallow. Basically the body can’t know very well whether a food is calorie-rich without first processing it. So a flavor (the conditioned stimulus) that soon thereafter produces a feeling of well-being and fullness (the unconditioned stimulus) creates an association (conditioned response). It gets creepier in that not only is the flavor involved, but potentially the whole food-eating experience. (As an aside, I’ve noticed the way I crave coffee is disturbingly similar to the way addicts describe craving nicotine, cocaine and heroin: with triggers and enjoyment of the rituals involved in doing the drug and whatnot).

Argument 3—the one that ties the first two together into a weight-loss remedy—is the biggest intellectual leap. The implication of argument 3 is that by eating foods with a low flavor-calorie association, we can lower our body-fat set point, and thereby lose weight effortlessly.

This is explained in part by a just-so back-story of our Stone-age ancestors needing a way of encouraging themselves to pack on the pounds when food was plentiful (in the terms above, they need to raise their set point). To do this, the theory goes, the body measured it’s current body fat percentage (say, by measuring the level of the hormone leptin in the blood—something that has is well-correlated with levels of body fat), compared it to the desired level (the set point), and used the difference to influence its appetite.

This begs the question of how the body knew that food was plentiful. Roberts posits that plentiful food is flavorful and calorie-dense. This seems like a plausible explanation, if well short of an air-tight argument.

If we wholeheartedly adopt this theory, it has a couple of disturbing implications. The first is that in a society with plentiful flavorful and calorie-rich foods (which furthermore are of the most consistent flavor and calorie content possible) our set points will rise nearly without limit.

The second, more sinister implication is that because flavorful and calorie-rich foods are most desirable to our reptile brains, a capitalist economy will optimize food production around the goal of making the most flavorful and calorie-dense food imaginable.

What then, is to be done?

Well the theory suggests that any dieter who doesn’t effectively lower his body’s set point is doomed to failure (or at least constant and debilitating hunger). The inverse, however, is also true: any dieter who successfully lowers his body’s set point can’t help but succeed in losing weight.

But how to do that? Well if the third argument is indeed correct, that one simply needs to eat foods that are either flavorless, free of calories, or both. Well neither flavorless foods nor calorie-free foods are particularly appealing, and something that is both flavorless and calorie free isn’t, strictly speaking, food. Fortunately it turns out that consuming flavorless food with a modest amount of calories limits our appetite enough that flavorful foods can be consumed later without the temptation to overeat. The only catch is that you need to wait long enough between spoiling your appetite and eating your meal that your body doesn’t associate the flavorful meal with the empty calories.

So the “diet” consists simply of drinking small amounts of a dilute sugar solution (about 3 tablespoons in a liter of water) at least an hour before or after a meal. Extra light olive oil (the nearly flavorless variety) can be substituted as well. As the theory goes, you will then eat much less at your regular meals.

I have no idea if this actually works. Initial reports by various people (none of whom I know personally) suggest that indeed it does. I intend to try it out over the next couple of weeks and see if indeed I do eat less. I don’t particularly need to lose much weight, but I do have a stubborn five pounds or so I can’t seem to get rid of without being ravenously hungry and insanely bitchy as a consequence.


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