South Beach Diet Overview

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Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
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Pros & Cons

  • Yes to snacks and dessert
  • No calorie-counting
  • Could seem awfully restrictive at first
  • Lots of time prepping and cooking meals

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Start your meal with a filling salad See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Low-carb.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Atkins, Medifast, Eco-Atkins, Paleo Diet, Glycemic-Index Diet

The aim:

Weight loss, heart health.

The claim:

Most people lose 8 to 13 pounds within the first two weeks, the company says, though that number could be smaller depending on your start weight. From there on out, you’ll drop 1 to 2 pounds a week.

The theory:

There are good carbs and fats, and there are bad carbs and fats. The key to weight loss is choosing the best of each. That means lots of vegetables, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, lean protein like chicken and turkey, whole grains, and nuts. South Beach is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein and healthy fats than the typical American diet.

South Beach doesn’t categorically eliminate all carbs. The ones you do eat are low on the glycemic index (GI), a ranking of how carbs affect blood glucose. Low-GI carbs are said to keep your blood sugar and metabolism steady—and you feeling fuller longer—while high-GI “bad” carbs do the opposite.

What kind of fat you’re getting counts, too. Say goodbye to unhealthy saturated and trans fats. Healthier monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and avocado, are on the menu.

How does the South Beach Diet work?

The diet unfolds in three “phases,” but if you have less than 10 pounds to lose, you can start with phase 2. Each phase becomes progressively less restrictive. The focus is on replacing bad carbs with good carbs and bad fats with good fats. There’s no counting calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, or anything else. You’ll eat three meals a day, plus two snacks, and one high-protein dessert (like maple-almond flan or creamy chocolate mousse). The diet lasts as long as you want—it depends on your weight-loss goal.

Phase 1, the shortest and most restrictive, lasts two weeks and is intended to stabilize blood sugar and eliminate cravings. You’ll eat generous portions of lean protein (fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey, and soy); lots of vegetables, salads, beans, eggs, and low-fat dairy; and up to 2 tablespoons a day of healthy fats, such as nuts and extra-virgin olive oil. You won’t touch fruit, fruit juice, starches (including pasta, rice, and bread), whole grains, sugary foods, or alcohol. "The South Beach Diet Supercharged," by South Beach creator and cardiologist Arthur Agatston, provides a detailed list of what you can and cannot eat. Among the guidelines: Eat 4½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of milk or dairy each day. Daily protein is unlimited. Even though phase 1 may melt off pounds, dieters are advised not to stay on it more than two weeks because it’s so restrictive.

In phase 2, you’ll reintroduce “good carbs,” like whole-grain bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and fruit. You’ll have three servings of fruit and three servings of starches a day. The two daily snacks required in phase 1 are now optional, but encouraged; a glass of red or white wine with dinner is OK. You’ll stick with this phase until you reach your weight goal.

Phase 3, the maintenance phase, is your lifelong healthy way to eat. No food is off-limits. Guidelines advise eating 3 pieces of fruit a day, 3 to 4 servings of starches, and no more than 2 tablespoons of good fats, such as mayonnaise or margarine.

Will you lose weight?

What little research there is on South Beach does suggest it’s an effective way to lose weight, at least in the short term. But whether it keeps the weight off long-term is unproven.

  • In one study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2004, researchers compared South Beach with the government’s National Cholesterol Education Plan (NCEP) diet. South Beach dieters lost an average of about 13½ pounds over 12 weeks vs. 7½ pounds for those on the NCEP plan. Though the study wasn’t sponsored by South Beach, Agatston was one of the authors.

Because South Beach incorporates the glycemic index, encouraging only “good” carbs when they’re allowed back in—it’s worth considering research that suggests low-GI plans yield short-term weight loss (though not much more effectively than other approaches). In 2009, the independent, nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration reviewed six small, randomized controlled trials of low-GI diets. Overall low-GI dieters fared slightly better than comparison dieters, losing an average of about 2 pounds more. That was a statistically significant difference, however.

Here’s a closer look at a few of the trials Cochrane analyzed:

  • In a 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 129 overweight or obese adults were assigned to one of four diets: high-carb/high-GI, high-carb/low-GI, high-protein/high-GI, and high-protein/low-GI. All were reduced-fat, moderate-fiber diets providing 1,400 to 1,900 calories a day. When the study ended after 12 weeks, no group had lost significantly more weight than another. The low-GI groups had lost an average of 10 and 11 pounds, while high-GI groups had lost 8 and 12 pounds.
  • A study of 45 overweight women assigned to either a low- or high-GI diet found a slight weight-loss edge for low-GI dieters—too small to mean much.
  • In an even smaller study that tracked 23 obese young adults for one year, low-GI dieters also lost a little more weight on average than did those on a low-fat diet—8 percent of initial body weight compared with 6 percent—but again, the difference wasn’t statistically significant. (Still, if you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help stave off some diseases.)

