The South Beach diet was created by preventative cardiologist, Dr. Arthur Agatston, in 1995, as a program to help his heart and diabetic patients lose weight and improve their blood compositions. The diet’s efficacy became quickly touted, prompting a Miami TV station to air an overview of it. This resulted in hundreds of South Floridians trying it out. Its popularity grew from there, and Agatston eventually published his first book, The South Beach Diet, in 2003. Today, the diet is popular worldwide—perhaps even more popular than Miami’s beloved, sunglasses donning, ever superfluous posing, ginger-haired CSI agent.
In the following text I offer an overview of the South Beach diet, as well as a list of its frequently cited pros and cons.
Overview of the South Beach Diet
Agatston made the following two postulations at the onset of developing South Beach: patients on low-fat diets often eat no less food than they did before commencing said diet; the low-carbohydrate diet methodology popularized by fellow cardiologist, Robert Atkins, could lend to the consumption of too few carbohydrates, too little fiber, and too much saturated fat. Accordingly, Agatston made South Beach to be, “not—exactly—low-carb or low-fat.” In a nutshell, the push of South Beach is to replace undesirable carbohydrates and fats, with desirable carbohydrates and fats.
The program is divided into three phases, each progressively more lenient. In the first phase, which lasts two weeks, you are asked to completely eliminate refined sugars, alcohol, fruit, high-glycemic vegetables, and carbohydrate laden foods (pasta, rice, and bread) from your diet. Agatston maintains that this is necessary to stabilize blood sugar and to reduce cravings. In phase two you can add back fruit, a number of vegetables banned in phase one, and low-glycemic carbohydrates—brown rice, whole grain bread, etc. You are asked to stay on phase two until you reach your ideal body weight. Phase three is essentially a lifelong maintenance plan. It largely mimics phase two, but it allows for more indulgences in moderation.
Frequently Cited Pros and Cons of the South Beach Diet
As is the case for most modern diets, South Beach has a number of strong supporters and detractors. Following are a few of the many cited pros and cons of Agatston’s diet:
- South Beach is generally easy to follow. There is not much calorie counting, food measuring, etc.
- Anecdotal evidence shows that South Beach, when followed as prescribed, is an effective weight loss diet—particularly in its first phase.
- Satiety is usually not an issue for South Beach dieters.
- By way of its multi-phase infrastructure in which participants remove and then slowly add back foods, there is good potential for participants to become acutely aware of the effects certain foods have on their bodies.
- The first phase of South Beach is very restrictive; its ketogenic (carbohydrate restrictive) nature can be shocking to the body. Ketogenic eating can lead to ketoacidosis, a condition where the body creates excessive acid and ketones.
- South Beach largely calls on the glycemic index, rather than accounting for glycemic load. As stated on Wikipedia, “The glycemic index of food is defined as the area under the two-hour blood glucose response curve following the ingestion of a fixed portion of carbohydrate (usually 50 g).” Carrots, which are prohibited during phase one of South Beach, have a high glycemic index; but, to get the fifty grams of carbohydrates from carrots that their score is based on, you would have to eat about four cups of them, chopped. The concept of glycemic load takes serving size into account. Its formula multiplies the number of grams of carbohydrate in the food serving by its glycemic index, then divides the product by 100.
- Evidence shows that much of the weight participants lose during their first phase of South Beach is from water loss.
- Some facts and assertions made in The South Beach Diet are questionable. On the Journal of Internal Medicine website an abstract entitled “Nutrition and Weight Loss Information in a Popular Diet Book: Is It Fact, Fiction, or Something in Between?” the following is stated:
“ … We assessed the quality of nutrition facts in the best-selling South Beach Diet using support in peer-reviewed literature as a measure of quality. We performed structured literature searches on nutrition facts located in the books’ text, and then assigned each fact to 1 of 4 categories (1) fact supported, (2) fact not supported, (3) fact both supported and not supported, and (4) no related papers. A panel of expert reviewers adjudicated the findings.
Forty-two nutrition facts were included. Fourteen (33%) facts were supported, 7 (17%) were not supported, 18 (43%) were both supported and not supported, and 3 (7%) had no related papers, including the fact that the diet had been “scientifically studied and proven effective.”
- Many of the recipes given in The South Beach Diet call for Splenda. While Splenda has its advocates, many will argue—compellingly—that it is undesirable.
As is the case for most modern structured diets, South Beach offers a lot to think about. For some it is a supremely prudent regimen; for others it is not. There are many aspects of the South Beach diet that I really like—not counting calories or measuring food for example. All points considered though, it is not a program I will likely ever try. I do not like its ketogenic phase and its arbitrary restrictions.