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UC Berkeley Professor's Diet Book Touts Oil and Sugar

2 foods, in small amounts, seem to reduce appetite
Story Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle
By Rick DelVecchio

Seth Roberts is a UC Berkeley psychology professor known for going his own way.

His latest publication is a diet book, which is something scholars at world-ranked universities don't write too often but which Roberts believes is an excellent way to get an important health message across to the general public.

The book, a brisk, 194-page how-to hardback published by Putnam's in April and recently outselling Philip Roth's latest novel on amazon.com, is called "The Shangri-La Diet." The title evokes a state of peace and plenty, and the subtitle underlines that author's claim that this place is not as far-off as you might think: "The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight Loss Plan."

The book works out Roberts' theory that ingesting two common food ingredients can lead to voluminous, permanent weight loss.

The ingredients are sugar and oil.

It's not news that eating sweets between meals has an impact on appetite. But according to Roberts' theory, taking small doses of plain sugar or unflavored vegetable oil between meals doesn't only diminish appetite, it seems almost to crush the urge to overeat.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Mill Valley, Roberts, 52, is an experimenter with a penchant for the odd angle. He once taught a course on left-handedness and read each issue of Spy three times when that satirical magazine was at its peak -- he says it had an analgesic effect.

He's interested in how animals learn and how successful businesses slip and fall because their leaders, like lab rats in a Skinnerian experiment, keep doing what worked in the past.

A unifying theme in his research is that the human brain was shaped to work well under Stone Age conditions and that modern life lacks crucial features enjoyed by our prehistoric ancestors such as being on one's feet a lot, seeing faces in the morning, not seeing faces late at night, sunlight exposure in the morning, variation in the flavors of one's food.

To test his ideas, Roberts turns time and again to the human subject he knows best: himself. Roberts believes downing unflavored foods upsets humans' built-in link between taste and calories. The link, the theory goes, is an evolutionary hangover from our prehistoric past, when it was necessary to stock up on calories against seasonal scarcity.

But the modern world is different, and potentially deadly. It's saturated with packaged and fast foods that deliver such uniform, high-calorie taste experiences as to be virtually addictive as they play on caveman cravings.

So, Roberts argues that the appetite-numbing effect of unflavored foods interrupts a harmful behavior pattern and points to a possible breakthrough in dealing with obesity.

In theory, one eats in order to feel satisfied, a sensation that varies individually and is known as the "set point." If the set point is too high for nutritional needs, one gains weight. Getting hooked on a flavor that's high in calories -- a soda, snack or burger -- pushes the set point up, and the results are predictable.

But if the set point is downshifted, one drops weight. Raw vegetables help because they aren't too tasty, but truly unflavored items do this trick best, according to the theory.

"The Shangri-La Diet is based on the discovery that there are foods far more powerful than raw vegetables in lowering your set point," Roberts writes. "If raw vegetables are 4, the two foods at the heart of the Shangri-La Diet are 0. Even small amounts of them will lower your set point significantly."

He goes on to propose that unflavored sugar water -- the brain does not treat sweetness as a flavor, he says -- and extra-light olive oil are two such foods.

The diet is unusual in that it doesn't prohibit anything. But according to the theory, it doesn't have to: the potently appetite-suppressing powers of either of the two types of unflavored items do the work without having to enlist willpower in what could well be a losing cause against weight gain.

"While you probably haven't heard of these new methods before," he writes, "they're simple, easy to adopt and perfectly consistent with a healthy diet. You don't need to stop eating anything."

In short, it seems you may eat whatever you wish under the Roberts plan, but you just won't want to.

Mark Schrimsher, who runs the diet Web site calorielab.com, has looked at the diet closely and interviewed Roberts critically for a news article on his site. He questions the theory but says the Shangri-La story is a motivational one.

"The Shangri-La Diet is the most interesting thing to come along in the dieting world in quite a while," said Schrimsher from his home in Japan. "It really came out of left field, and was not what most people expected when they were looking for the successor to the Atkins diet."

The diet is the result of years of Roberts' self-experimentation, and the book is as much the story of a professor's one-man quest as it is a diet manual. Self-experimentation isn't the usual way to work out a theory in a field that favors statistical studies. But there's no doubt Roberts' story has a good plot, and the results claimed are dramatic.

As a young professor, Roberts struggled with his weight. He tried lots of things but never got the dramatic drop he was looking for. Then, six years ago, he lost 35 pounds in 17 weeks after chancing on fructose as an appetite inhibitor. He later switched to oil.

"Under normal circumstances, that amount of weight loss is incredibly difficult," Roberts said the other day. "I found a way that was incredibly easy."

The eureka moment happened on a trip to Paris in 2000. Roberts was surprised when his usually robust appetite deserted him. Aware of other researchers' work on the theory of a metabolic set point, he found the answer: The sodas he was drinking to stay cool were knocking down his appetite because he'd never tasted French soft drinks before.

He theorized that familiar sugary soft drinks cause weight gain, but unfamiliar ones do the opposite because they lower the set point.

Roberts, who eats one meal a day plus 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil and small snacks, said at least 100 and possibly as many as 1,000 other people have tried the diet. He said all the reports have been neutral or positive -- with the exception of one person who dropped it after six months because she had early signs of diabetes.

One of the early adopters was Steve Marsh, a 50-year-old lawyer in Plano, Texas. In an interview, Marsh said he's lost 50 pounds since starting the diet in November. He's down to 190.

He said the key is the 2 tablespoons of extra-light olive oil he tosses back every afternoon in a medicine shot glass. "I cringe every time," he said. But he likes the results.

"It's flippin' a switch in your head," he said. "In the old days, a dozen doughnuts, a pound of Fig Newtons and you're full so you want to eat more. Now, instead of eating I stop and feel like eating less. It's the same feeling, but in reverse."

Does this prove the discovery of a new miracle diet? Schrimsher has his doubts.

"Although there have been some studies that report, for instance, metabolism changes after weight loss," he wrote in an e-mail, "they are only in the range of 5% or 10% or so (and more studies dispute this than support it).

"Your body just can't become twice as fuel efficient as it was before. Think of what you'd have to do to your car to make it that much more efficient: you would need to swap out all the metal parts for carbon composite and put in a new high tech engine ... . A body with such a large change in metabolism efficiency starts to look like a perpetual motion machine."

Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director of UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health, said pre-loading sugar in the diet has been shown to reduce appetite in some studies, but the work hasn't been pursued. "I think the main issue here is it would have to be established with either experimental studies or randomized trials," she said, noting that almost all diets work for some people but that almost none work for everybody.

Roberts defended his diet as nutritionally sound and his method as good science, saying there's no call for large-scale studies to verify the results. "When you find, in some cases, a solution to a problem that's really important," he said, "it's not a good idea to wait for perfection."

Another of Roberts' Berkeley colleagues, psychology professor Dacher Keltner, expressed reservations about single-subject research but said Roberts is asking questions that should be asked.

"Very often psychological science ignores the basic stuff,'' he said. "We haven't studied why people love sports, we haven't really studied religion to the extent we should, we haven't studied aesthetics, we haven't studied how adults play. We've missed some big stuff, and one of the topics we've really missed is eating. A really systematic, rigorous approach to a more effective way of eating is open game for scientists."

Page B - 1
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/05/30/SHANGRILA.TMP


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