Pros: Well-reasoned; well-detailed; plenty of information provided; lack of hype; easy-to-follow plan; some good recipes
Cons: Has to fight against a somewhat hype-ful public image; relies too heavily on artificial sugars (may be the right compromise, however)
Rating: 5 out of 5
First posted 1/31/2006
As a rule, I’m wary of Diets with a capital ‘D’. I believe in eating with moderation, and most diets take their ideas to an unhealthy extreme in the name of losing weight as quickly as possible. I want to lose weight, sure, but I want to do it to be healthy, not to show off in a bikini, and that means I want to do it responsibly. I used to follow Weight Watchers, but in recent months it hadn’t been working out so well. I rarely felt satisfied when staying in my point range it seemed, and with how busy things have been of late it was tough keeping track of points. I’d kind of given up for a while there.
Then I was at my doctor’s office one day, and he was delayed stitching up someone’s injury. There was a well-used copy of the South Beach Diet book on his desk, so I started reading it and got through about 40 pages before he came in (I read fast and he took a while). I was interested enough in what I saw there that I got a copy for myself the next day, and started following the diet shortly thereafter.
GOOD Carbs and GOOD Fats
From the media hype I had the impression that the South Beach diet was yet another low-carb diet, along the lines of Atkins, and I’d heard enough about Atkins to know I’d never follow that diet. As it turns out, this is misleading. South Beach is about eating the right carbs and the right fats. I’m obviously not going to reproduce whole chapters of explanation here, but I’ll give you the gist of it. Most of the foods we eat today are highly processed. They’ve had the dietary fiber removed (white flour); they’ve been chopped into the smallest possible pieces or cooked into oblivion; they’re loaded with sugar to make them yummy (lord knows I have one of the worst sweet tooths). The more processed a food is, the faster it converts to blood sugar in our bodies (in essence, some of the digestive work has already been done). The problem with this is that our pancreas, which produces the insulin that regulates blood sugar, was never built to handle such large, fast spikes in blood sugar. It reacts by over-reacting, putting out a spike of insulin that causes our blood sugar to drop. In return we get hungry faster, craving more processed carbs and sugars, and our blood sugar and pancreas do this dangerous dance back and forth. Our blood chemistry gets out of whack and we eat way too much. (This can eventually also lead to type II diabetes and similar problems).*
That’s why this diet is about eating non-processed carbohydrates–whole grains such as brown rice–in moderation, as well as unsaturated fats. Dr. Arthur Agatston, who created the diet, originally created it to modulate blood chemistry, not to help with weight loss, since he’s a cardiologist who wanted to help his patients with issues such as cholesterol level. It just so happens that belly fat is an indicator for potential heart troubles, and that when you start correcting your blood chemistry you also lose weight–belly fat first, which will make a lot of people very happy.
I’ve always had hypoglycemia issues, for as long as I can remember. This means that when I don’t eat frequently my blood sugar drops and I feel light-headed and headachy. It isn’t much fun. There’s also some history of type II diabetes in my family, as well as heart troubles. Thus, this explanation really hit a nerve. Like I said, I want to lose weight to be healthy–and avoiding heart troubles and diabetes is a big part of that!
*Please note that I’m not a doctor and may not have explained this in an ideal fashion. This is a very boiled-down summary from my reading and understanding in this book.
The Three Phases
Dr. Agatston struck me as having a surprisingly good grasp on the psychology of your average dieter. Which is to say, he knows that if a diet isn’t simple, if it doesn’t allow you to splurge and enjoy the foods you love, if it isn’t easy to follow, people won’t keep up with it. Surprisingly, he managed to deliver on a diet that fulfills these criteria much better than I would have expected.
You follow this diet in three phases. The first phase lasts two weeks, is the most restrictive, and is designed to reset the manner in which your body handles insulin production and blood sugar. During this time you’re supposed to lose roughly 8-13 pounds. You’ll mostly eat such things as lean meats, low-fat cheeses and other dairy, eggs, nuts, and vegetables. You can also have some sugar-free sweets if you like artificial sweeteners. One of the keys to phase one is snacking, and remembering to eat until you’re satisfied. If you don’t snack your blood sugar will drop and you’ll get headaches. If you don’t eat until you’re satisfied you’ll feel deprived and you’ll have a hard time sticking to the diet. This is a diet where you don’t have to restrict your portions, for the most part. You have to restrict the amounts of certain kinds of things (for example, you can only have a certain limited amount of nuts), but in general you can eat until you’re full. This makes a vast difference when you’re trying to stick with your diet. It particularly helps if you have a real sweet tooth and spend those first few days (like I did) totally jonesing for chocolate or bread. Being able to haul out some nuts, cheese, veggies, yogurt, or whatever and snack whenever you get the urge makes the difference between getting through those cravings and not getting through them.
