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By John Ford MD : BIO| 22 May 2006
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Seth Roberts, a psychologist at UC Berkeley has written a book called The Shangri-La Diet. In it, Roberts described some old obesity rat data and via "self-experimentation" developed a technique for weight loss that he hopes will change millions of lives.

While in France, Roberts discovered that he lost his appetite. He attributed this to the unfamiliar taste of French soft drinks. Through self-experimentation, he determined that a tablespoon of virgin light olive oil an hour before meals will do the same thing. (Don't try this with regular olive oil he admonishes, or it won't work.) Lose the appetite, lose the pounds.

If only weight management were that simple. Mankind will never lose its unerring attraction to the simple, the effortless and the quasi-plausible. Roberts himself said that in his search for weight reducing bliss, he wasn't looking for something hard.

However, the scientific method exists for a reason: to root out poor hypotheses and to direct research towards those more likely to be fruitful. If Roberts were truly interested in investigating his approach, he should have subjected it to the dispassionate rigor of clinical study and peer review.

His hypothesis is clearly testable with a controlled trial by a careful scientist willing to be proven wrong if necessary. That hasn't happened. Presenting a highly speculative idea as proven science to an audience unlikely to appreciate the difference between an academic psychologist dabbling in this field and seasoned experts who have devoted their careers to it is misleading at best and disingenuous at worse.

I heard Roberts discuss his approach on talk radio. He strikes me as sincere; naïve and simplistic, but sincere. I suspect that he is a true believer. However, there were problems with his presentation that made me question his forthrightness.

When asked if he had ever submitted his work to a professional journal, he claimed that he had and that it had been well-received. Notably, he failed to give the citation (although he did mention that it could be downloaded from his website along with other "unpublished" data).

He appears to have been referring to an article entitled Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight, which was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. As is clear from the article's title (and confirmed by reading) it was not about validating his hypothesis or conclusions. It was a speculative commentary on the use of self-experimentation as an idea generating tool. In fact, he has never published any articles on the Shangri-La Diet using accepted methodology in a refereed journal.

Any judgments I have about the plausibility of his theories are irrelevant to my argument. That I believe the Shangri-La diet will one day be a distant memory is no less speculative than Roberts' conclusions. But plausibility, real or illusory, is not proof.

My objection to Roberts is not that his ideas are implausible but that he should have subjected them to review by his peers before widely popularizing them to a public desperate for a simple, effortless way to lose weight. Rather, he published a book that as of this writing is number 2 on amazon.com.

All he needs now is an endorsement by Oprah.

Assistant Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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