Seth Roberts

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Seth Roberts
Seth Roberts at treadmill desk.jpg
Roberts at his treadmill desk
Born(1953-08-17)August 17, 1953
DiedApril 26, 2014(2014-04-26) (aged 60)
Known forSelf-experimentation
Scientific career

Seth Roberts (August 17 1953 - April 26 2014) was a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University in Beijing and emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was the author of the bestselling book The Shangri-La Diet,[2][3] and a prolific blogger. He was well known for his work in self-experimentation which led to many discoveries, including his diet, multiple publications and a popular blog.[4]

Roberts's work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine and The Scientist.[2][5] He was also a contributor to Spy and a member of the university's Center for Weight and Health.[6][7]

Roberts died in April 2014 after collapsing while hiking.[8]


In the early 1980s, Roberts suffered from insomnia. Through self-experimentation, he set out to solve this problem by varying aspects of his lifestyle, like exercise and calcium intake.[9] After many failures to see an improvement in his sleep, he eventually discovered that delaying breakfast, seeing faces in the morning, morning light, and standing solved this problem.[10] When Roberts discovered a trend or solution, he typically looked backwards evolutionarily for an explanation.[11] Roberts would later apply this method to solving problems in health, sleep, and mood, among other things.

The generalized validity of Robert's conclusions have been questioned by scientists who assert that his experiments lacked a control group, were not blinded, and were potentially biased.[12]

Roberts was called the "champion of self-experimentation" for his contributions to the field.[4] Professor Tyler Cowen called Roberts' theme of experimenting on the self the "highest stage of science".[13]

The Shangri-La Diet[edit]

As a graduate student, Roberts studied animal learning, specifically "rat psychology".[14] After Roberts read a report by Israel Ramirez studying the effect of saccharin on weight gain in rats, he thought of his new theory "in seconds".[15] Roberts tried about ten different variations, such as eating sushi, eating foods with low glycemic index, and drinking vinegar, before arriving at the Shangri La Diet.[14]

Roberts argued that weight is controlled by maintaining body weight at a certain amount, referred to as a "set point". When weight is above the set point, appetite decreases, and it takes less food to feel full. When weight is below the set point, appetite increases, and it takes more food to feel full.[16] He further stated that eating strongly flavored foods (like soda or donuts) can raise the set point, whereas flavorless foods (like sugar water, canola oil, extra light olive oil) can lower the set point.[17] These flavorless foods must be consumed in a "flavorless window," at least one hour after and one hour before consuming flavors. Consumption of 100-400 flavorless calories per day lowers the set point, and therefore, lowers weight.

The name is taken from the fictional Shangri-La, a reference Roberts explained by stating that Shangri-La is a "very peaceful place. My diet puts people at peace with food."[14]

The diet has been endorsed or mentioned by Tyler Cowen, Stephen Dubner, Tim Ferriss, Tucker Max and Wired Magazine writer Gary Wolf.[2][18][19][20][21] It was criticized by UCLA nutritionist Dr. John Ford.[22]


Through word of mouth, the book became a New York Times bestseller.[23] It made it as high as #2 on's bestseller list.[24] At one point in 2006, Roberts' book was ranked #3 on Amazon while on Freakonomics, a friend and early supporter of the book, it was ranked #4.[25]

The Shangri-La Diet was also featured on Good Morning America, where journalist Diane Sawyer tried a tablespoon of olive oil.[26][27]

Criticism of Ranjit Chandra[edit]

In September 2001, Dr. Ranjit Chandra, a prominent nutrition researcher, published a study about the effects of vitamin supplementation on the cognitive functions of the elderly.[28] Roberts and Saul Sternberg, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered inconsistencies in the data presented, specifically in the data distribution and standard deviation.[29] Roberts is quoted as stating "the results were not just implausible, they were impossible."[30] The story received recognition in both the British Medical Journal and the New York Times.[30][31] The CBC ran a three-part documentary about the controversy called "The Secret Life of Dr. Chandra".[32] In 2005, Nutrition issued a retraction of Chandra's original paper.[33]


Roberts died on Saturday, April 26, 2014. He collapsed while hiking near his home in Berkeley, California.[1] Occlusive coronary artery disease and cardiomegaly contributed to his death.[34]