Since Cochrane’s report, a few more GI studies have appeared:

  • A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 examined weight-loss maintenance of 773 overweight adults on high- and low-GI diets. After 26 weeks, weight regain was 2 pounds less on average for low-GI dieters compared with their high-GI counterparts.
  • A study published in 2010 in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases compared a low-GI diet with a low-fat regimen in 202 overweight and obese adults, about half of whom had metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. While weight loss at three months was greater on average for low-GI dieters—11 pounds vs. 8 pounds—low-fat dieters lost more on average after a year—9½ pounds vs. 9 pounds.
  • In another study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers assigned 203 normal to overweight Brazilian women to either a low- or high-GI diet. After 18 months, low-GI dieters weighed, on average, just 1 pound lighter; high-GI dieters lost just half a pound.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Although "The South Beach Heart Health Revolution," Agatston’s eighth book, touts the diet not only for weight loss but as a way to improve cholesterol and avoid heart disease, little research either supports or refutes these cardiovascular claims. What evidence is available is weakly positive.

  • In the 2004 Archives of Internal Medicine study described in the previous weight loss section, South Beach dieters brought down their LDL cholesterol, but only by about 4 mg./dL compared with more than 6 mg./dL for the NCEP dieters.
  • In the Journal of Nutrition study cited in the weight loss section, participants’ triglycerides dropped from a high 224 mg./dL. at baseline to borderline high 187 mg./dL. at 12 weeks. That’s important, because high triglycerides can jeopardize heart health. Systolic blood pressure dropped slightly, from about 127 to 119 after 12 weeks. But “bad” LDL cholesterol was essentially unchanged.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

No good evidence suggests that South Beach accomplishes either. However, being overweight is a chief reason people develop type 2 diabetes. If South Beach helps you shed pounds and keep them off, you will tilt the odds in your favor.

  • High triglyceride blood levels can be a harbinger of diabetes. In the Journal of Nutrition study cited in the two previous sections, improved triglyceride levels at 12 weeks suggest that the South Beach Diet might reduce the threat.
  • Although some evidence suggests a low-GI diet may help protect against type 2 diabetes, there’s no proof. In general, following a low-GI diet may have a beneficial effect on hemoglobin A1C levels—a measure of blood sugar over time—in both type 1 and 2 diabetics, concluded a 2009 Cochrane Collaboration review. Low-GI diets decreased A1C levels by .5 percent, according to data from 11 short studies that included 402 total participants.

Are there health risks?

No indications of serious short-term risks or side-effects have surfaced.

However, South Beach isn’t safe for everyone:

  • Children should steer clear; weight-loss diets often aren’t appropriate for kids, who need adequate calories and nutrients to grow.
  • Phase 1 is inappropriate for pregnant women, who need ample calories and nutrients. Losing too much weight too quickly also can harm a baby’s health and development. But since South Beach is a lifestyle eating plan, pregnant women can go directly to phase 2, which encourages healthy eating choices. They should take in an additional three to four cups of fat-free or low-fat milk a day to provide the fetus with calcium and other nutrients.
  • Nursing mothers should start with phase 2, making sure to eat two to three servings of fruits and starches every day. But they should aim to lose no more than one pound per week. Any more is unsafe, since ample nutrients and calories are required to successfully breastfeed, the company says. Besides, a nursing mother is already burning an extra 200 to 500 calories daily.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. During phase 1, it creeps slightly above the 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat the government recommends, but falls in line by phase 2.

Protein. It’s within the acceptable range for protein consumption.

Carbohydrates. It doesn’t provide enough carbs in any phase, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. South Beach will keep you at or below the generally recommended daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older or African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the limit is 1,500 mg. Not all South Beach meals meet the latter standard.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 dietary guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount—22 to 34 grams for adults—helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. All South Beach phases are in the ballpark of government standards.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day to get enough.) Most Americans take in far too little. South Beach meal plans typically fall slightly short of government standards, but you can tweak your food choices to ensure you’re getting enough. Suggested potassium powerhouses include: artichokes, avocado, bamboo shoots, spinach, and tomato juice in phase 1, and apricots, bananas, strawberries, and sweet potatoes in phases 2 and 3.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 mg. to 1,300 mg. With low-fat dairy products like yogurt, veggies like spinach (1 cup has 245 mg.), and sesame seeds (1/4 cup has 351 mg.), you should be able to meet that goal. Most South Beach menus provide 1,932 mg. a day.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical to proper cell metabolism. Good sources include trans-fat-free peanut butter, fish, and lean meats like pork, which are OK in all phases of the diet.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Just 3 ounces of sockeye salmon, which packs about 20 micrograms of vitamin D, will satisfy the requirement. A typical day of South Beach meals provides 46 micrograms.

