The South Beach Diet has quickly captured the hearts and stomachs of dieters. Because of the buzz its been getting at the watercooler and at parties, its fast becoming one of the most popular carb-control plans. Developed by Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, director of the Mount Sinai Cardiac Prevention Center, the diet is meant to promote weight loss but not at the expense of heart health. Unlike other wildly popular low-carb plans, South Beach calls for keeping tabs on saturated fats and favors lean meats and proteins over bacon, cheeseburgers, and steak. Recently, Agatston came out with a South Beach Diet cookbook.

While the South Beach Diet is lumped together with other low-carb plans, it takes a decidedly different and healthier approach to protein and fat. Agatston contends that weight loss is just one of the priorities of the diet (the other is healthful levels of cholesterol and other blood fats). As with other low-carb diets, its questionable if the restrictive first phase really banishes carb cravings and is truly safe. So perhaps dieters can jump headfirst into phase two.

Basic principles:

The plan consists of three phases. In the first, carbs are curtailed dramatically in order to stop cravings. Next, dieters keep blood sugar on an even keel by adding back small amounts of slow-to-digest “good” carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Without getting too complicated, foods are categorized based on a ranking system called the glycemic index (G.I.), which measures their ability to raise blood sugar. Foods with low G.I.s are favored because they are digested and absorbed slowly and release sugar into the blood gradually; colas, sugar, and refined grains are downplayed since they have a high G.I. Simply put, “the faster the sugars and starches you eat are processed and absorbed intro your bloodstream, the fatter you get,” Agatston says.

How the diet works:

Theres no calorie counting. In fact, theres no actual diet plan per se. Agatston uses sample menus to outline what you need to eat. Lists of “foods to enjoy” and “foods to avoid” round out the plan. Basically, it adds up to three meals a day and three small snacks or six “eating occasions.” Agatston doesnt like to call his diet low-carb; nevertheless, carbohydrates are indeed limited.

What you can eat:

Varies depending on the phase. In phase one, dieters pick low-G.I. carbs from Agatstons list and pair them with modest portions of proteins including lean meats and seafood. Dairy, except for low-fat cheese, is taboo in this phase. By phase two, you start mixing in higher-G.I. foods in small amounts. Sweet treats, such as hard candy, frozen fudge bars, and Popsicles, are limited to 75 calories worth per day.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

No clinical data. There are no independent trials that look at the success of the diet alone or compare it with other popular plans. However, Agatston has his own study with 40 overweight volunteers. Dieters were randomized to either South Beach or the American Heart Association Step 2 diet. At the 12-week point, South Beach dieters lost nearly 14 pounds, or about twice as much as the AHA dieters.

Is the diet healthy?

Phase one is too restrictive. But phase two and the maintenance phase promote healthful fats, lean proteins, and complex carbs, albeit a smaller percentage of them.

What do the experts say?

“Its one of the more sensible of the low-carb diets,” says John Foreyt, PhD, a well-known weight-loss researcher t Baylor College of Medicine. “If you pick and choose carefully in the later phase, you can make a sensible eating plan out of it. The problem with it, of course, is that there is no data on the long-term results on whether it keeps weight off.” Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, who has counseled patients at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute for five years, says she tells patients “not to read any of the theory part of the book or worry about glycemic index. Its a bit convoluted,” she says. “But I do tell them to buy the book for its menu ideas, recipes, and cooking tips. Theres a great recipe for mashed cauliflower that is a good substitute for mashed potatoes.”

Who should consider the diet?

Anyone wanting to try a somewhat safer version of low-carb dieting: Cooks, chefs, and dieters who appreciate good food will find lots of creative recipes here.

Bottom line:

This is the best of the reduced-carb regimens. Its emphasis on healthful fats and lean sources of protein is laudable. The advice to eat three bites of a rich dessert (no more, no less) when you eat out is clever. On the other hand, forget the tip about filling up with a glass of Metamucil (fiber supplement) 15 minutes before mealtime. Eating high-fiber foods at the meal is a much better—and tastier—strategy.
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