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One of the most bizarre diets to become popular in recent years, the Shangri-La Diet was the brainchild of psychology professor Seth Roberts. According to Roberts, the diet was so named to conjure up images of the fictional Himalayan community because, just as Shangri-La is associated with peace and tranquility, Roberts said, "This diet puts people at peace with food." The name is pretty whimsical, and the diet is plenty eccentric too. It only has one rule: Take 1-3 tablespoons of extra light olive oil and/or 1-2 tablespoons of sugar water twice daily, between meals.
According to Roberts, the body learns to associate especially flavorful foods with calories, thus leading us toward overindulgence in our favorite foods. The result? Uncontrollable weight gain. Roberts suggested that by consuming olive oil and sugar water, which have calories but little taste, you can teach your body to stop associating flavor with calories. Eventually, your body will want less of whatever foods you're eating. The idea is that the body has a "set point," a weight level that it seeks to maintain.
Roberts believed that the key to weight loss is controlling the weight your body wants to maintain through understanding how different foods can increase or decrease the set point. Specifically, he believed that by consuming olive oil and sugar water — what he called "zero-set point foods" — one could reduce their set point to a lower weight.
Other suggestions (but not requirements) of the Shangri-La diet: Stopping your nose up in some way to avoid smelling good foods, thus making them less flavorful, eating unfamiliar foods because unfamiliar associations help to lower the set point (one of Roberts' suggestions was putting cinnamon on pizza), and eating bland foods whenever possible, such as pureed vegetables, plain soup broth, and bread with no butter.
It's advertised as the "no hunger, eat anything weight loss plan." The diet promises freedom from hunger and cravings through teaching your body to want less food. Once you've trained your body to want less food, you'll be able to eat whatever you want because you'll only want a small amount, and a small amount of anything won't hurt.
The Shangri-La Diet is advertised as a paradigm shift in the understanding of dieting. Roberts argued that his system was based on a better understanding of how weight control systems work than other diets. His claim was that, until now, nearly all weight loss programs had incorrectly focused on severe portion control — demanding that one food type or another be subtracted from your menu. The Shangri-La Diet pledges that you won't have to subtract anything in order to successfully lose weight. In fact, all you have to do is add a small amount of extra light olive oil or sugar water to your daily food intake, and you'll be all set to start dropping pounds. Roberts said that the Shangri-La Diet is "almost as easy as taking a pill, and 100 times safer and less expensive."
It's cheap, and it's relatively safe. Because your meals will most likely be composed of the same types of foods you were eating before starting the Shangri-La Diet, the diet probably won't result in the loss of any important nutrients or vitamins. It's also about as inexpensive as diet plans come.
The Shangri-La diet is appealing in many ways. It's very simple, and doesn't require any significant lifestyle changes. In fact, one of its key tenets is that you don't have to subtract anything from your diet or life; you only have to add. There are no forbidden types of food, so it will appeal to those unwilling to give up their favorites. There's none of the typical calorie counting or physical exercise that usually scare people away from dieting.
On the other hand, not too many people will be happy eating purposefully bland food, and taking regular spoonfuls of olive oil or sugar water can be unappetizing. The diet does not have any portion control guidelines, and makes no effort at changing what a person is actually eating. Just adding sugar water and olive oil to a daily routine of junk food isn't going to help you lose weight or make you healthier. The diet assumes that people will desire less food.
And that's where the most troublesome aspect of this diet plans lies: The logic of the Shangri-La diet runs counter to much of the current professional wisdom about weight loss, and the jury is still out on whether there is actually a legitimate scientific basis for Roberts' set point theory. Much of Roberts' evidence is based on self-experimentation.
In other words: the Shangri-La diet may not work.
There is some science supporting the potential of olive oil to increase feelings of fullness. A small 2013 study found that adding olive oil, or just the scent of olive oil, seems to boost satiety.
In a second part of the study, researchers tested yogurt enriched with only the scent of olive oil and found that the group that consumed yogurt without the olive oil aroma ate an average of 176 more calories each day than the group given the olive oil-scented yogurt.
One issue with the foundation of the Shangri-La diet is the claim that flavorful, tasty foods are fattening. While this may be true in some cases, it is definitely not a set in stone fact. For one thing, taste is a matter of opinion. More importantly, there are thousands upon thousands of recipes out there for delicious food options that are healthy too.
Of even greater concern is that the Shangri-La plan makes no effort to address any lifestyle factors, like physical activity or the psychological components of weight control. There are no guidelines as to how much or what food is being eaten; the diet simply assumes people will begin to eat less if they add sugar water and olive oil to their daily routine. Without taking on the more fundamental aspects of weight management, it's hard to see how a temporary reduction in appetite will work to produce long-term results in weight loss. Finally, Healthline recommends that any diet plan be accompanied by an increase in physical activity.
Written by: Elijah Wolfson
Medically reviewed on: Apr 11, 2016: Natalie Butler, RD, LD
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