Supplement recommended? South Beach dietitians say the plan meets the body’s basic nutrient requirements, and vitamins aren’t necessary. However, Agatston does suggest an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, since it’s difficult to get enough omega-3s from food, particularly if you don’t like fish. (Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon and albacore tuna, help lower triglycerides and protect against heart disease and stroke.)

How easy is it to follow?

Although South Beach’s most restrictive phase lasts only two weeks, even phase 2 calls for avoiding (or strongly limiting) foods like bagels, white bread, potatoes, cookies, ice cream, honey, and jam. Same goes for pineapple, watermelon and raisins, permitted only once in a while. (These fruits are high in sugar.) You may need to muster up willpower to stick to the program.

Convenience:

Alcohol is prohibited during phase 1 and limited during phase 2. Restaurant meals are doable, provided you stick to the rules. The company’s online resources may be helpful.

Recipes. South Beach provides meal plans and hundreds of recipes with ingredient lists, calorie counts, and nutritional facts like grams of saturated fat, protein, and carbohydrates. They’re available online and in print. "The South Beach Diet Super Quick Cookbook" ($28.99), one of six cookbooks, was published in 2010. "The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution Cookbook" ($27.99) was published in 2013.

Eating out. Restaurants and dinners with friends are doable, even in phase 1—if you can stick to the guidelines. Skip the bread during phase 1, for example, but enjoy a whole-grain roll in later phases. An all-phase-friendly tip: Order soup as a first course, then have a salad, and choose lean protein for your entrée. That way you’ll already be feeling full by the time your main dish arrives, making you less likely to splurge on dessert. Grilled fish, turkey and filet mignon are all smart choices.

Alcohol. If you like to kick back with a beer or a glass of wine, you might be a little cranky the first two weeks, when alcohol is forbidden. (Beer and wine contain carbs, and all alcoholic beverages add calories.) You can work a little back in during phase 2—one drink a day for women, no more than two for men. A glass of red wine with dinner is your smartest bet, since it contains a bit of resveratrol, an antioxidant thought to reduce heart risk. If you have to have beer, choose “light” brews.

Timesavers. South Beach has reintroduced a line of snack and meal bars, treats and ready-to-go smoothies. Options include cereal bars, 100-calorie snack bars, snack-sized smoothies, high-protein and meal bars, and gluten-free bars. All are free of artifical sweeteners and flavors, as well as sugar alcohols.

Extras. Online members can track meals, weight, and diet goals on the company’s website. You can forge relationships with other South Beach dieters via discussion boards and stay abreast of health tips and new recipes with a daily newsletter.

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Hunger shouldn’t be a problem on this diet. South Beach encourages strategic snacking—in fact, two are required each day during phase 1 to stamp out hunger before it strikes. You’ll also be eating foods that are fiber-packed, which promote fullness.

Taste:

Tasty, despite limits on treats like cookies and ice cream (if you must indulge, do so rarely). Even in phase 1 there’s room for buffalo chicken bites, vegetarian chili with avocado salsa, and sugar-free candies and Fudgsicles. As the diet becomes less rigid, you’ll move on to waffles, breakfast pizza, baked sweet potato fries and penne with eggplant and ricotta.

How much does it cost?

"The South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life," an essential manual, costs $24.95. Optional online membership is $4 to $5 a week (the first seven days are free). You’ll get customized tools like a weight-loss tracker, a printable shopping list generator, daily newsletter, and access to community message boards and hundreds of recipes. Following the program’s recommended meal plans to a T, however, could break the bank, with skillet pork chops on the menu one day and spicy shrimp stir-fry the next. You can make the diet more affordable with an online tool that helps customize meal plans to conform to your budget.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Most people will be able to customize South Beach to their needs—choose your preference for more information.

Vegetarian and vegan-friendly meal plans and recipes are available online to subscribing members. Choices include veggie burgers, vegetarian chili, and tofu pudding (no eggs or milk). Most of your protein will come from plant sources like soy.

People who can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, won’t have a problem with phase 1, since grains are off-limits. Phases 2 and 3 are also doable, though it’s up to you to choose gluten-free ingredients. South Beach does offer gluten-free recipes, like vegetable quiche cups.

Low-sodium recipes abound. And because the program emphasizes fresh ingredients, rather than salty processed foods, meeting government recommendations is doable. Fresh veggies, for example, are virtually sodium-free as long as you don’t reach for the shaker.

Lots of kosher recipes are provided.

South Beach offers recipes.

What is the role of exercise?

South Beach’s fitness component merges two parts: interval walking—alternating between a very fast and slower pace—and a total body workout (including squats and leg kicks) designed to strengthen your core. You’ll spend 20 minutes exercising seven days a week, rotating between the two components. "The South Beach Diet Supercharged" offers tips on customizing the plan to your fitness level, whether you’re an exercise newbie or a longtime fitness buff.


Last updated by Angela Haupt | January 03, 2014

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