Today's post, The Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet was originally published on 10 April 2009. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


An intriguing dietary theory which appears to allow some people to lose substantial amounts of weight, but doesn't appear to work at all for others.

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A ten-second thought on olive oil, flavour, and the puzzling twenty percent for whom this doesn't work: Is it obvious that olive oil is really flavourless for everyone? Taste buds do differ. Olive oil does not seem flavourless to me; it has a sort of floury taste. For that matter, perhaps different brands have different additives, and some people get a flavour response to something or other?

Disclaimer: I did not put five minutes of thinking into the above; I rattled it off quickly. It may be stupid.

Seth Roberts recommends "extra light olive oil" (also known as "extra light tasting olive oil"). This is a type of olive oil that has basically no flavor. (It does have a bit of a smell, so I hold my nose when I drink it. Note also that despite the similar names, this is not the same as "extra virgin olive oil", whose flavor and aftertaste are too strong for Shangri-La use.)

I think that olive oil seeming flavorless to anyone would be an exception rather than the rule, if there's anyone at all with a sense of taste of whom it's true.

The branch of Fairway I usually visit has a large number of samples of various types of olive oil under their own brand label out at all times. While I generally don't agree with the descriptions of the oils given in the writeups by their own olive oil experts, I can attest that many if not all of them are easily differentiable in a blind taste test, and they have no additives, just oil from different types of olives grown in different locales and harvested at different times.

I think that olive oil seeming flavorless to anyone would be an exception rather than the rule, if there's anyone at all with a sense of taste of whom it's true.

To me, olive oil of any sort has practically no taste or smell. Olives have a strong taste, but olive oil is not even slightly reminiscent of olives. If they were not called by the same name, it would not occur to me that they had anything to do with each other. Other vegetable oils also taste of nothing. And yet, my sense of taste is not generally insensitive: the very first time I encountered chopped coriander leaf (in a salad, not in a labelled jar), I guessed at once that it was the same plant that coriander seed comes from.

So, there is indeed someone with a sense of taste of whom it's true.

I suspect there is a large variation in senses of taste that largely goes unnoticed. Alcohol also has no taste to me, yet some people specifically don't like the taste of alcohol.

The olive oil I usually use has a pretty strong taste, and I'm able to distinguish different artisan olive oils from each other if I'm paying attention, but my understanding is that the extra-light olive oil that Seth Roberts cites is processed to neutralize its flavor. It wouldn't be surprising to me if it was tasteless or nearly so to most people.

Some arguments I find plausible against Seth's theories:

It’s interesting that only people who travel to countries where people are thin lose weight. You went to France, where people are thin, and lost weight. I went to Thailand and lost weight, another thin country. It’s quite common for people to lose weight specifically on trips to France, if reports on the web are to be believed.

You conclude its’s the unfamiliar food, but nobody loses weight when traveling to England or Australia where the food is equally unfamiliar, so that doesn’t make sense. It seems far more likely that there are certain things about the eating habits of people in thin countries that have an effect even on visitors, causing them to eat less. It could be smaller portion sizes having a psychological effect – you feel weird eating so much more than the locals. It could be simply seeing so many thin people everywhere and becoming ashamed of your weight, or even aware for the first time that you are overweight (many Americans are shockingly delusional about this)

Nor are the people who live in these countries – who are thin – eating unfamiliar food. It seems far more likely that what is keeping French people thin begins to exert an effect on visitors – in other words it makes more sense that there is one common factor that explains both French people being thin and visitors to France lose weight, and that can’t be unfamiliar food.

I'm taking the commenter's word for it about the effects of travel to various countries.

I like and respect Seth's approach to self-experimentation. I consider his theories about and generalizations of his results to be extremely dubious.

I have absolutely no idea why the Shangri-La Diet produces such varied results except for the general principle that biology is complicated.

For one data point, when I studied one year in Ireland, I lost about 5 kilos over the first semester (ending up weighing as little as I ever have ever since puberty), gained back about 2 kilos as (ahem) ‘customary’ during the Christmas holidays back home in Italy, then gained about 6 kilos over the second semester ending up weighing as much as I ever had thus far (though I had started exercising on a regular basis and muscle is denser than fat, so that people back home thought I had lost weight). AFAICT, ‘at first I wasn't used to the way people ate there, then I adapted’ would be a decent first-order approximation to what happened, though I'm leaving out lots of details.

This mechanism in turn seems to be regulated by a flavor-calorie association. (Possibly as a famine-storage mechanism that tries to store more resources when dense food sources are available.) If you eat something with flavor X, which is followed by your metabolism detecting a large source of calories, flavor X will (a) seem more appealing and taste better, and (b) will raise your set point whenever you eat items with flavor X.

Same guy that suggested drinking sugared water dilute enough that it had no flavor?

And isn't there also some data in the reverse, that those drinking sugar free but artificially sweetened drinks gained weight?

Calories without flavor good, flavor without calories bad?


According to Stephan Guyenet's summaries for layman, this isn't totally unexpected behavior. Your brain regulates the amount of food you consume and bases its food-seeking behavior partially on how palatable the food you eat is. Pure sugar water, or pure oil which is the other recommended food in the Shangri-la diet, has very low palatability. This is because they offer only a single rewarding feature, while the foods that we typically think of as hyper-palatable contain multiple (a presentation he gave a couple years ago lists: calorie density, starch, salt, absence of bitterness, variety, consistency of flavor, fat. sugar, free glutamate [MSG], textures, and certain aromas).

One post on this topic is here which summarizes a paper showing the inverse correlation between satiety and palatibility of foods. In that paper people who ate more palatable foods had higher food consumption two hours after the test food, so a palatable but zero calorie food like diet soda may still cause overconsumption of foods with calories. Conversely, a very low palatability food like sugar water can decrease calorie consumption because it is more satisfying per calorie.

The Shangri-La diet isn't as mysterious as was when this article was written, I think.

I don't find the fact that the Shagri-La diet only seems to work for a subset of obese people surprising at all.

It targets just one of the numerous distinct factors in obesity: excessive food reward in the diet causing the hypothalamus to reduce leptin sensitivity.

Some of the other possible causes/factors which Shagri-La does not address:

  • stress (high cortisol levels)
  • non-hunger driven binge eating
  • high triglycerides blocking leptin transport across the blood brain barrier
  • visceral fat accumulation which produces very little leptin
  • viral infections (such as Human adenovirus 36)
  • micronutrient deficiency driving hunger