The South Beach Diet

Review by Phil Kaplan

Calls come in to my radio show frequently about the South Beach Diet, and there's almost always a comparison to Atkins.

"Phil, I'm starting the South Beach Diet, which I know is not as bad as Atkins . . . "

It's interesting to me how people tend to form their perspectives related to dieting based upon that which is "the least bad." I guess it's somehow ingrained into our society, that "bad" is to be expected. Did you ever ask someone the simple question, "how are you," and have them respond, "not bad." Does that also mean "not good?"

I believe we should feel good, strive to feel great, and that if we choose lifestyle adaptations, those adaptations should clearly be "good" at the very least. The word "diet," in my vocabulary, equates with deprivation, and it's hard to mix the idea of "deprivation" with the concept of pleasure. I've steered people away from conventional diets and led them toward better nutritional habits.

The South Beach Diet is a new trend, and probably a logical step in the evolution of diets. The pendulum swung from "avoid fats," to "avoid carbs," and the opposing diet gurus took opposing sides. Many attempting to follow the diet trends find carb deprivation difficult, and many find weight regain rapid after a bout of "cutting carbs." The South Beach Diet is more liberal in its direction. It doesn't say "carbs are bad," nor does it say "fat is bad." It tends to land somewhere in the middle, and in that I believe it's a step toward helping people better understand "supportive eating." With that said, I am not an advocate of the diet for a few primary reasons.

Firstly, the South Beach Diet suggests that people will lose between 8 and 13 pounds in the first Phase which lasts two weeks. The first phase, plain and simple, is carb deprivation. Breads, sugars, and fruits are off limits, but so are complex carbs such as potatoes, brown rice, and corn. When you avoid carbs for more than a few days, you are certain to deplete glycogen stores. Glycogen is "stored fuel" held in both muscles and the liver. The liver acts as a sort of a pump for blood sugar and stored glycogen is the reserve. The muscles act as reservoirs for muscle fuel as glycogen is released to fuel muscle contraction. Typically, we release glycogen and replace it, as glycogen is actually glucose being stored for future use, and a glucose molecule is the molecular component of any carbohydrate food.

When you back way off on carb intake, you expend stored glycogen and fail to replace it. Glycogen attracts water. Muscle tissue is primarily water. When you reduce glycogen storage, you reduce muscular water retention, thus, deplete the muscles of glycogen and you weigh less. The initial weight loss on any carb depletion program is going to be primarily water loss. I'm not suggesting this water loss in and of itself is dangerous, but if people are using the scale as a gauge to measure weight loss, the initial loss on the South Beach Diet is deceptive.

The most common question I receive related to the South Beach Diet has to do with the "plateau."

"In the first two weeks I lost 11 pounds, but now, two weeks later, I'm stuck."

Water loss led to the mistaken conclusion that the reduction in carbs somehow led to a sustainable rate of fat loss, and in that people find self-defeat when the weight loss ceases.

Even with my criticisms, I do see some important virtues in Dr. Agatston's book (The South Beach Diet) and believe as people find a better understanding of metabolic nutrition, and as they better understand the relationship between food and exercise, they can take some of what they learn from the South Beach Diet and use it to create a more long term fat loss program. I applaud Dr. Agatston's explanations of the insulin response and agree that refined and processed carbs are primary contributors to our nation's obesity issue. I applaud his distinction between "the good fats" and the less valuable fats (saturated fats and hydrogenated fats) and believe if people begin to find their meals made up of lean proteins, complex carbs, and fibrous vegetables, their going to ultimately land in the midst of a healthier lifestyle.

The final thing I should mention is, when I meet people who describe themselves as being "on the South Beach Diet," many are consciously avoiding both carbs and fat, eating three low calorie meals per day, and that becomes yet another twist on calorie deprivation. The end result is typically muscle loss, metabolic slowdown, the return of cravings, and a greater fat loss challenge in the future. If The South Beach Diet is a stepping stone toward clarity, it has its place. Add in aerobic exercise and resistance training and you're headed in the right direction. Just don't judge your progress by your pounds on the scale. You'll wind up disillusioned and disappointed.


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