Shangri-La Diet and Science

The theory that underpins the The Shangri-La Diet is in part based on numerous studies that have explored how animals (including humans) develop a desire for flavors that they encounter over and over in association with calories. If we taste a flavor and our body soon after absorbs a good supply of calories, our bodies will begin to crave that flavor. Lately, I’ve been perusing various search engines of scientific journals. I’ve been looking for studies that might support (or refute) SLD. Here is an interesting one I found:Flavor–nutrient learning in restrained and unrestrained eaters

Female participants consumed two differently flavored desserts. Each was presented three times on separate days. One was formulated with a high-energy content (1882 kJ) and the other with a low-energy content (226 kJ). After training, we found little evidence for learned satiation. However, we did observe flavor-preference learning. Specifically, participants acquired a greater liking and desire-to-eat the dessert flavor that was paired with a higher energy density during training.*

* Emphasis added by me. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that the authors of this study are proponents of SLD or even that they are aware of it, only that the author of SLD cites flavor calorie association studies as early inspirations for his own ideas.

In other words,

  • The more we eat high-energy content foods (HECF), the more we will crave such foods.
  • The more we eat foods with the same flavor, the more we will crave those foods, as long as those foods are also dense sources of calories.

It doesn’t seem like much of a leap that eating the same foods over and over might contribute to weight gain, provided those foods had a strong, consistent flavor and dense calories. Junk food, fast food, sugary bevarages and heavily processed foods all seem to fit into this theory nicely. Seth Roberts, the author of the Shangri-la Diet, calls these foods ditto foods. I think most people would accept the idea that foods which are dense in calories are fattening. What might be surprising is how important strong, consistent flavors are.

What are some other things that might be true?

  • If we eat strongly flavored, dense energy foods, the increased food cravings may make us eat more food in general, not just eat more of the specific food with the association.
  • Conversely, if our diet mostly consists of bland foods or foods which are lightly flavored, perhaps we would eat less food overall.

These don’t seem like great leaps of logic. What is surprising is the idea that if you consume flavorless calories in addition to your regular meals, you become satiated sooner, eat less overall and lose weight. Intuitively, it may be hard to wrap our heads around: By adding calories to our diet we consume less overall, as long as those calories are flavorless. But that is exactly how I went from 220 pounds to 180 pounds in about 6 months, by consuming a few hundred calories a day via flavorless oils.

I changed little else in my routine. I didn’t exercise that much. I didn’t starve myself. I did try to avoid ditto foods like McDonalds, but I had already mostly cut those foods out of my diet, SLD just gave me one more reason to avoid those foods.

Lastly, I don’t claim to understand all this. I’m not sure that the oil led to my weight loss. Certainly there could have been another more important factor that I’m not seeing. Perhaps it was mostly a plecebo effect. I hope there are some scientific studies done to determine if this actually works. It should be easy to test in rat trials and I think it should be easy to test in human trials too. For now it seems like an interesting hunch that is amassing a lot of anecdotal evidence.

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