I was saddened last month to learn of the untimely death of my friend Seth Roberts, a highly original thinker on matters that lie at the intersection of psychology and physiology Seth was known to many as a pioneer in the burgeoning field of self-experimentation. He was an early contributor to the Quantified Self movement, which owes a huge debt to his thinking. His experiments looked at how to optimize weight loss, mood, sleep, mental speed, balance and even to address specific conditions like acne. He wrote a blog on topics related to health and scientific method. I greatly enjoyed side discussions with Seth at the Ancestral Health Symposium meetings and personal correspondence over the years. This August, both Seth and I were scheduled to talk at AHS in Berkeley. While my talk on myopia will still happen, we will never hear his talk about self-experimentation.
Yet, to pigeonhole Seth as a primarily a self-experimentalist fails to understand what he was really about as a thinker. As a professional research psychologist, he focused on developing “productive explanations” — explanations that help us not only to make sense of an individual surprising observation, but that also make predictions about additional diverse and often novel practical applications. Self-experimentation was one important input, but certainly not his only source of experimental material. Self-experimentation has the virtue of allowing one to do more experiments in less time without spending a lot of money. Self experiments allow you to make incremental progress rapidly, to adjust and learn quickly.
But Seth didn’t stop there He typically synthesized results from many different fields into a coherent explanation. He was not against using data from larger experiments, even controlled double-blind experiments. It’s just that large “designed” experiments sometimes become unwieldy and expensive failures. Simple self-experiments get you started “learning by doing” and often allow you to make rapid progress and weed out untenable hypotheses quickly, before you sink a lot of time and effort into your investigations. The best example of how Seth combined self-experiment with classical science may be how he came up with the Shangri-La Diet, a seemingly wacky–but actually very effective–way of losing weight, safely and without hunger.
How much weight lifting or other exercise is optimal for fitness? What is the right amount of carbohydrate restriction or fasting for sustained weight loss and health? What level of exposure to allergens will reduce allergies? How many hours of sun tanning is healthy? How frequently should plus lenses be worn to reduce myopia? Do I need to take cold showers every day to get their benefit? How much stress is enough — and how much is too much?
Many of the questions I get on this website and the forums are of this type. People understand the general concept of hormesis, namely that exposure to controlled amounts of stress can be beneficial, because it elicits beneficial adaptive responses in the organism. They understand that weight lifting builds muscles, and that intermittent fasting and calorie reduction can be healthful. But too much of any stressor — weight lifting, caloric restriction, sunlight, allergens — can have adverse consequences. With hormesis, it seems, the Goldilocks principle applies: to get a benefit, the level of stress must be “just right”. And because it’s so easy to veer into overload, many people seek to avoid even mild stress: Avoid allergens. Cover up with sunscreen. Eat frequent small meals. Don’t exert yourself. But if you choose this path, you forgo the possible hormetic benefits.
So how do you determine the optimum level and frequency of exposure to a stress? And how much rest or recovery between exposures is optimal? Read More
One of the primary topics covered on this blog is intermittent fasting (IF). Many approach IF as a diet or weight loss method. I know from research, personal experience and conversations with others that IF can indeed be an effective way to drop unwanted pounds. However, viewing IF as merely a new way to diet entirely misses what I believe is the most important reason to pursue it: the activation of hormetic processes that foster improved health, keep degenerative diseases at bay, and hold out the promise of a longer, more vibrant life. These benefits are a known consequence of calorie restriction, but intermittent fasting offers a more comfortable and versatile way to reap the benefits of calorie restriction without the sense of deprivation, the loss of lean body mass, and the metabolic risks that have been associated with simple calorie restriction.
It is because I’ve found intermittent fasting to be an attractive practice, both scientifically and personally, that I was so excited to be invited to give a lecture on IF at The 3rd Door, an innovative health and fitness studio, cafe and social center in downtown Palo Alto. The fitness director at The Third Door, Johnny Nguyen, is himself an advocate and practitoner of IF, which he blogs about with great flair and common sense at The Lean Saloon. The talk gave me an opportunity to reframe intermittent fasting in the terms of the philosophy of Hormetism, or applied hormesis that I write about on this blog. I believe that the framework of hormesis helps to make sense of why IF works, and why it is so much more than a diet.
What follows is a video of my talk on the benefits of intermittent fasting, presented on May 18, 2011 at The 3rd Door. I would like to thank Dianne Giancarlo and Johnny Nguyen for inviting me to speak, Vaciliki Papademetriou for technical assistance, Francesca Freedman for introducing me to The Third Door, Tom Merson for the still photos and Ken Becker for the masterful video production.
I’m writing this post the week before Thanksgiving, to give you something to think about as you are polishing off that last piece of pie….
One of the most common reactions I get to my advice to try intermittent fasting is: I could never do that!
Like the Jackson Browne song “Running on Empty,” the word “fasting” often conjures up dire images of starvation and energy deprivation. Many of you reading this post may have experienced strong hunger pangs, headaches, tiredness, sweating and even shaking or wooziness when going without eating for even part of a day, much less a whole day. So it is natural to extrapolate such experiences into the thought that going without food for a day, or even several hours, would invariably lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous hypoglycermic symptoms. That, together with the negative image of fasting as something unhealthy or associated with eating disorders, leaves most people pale at the thought of even attempting a short fast.
But I tell you, if you don’t try fasting you are missing out on an enjoyable, incredibly energizing experience that will put you in control of your eating and improve your health, your energy and your outlook. Many people, myself included, have learned to fast for up to a day or even longer, on a regular basis and without negative repurcussions. Done correctly, short-term fasting is not dangerous, it’s actually health-promoting and greatly helps to retrain your appetite. If you need to lose weight, the fast helps both in reducing basal insulin and retraining your appetite to be smaller. I’ve written about the benefits of intermittent fasting extensively on this site. Many of the Diet Links listed in the right-hand panel, such as fast-5 and Eat-Stop-Eat, amply document the safety and health benefits of fasting, dispelling the myths about “starvation mode”, slowing of metabolism, and loss of lean muscle mass. So I won’t reiterate here the voluminous evidence supporting the benefits of intermittent fasting. Our bodies are designed to last many days with out food, without great discomfort, and in fact it is beneficial to our health to forgo food periodically. But many of you are asking: Am I really up to this? How do I get started? Read More
A number of recent weight loss methods have been developed that explicitly recognize a close relationship between flavor and appetite. These methods include:
- Flavor-calorie dissociation as advocated by Seth Roberts in his Shangri-La Diet
- Sensory-specific satiety, as advocated in David Katz’s Flavor Point Diet
- Tastants, another approach to sensory-specific satiety, as advertised in Alan Hirsch’s Sensa Weight-Loss Program.
- Odor inhalers, a third approach based on sensory-specific satiety, as described in Alan Hirsch’s book Scentsational Weight Loss, and marketed by him as “diet pens” offered by SlimScents
At first, some of these approaches appear to be mutually incompatible. The Shangri-La theory argues that strong or familiar flavors enhance appetite when they become associated with caloric foods. The other three approaches, by contrast, claim that intense flavors or aromas suppress appetite, based upon the principle of “sensory-specific satiety”, whereby an increase in the intensity of a single flavor or odor induces satiety. However, on closer examination, all of the above theories are consistent with one another, as I will try to show. Furthermore, they each provide some useful clues about how to achieve a long term weight loss and relief from hunger cravings by paying attention to the role of flavor and other food cues. Finally, as I will attempt to persuade you, only one of the above diets is truly a type of Deconditioning Diet that can lead to long term, permanent reduction in appetite, based on the principles of Hormetism.