What is it?
The South Beach Diet was initially developed by Miami, Florida-based cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston and dietician Marie Almon to help Dr. Agatston's patients lower their risk of developing heart disease. At the time, the most popular—and American Heart Association-approved—diets were built around low-fat, high-carb eating plans. But Dr. Agatston found that this diet was just not effective in the long run. He hypothesized that his patients (and most Americans) steered clear of unhealthy fatty foods but were making up for this hole in their diet by consuming way too much additional sugars and other simple carbs.
So Dr. Agatston developed a replacement: the South Beach Diet. The South Beach Diet is meant to be simple and accessible. The basic premise is to replace "bad carbs" with "good carbs," and "bad fats" with "good fats." Bad carbs, according to the South Beach Diet, are those with a high glycemic index—i.e., those foods which increase your blood sugar at an especially fast rate. According to Dr. Agatston, carbs with a high glycemic rate make you feel hungry even when your body has all the food you need. So the South Beach Diet eliminates carbs with a high glycemic rate, such as refined sugars and processed grains, in favor of unprocessed foods such as vegetables, beans, and whole grains. The South Beach Diet also replaces foods heavy in saturated fats with foods rich in unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acid.
The South Beach Diet has three distinct phases:
- Phase 1: Lasts two weeks, during which all sugars, all fruits, and most carbohydrates are banned. You also cannot drink any alcohol, including beer and wine, during the first phase.
- Phase 2: The weight loss phase. During Phase 2, the "good carbs" are reintroduced into the diet. These include whole-grain breads, whole-grain pastas, most fruits, and some treats. This phase lasts as long as the dieter wants to lose weight.
- Phase 3: Starts when you have reached your target weight; it is the maintenance phase and is meant to be life-long. There are no specific rules for Phase 3; the idea is that the participant should feel as though they are adopting a permanent lifestyle change, where they will continue to make the right food choices for the rest of their life.
The South Beach Diet promises to help you lose weight by eating a balanced diet that is rich with nutrients and fiber. It claims that you'll lose eight to 13 pounds during phase 1 and then one to two pounds a week during phase 2. Proponents of the South Beach Diet like to claim that it's the "anti-fad fad diet," insisting that unlike many other branded diets, this one is effective in the long run. The diet distinguishes itself with claims that it will teach you to consistently choose "good" carbs over "bad" carbs and not just count calories.
Because the South Beach Diet was initially conceived of as a means to be more heart-healthy, it also promises to improve your cardiovascular health, providing a number of auxiliary health benefits that are sometimes, but not necessarily, weight related, including:
- A lowered risk of developing Type-2 diabetes
- A lowered risk of hypertension
- Normalized cholesterol levels
- Normalized blood fat levels
Pros & Cons
You definitely won't go hungry on this diet. There are lots of things you can eat, and the diet even promotes snacking throughout the day (the idea being that, by snacking, you'll avoid gorging at meal time). The South Beach Diet promotes a balanced diet and doesn't require any carb counting or calorie counting. Because the South Beach Diet focuses on learning about the source of carbohydrates instead of looking dispassionately at numbers, it can be an effective crash course on nutrition. According to Agatston, the diet will help people "learn to choose the right fats and the right carbs."
At the same time, without as severe restrictions as some other diet plans keeping them in check, followers of the South Beach Diet may fall off the wagon relatively quickly. The South Beach Diet won't appeal to anyone looking to quickly get a bikini-ready body; it's built for the long run, focusing almost as much on cardiovascular health as on weight loss. There also isn't very much instruction as to how exercise should be integrated with the diet plan.
Generally, the South Beach Diet is pretty well-balanced and, for the right person, could be effective in producing life-long effects. If you can handle the tough first phase and then commit to really ridding your diet of "bad carbs," you will lose weight. However, if you're someone who needs stern guidelines, the South Beach Diet may not be right for you. There are no strict portion sizes, no calorie counting, and the snacking the diet recommends can easily get out of hand. In addition, although the diet does recommend regular exercise, there seems to be little focus on that aspect of the program, and the diet includes no incentives to do so. We think that exercise should always be an essential part of any weight-loss program.
In terms of health worries, the first two weeks of the diet—Phase 1— appear to be the most problematic. Losing 13 pounds in two weeks could be an indication that you're losing water or lean muscle weight, rather than fat. If you're going to follow the South Beach plan, make sure you stay hydrated. Also, if you consume fewer than 20 grams of carbs a day — which is the recommended amount during Stage 1—your body may develop ketoacidosis, which occurs when your body uses fat for energy instead of glucose. If left untreated, it can result in mental confusion, coma, or even death. So be extremely cognizant of how your body is responding to the diet during Phase 1.
Additionally, because the South Beach Diet specifically seeks to lower your body's blood sugar level, it is essential that anyone who has a blood-sugar-related medical condition—such as diabetes—take extra care before choosing the diet. Always consult your health care provider before starting any weight loss program.