Insider/Outsiders, Chinese History, and the Shangri-La Diet

Darwin was an insider/outsider; so was Mendel. Insider/outsiders are close enough to their subject to have a good understanding and skills yet far enough away to have freedom. In the case of Chinese history, a journalist named Yang Jisheng has filled that role. He wrote a book called Tombstone (Mubei) about the Great Famine (1958-61). He was able to write what professional historians could not:

Why are you the first Chinese historian to tackle this subject seriously?

Traditional historians [i.e., college professors] face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions.

But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled “Rightists” or “counter-revolutionaries.” There is an author in Anhui province who has described how his family starved to death. There are many authors who have written about how their families starved.

“If they publish, they will face censure.” With respect to weight control, I am an insider/outsider. When I published The Shangri-La Diet, I did not expect censure. My colleagues (other psychology department faculty)  wouldn’t care what I wrote about a different subject. To my surprise, I was censured — maybe a better word is denounced — by a nutrition education lecturer in the UC Berkeley Nutrition Department.  The woman who denounced me had not seen my book. Based on what a reporter told her, she expressed her opinion of it in an email she sent to twenty people in her department and the chairman of my department. It said, in part:

I did give the SF Chronicle reporter my opinion of the diet making these points:
– one cannot possibly meet nutrient needs on 1200 kcals per day
– sugar and oils are not nutrient dense; they are calorically dense and thus dilute the nutrient density of the total kcal intake.
– 1200 kcals per day is less than the semi-starvation diet used in the only published formal study ever conducted in this country on human starvation (Ancel Keys, 1950)
– human semi-starvation is not a path to health whether one is discussing physical, psychological, or social well-being
– the results of single subject research are applicable only to that subject; they cannot be generalized to others.
– I cannot recommend this diet, in fact, I recommend against it.

In other words: Ridiculous. Her many misconceptions (e.g., she is unaware of many examples of path-breaking self-experimentation in the field of nutrition)  aren’t terribly interesting. What’s fascinating is her decision to trash a book she hasn’t read to a large number of her colleagues.

Thanks to Steve Hansen.

6 Replies to “Insider/Outsiders, Chinese History, and the Shangri-La Diet”

  1. “the only published formal study ever conducted in this country on human starvation (Ancel Keys, 1950)”: set aside the fact that Keys was a crook, what on earth is the import of “in this country”? Isn’t that carrying American Exceptionalism a little far?

  2. uh, i don’t think she was saying you were nuts. i don’t see any attack on your sanity or authority. and i don’t see YOU being denounced. i see the diet being denounced, but that is completely different. the difference is that she’s addressing what she sees as the facts, not the person behind them.

  3. Seth, I definitely agree with you. The woman who denounced your diet entirely failed to address the soundness of the supporting theory or data, relying entirely on a superficial view of what the diet was about — suggesting she hadn’t really read the book. Furthermore, there is nothing in the SLD diet that forces you to eat 1200 kcal/day or any specific amount of calories; the beauty of the diet is that appetite and food intake will spontaneously adjust, and you can continue to eat normal, nutritionally balanced foods. Starvation means not getting enough nutrients to sustain health, and it may be that a temporary reduction to 1200 kcal/day or even less is fine, as long as you get essential nutrients, especially if you are overweight and losing excess fat. If you look at Ancel Keys Minnesota Starvation Experiment (see Wikipedia on that) it was far from balanced — consisting of potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, bread and macaroni — a diet very poor in protein, fat, essentially fatty acids and minerals. No wonder the participants lost muscle mass and became food-obsessed and depressed. SLD is a far cry from the MSE!


  4. Actually, I’m surprised a nutrition professor would generalize based on Key’s study of young, active males. The assumption that 1560 calories will be starvation level calories is not the case, even for those subjects, whose maintenance level was 3200 calories. Starvation levels were achieved by extreme diet *and* a high level of activity, designed to burn 3000 calories. By design, they had a 25% weight loss over 6 months. It must have been hard on his subjects. IMO, it is a good thing this is the ‘only’ US starvation study.

    There is a great deal of variation in calorie calculators, based on weight, age, gender, and level of activity. Even conservative calculators over-estimate my 1200 calorie maintenance level. The nutrition prof would probably call me a liar or a diet cheater, since I’d be gaining weight at her ‘starvation’ level. Fortunately, my doctor understands that patients are individuals, and people don’t always present as a textbook case.

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