I did eventually get through the cravings, however, and as Agatston predicted, I now don’t particularly crave sugar or processed carbs. I still want them sometimes, but that’s different. I didn’t lose as much weight as he said I would in phase one, but then my husband lost more, and we’ve found this is normal for us on other diets as well–we tend to average normal weight-loss between us. However, the biggest difference is that I haven’t had a single hypoglycemia symptom since starting this diet–and it had started to get bad toward the end of last year. Even once when a meal was several hours late and I barely snacked, prime conditions for wooziness and headaches, I didn’t have a single problem. And heck, given how much I snacked for the first few days to handle those cravings, the fact that I lost weight at all still amazes me.
In phase two you’re still meant to lose weight, but more gradually–at a rate of one or two pounds per week. You’re allowed to slowly reintroduce some whole grains, fruits, and slightly sweeter vegetables that you weren’t allowed in phase one. The idea is to add one or two things in at a time for variety and nutrition, and to cut back if you find that you stop losing weight. One of the wonderful parts of phase two is discovering that things have a whole new sweetness to them now that your taste buds have been “reset.” I add blueberries to plain yogurt and it tastes like dessert. The flavors of whole grains, which used to bug me, now have a whole different taste to them that I love. I choose to have a salad or some veggies now because I really enjoy them.
One interesting thing to note is that Agatston doesn’t recommend most “low-fat” foods or substitutes other than dairy, because the fat tends to be replaced by sugar, which is generally worse in his scenario. He believes that some amount of fat (preferably unsaturated, without trans-fats) is necessary to help us feel full and satisfied, and that trading that out for sugar just gives us the illusion of doing something healthy while actually spiking our blood sugar and exacerbating the cycle of carb-craving.
In phase three you get to add a few extras back in; phase three is basically weight maintenance stage. It isn’t so much a diet as a way to eat healthily for the rest of your life.
Psychologically speaking, however, one of the things that makes this diet so healthy is that it has wiggle-room built in. One of the things that made Weight Watchers difficult is that you really had to stick to it all the time. If you broke down and had something that totally blew your points, well, that was it. And psychologically, it’s all too easy at that point to say, “why bother? I’ve already blown it.” With the South Beach Diet, once you’ve gone through phase one it’s easy to handle the inevitable and occasional splurge. Simply back up a bit. If you go out to dinner and decide not to worry about what you eat while you’re on phase two, then go back to phase one for a week or two. If you do the same during phase three, go back to phase two for a little while. Agatston also recommends simply making your splurges smaller. Instead of eating a whole candy bar, have a couple of bites of chocolate and savor them. Share a dessert with someone else and have only a spoonful or two.
This isn’t a diet that can promise to help you drop 10 pounds a week while eating all your favorite foods–and I mean that in a good way. But it provides a well-reasoned, thoughtful approach to choosing the right foods and living healthfully, with comparatively little trauma, deprivation and grief. It’s about using recent scientific research to make our lives better. And so far, I like the results in my life.
The book is a surprisingly quick read, and includes an extensive section with meal plans, food lists of recommended foods, and even recipes (the hummus recipe in here is the best hummus recipe I’ve ever had, although not all of the recipes are as amazing). It’ll teach you a lot about how your body works in a relatively quick and painless way. My only real reservation about it is that Agatston relies very heavily on the use of artificial sweeteners to help you deal with feelings of sweet-tooth deprivation, and there’s no acknowledgement that not everyone can tolerate those sweeteners. It would be nice if he’d included a section with recommendations for folks who can’t stand them or choose not to use them for whatever reason, although you can still read between the lines of other material to come up with your own solutions, such as eating fruit for desserts, having very small amounts of chocolate, and so on.