  1. ^ a b Seth Roberts Blog. "Seth", 27 April 2014. Retrieved on 27 April 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Dubner and Levitt "Does the Truth Lie Within? The Accidental Diet", September 11, 2005.
  3. ^ "About the Author" Archived 2008-07-04 at the Wayback Machine on
  4. ^ a b Frauenfelder, Mark Seth Roberts' fascinating self-experiments June 1, 2008.
  5. ^ Slack, Gordy "The Self-Experimenter" Archived 2008-06-30 at the Wayback Machine Vol 21 | Issue 3 | Page 24
  6. ^ Seth Roberts: Archived 2008-05-11 at the Wayback Machine Spy Magazine Articles
  7. ^ Interview with Gary Taubes (Part 7) Archived 2008-06-30 at the Wayback Machine February 7, 2008.
  8. ^ "Personal Science Pioneer Seth Roberts Passes Away". BetaBeat.
  9. ^ Minkel, J.R. Self-Experimenter freed himself from insomnia, acne, and love handles Scientific American, March 18, 2008.
  10. ^ Roberts, Seth Self-experimentation as a source for new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight, 2004.
  11. ^ Does the Truth Lie Within? Dubner and Levitt. New York Times Magazine. 9/11/2005 "Once he stumbled upon this solution, Roberts, like many scientists, looked back to the Stone Age for explication."
  12. ^ Does the Truth Lie Within? Dubner and Levitt. New York Times Magazine. 9/11/2005 "Many modern scientists dismiss it as being not nearly scientific enough: there is no obvious control group, and you can hardly run a double-blind experiment when the researcher and subject are the same person. But might the not-quite-scientific nature of self-experimentation also be a good thing? A great many laboratory-based scientific experiments, especially those in the medical field, are later revealed to have been marred by poor methodology or blatant self-interest."
  13. ^ Self-Experimentation "Seth realizes that the self is often the last thing we know and discovering the self is the highest stage of science not to mention performance art."
  14. ^ a b c Interview with Author Dr. Seth Roberts The Diet Channel
  15. ^ Ramirez, Israel Stimulation of Energy Intake and Growth by Saccharin in Rats September 25, 1989.
  16. ^ Roberts, Seth (2007) [2006]. The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan. Perigee Books. ISBN 978-0399533167.
  17. ^ A Spoonful of Sugar Archived 2008-05-13 at the Wayback Machine Book Review
  18. ^ Marginal Revolution: The Shangri-La Diet, April 7, 2006.
  19. ^ Ferriss, Tim Relax Like A Pro: Five Steps to Hacking Your Sleep "thanks Seth Roberts, PHD. for this tip"
  20. ^ Tipping the Scales Rudius Media Messageboards
  21. ^ Gary Wolf blog "'Im becoming a devoted fan of Seth Robert's, one of the great champion of self-experimentation."
  22. ^ Ford, John Troubles in Shangri-La[Usurped!] on TCSDaily
  23. ^ [1] May 21st, 2006. New York Times Bestseller list.
  24. ^ Shangri La De Da Diet in Comic Form Calorie Lab. May 2006
  25. ^ Levitt, Steven (May 5, 2006). "Friends in High Places". Freakonomics Blog, New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  26. ^ "Oil and Water: Key to Weight Loss?". ABC. November 14, 2005. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  27. ^ Dubner, Stephen (November 14, 2005). "The Shangri-La Diet, Between Hard Covers". Freakonomics Blog, New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  28. ^ Chandra, Ranjit Effect of Vitamin and Trace-Element Supplementation on Cognitive Function of the Elderly April 13, 2001.
  29. ^ Roberts and Sternberg Letters to the Editor: Do Nutritional Supplements Improve Cognitive Function in the Elderly, November 12, 2002.
  30. ^ a b Brody, Jane (May 6, 2004). "A Top Scientist's Research is Under Attack". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-28.
  31. ^ White, Caroline (January 10, 2004). "Three journals raise doubts on validity of Canadian study". BMJ. Retrieved 2008-06-28.
  32. ^ "CBC Documentary".
  33. ^ Nutrition Retracts 2001 Paper on
  34. ^ Seth Roberts Blog. "Seth", 10 May 2014. Retrieved on 6 June 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]