Sunday, September 18, 2005

A Self-Experimenter Speaks

by Tom Bozzo

Addendum: Timothy Beneke offers some clarification in the comments. Describing his method a little further, a major feature makes particular sense: the amount of one's caloric intake you can take via olive oil or a fructose solution — the canonical "Shangri-La diet" snacks — is limited. Taking those calories in a flavorless but nutritious form is, on the face of it, better for you. It also stands to reason that it would be possible under "taste celibacy" to reduce total calories and be at least as well off, nutritionally, as under Shangri-La. This does make me curious to know exactly what more testing would show to be the essential features of the respective diets.


I got an unusual comment to last week's post on self-experimentation: a testimonial purporting to be from Timothy Beneke, a friend of Seth Roberts who lost 100 lb. using what I'll just describe as an extreme form of the "Shangri-La" diet described in last week's Freakonomics column in the NY Times Magazine. (*) You can see the details here, but in this case Roberts's method of taking small flavorless snacks as a means of combatting between-meal hunger without breaking a diet has been extended into taking a large fraction, even a supermajority, of calorie intake in a nutritious but nearly flavorless form, which is termed "taste celibacy." I figure it's worth mentioning for that coinage alone.

Losing 100 lb. by any means is a significant accomplishment, and it's interesting that Beneke could stick to his variation on the diet at all.

That said, it doesn't change my view of the Freakonomics account. I don't have any difficulty believing that the "Shangri-La" diet can work, mainly because it's pretty clearly a variation on the "physics diet" (take in fewer calories than you expend) underneath it all. These accounts still don't settle the bigger — one might also say, the economic — question of how Roberts's methods compare against their next-best alternatives. If dueling anecdotes were sufficient, it would be possible to a draw bringing in this previously linked physics dieter who decided to make a virtue out of being a little hungry between meals and Jeremy Freese's significant weight loss via the relatively simple expedients of controlled intake and exercise; with the tie possibly being broken by my reaction and that of my beloved spouse that "taste celibacy" would be a show-stopper in a candidate diet. We all should know what the plural of anecdote isn't, though.

Again, the bottom line is that Dubner and Levitt seem to have gone for the unusual accounts that arise from Roberts's research over a serious if "Freakonomic" analysis of the research.

(*) Is this a put-on? The Site Meter — it's on for the quarterly MU traffic survey — does not tell all, but indications point to no. It's also not that hard to "meet" blogiverse "celebrities" in various ways. If it is, consider me got.
I'm Timothy Beneke. Just to clarify, the virtue of the "taste celibacy" method lies in the fact that it can be done for up to 100% of one's diet. I was stuck at 210 pounds for a year doing 350 calroies of weak tasting olive oil a day and avoiding strong tasting food; and grew impatient and realized I could bypass calories as much as I wanted. But even a relatively small degree of taste celibacy, say 20% of one's calories, is extraordinarily powerful for weight loss. You can only do maybe 400 calories of fructose, which I don't really recommend; or 350 of olive oil, but you can do all of your calories with taste celibacy.

And yes, this really is Timothy Beneke, Seth's friend and it's for real...
Thanks for the comment, Tim. When you went to the "taste celibacy" method, how did your total intake change? That is, did you substitute for all or just some of the calories in the olive oil?

I should say, it does seem intuitive to me that if it's just as effective, a dieter would be better off with ~400 calories of something bland but nutritious vs. ~400 calories of fructose.
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