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South Beach Diet -- The Latest Wave in Unsafe Diet Books

Some people change diets as each new celebrity comes on the screen championing the latest popular fad. Recently, Prevention magazine and its publisher, Rodale Press, wrote about and heavily promoted the South Beach diet plan, which has now become the latest trendy diet.

As our population becomes more and more obese, another pseudo-scientific diet tops the best-seller list. "Lose up to 13 pounds in two weeks", the South Beach diet claims. This review of The South Beach Diet is intended for anyone contemplating the highly marketed diet plan. The unscientific and false claims of the popular and ill-advised fad diet offer potentially dangerous advice for the general public and heart patients. This is especially remarkable and worrisome, because The South Beach Diet was written and is promoted by a cardiologist, Arthur Agatston.

The first issue with Agatston's diet book is his design of the three phases of the South Beach diet. It is imperative to evaluate the South Beach diet food list at each phase.

Phase 1 is a two week Atkins diet plan clone, claiming you will lose "up to 13 pounds". People forget that not only is temporary weight loss of no benefit, but it is actually more dangerous than not losing weight at all. Permanent weight loss only occurs as a result of changes one makes permanently. It is true that a ketogenic diet (one that severely restricts carbohydrates) will cause some dehydration and initial weight loss, but as soon as carbohydrate-rich foods are reintroduced in the diet, foods such as steak, cheese, bacon and other animal products, which are staples of the Atkins diet, become fattening again. Ketogenic diets are dangerous if maintained long-term, and if done for a short-time, as recommended in the South Beach plan, the weight benefits are quickly lost. In fact, yo-yoing your weight is not health promoting and increases coronary deposits leading to heart attacks.

Phase 2 is similar to the Zone or Sugar Busters diets, as Agatson allows the addition of some fruit and beans to a diet that still gets over 60 percent of its' calories from animal products.

Then, you may move into Phase 3, which essentially lets you eat almost anything you want. But if you start gaining weight again, the South Beach diet author instructs you to bounce back to Phase 1 again. Wow! There's the yo-yoing of your weight, with the potential for serious health problems. Giving people different stages of diets with different degrees of carbohydrate restriction is a gimmick to market to the uninformed.

But the questions are: Is the South Beach diet healthy? Will the South Beach diet plan enable people to permanently achieve an ideal weight?

Remember, losing weight and gaining it back again is worse than keeping your weight stable. A weight loss program is valuable only if it results in you making healthful changes that you stick with forever.

The simple answer to the questions above comes from the analysis of the South Beach food and menu plans. On the plus side, Agatson's South Beach diet (along with the programs promoted by Atkins and Sears) correctly point out that refined sugars and white flour are dangerous foods. Americans have been on a high sugar, soda, bagel and pasta binge, and the more people, who are better informed of the dangers of processed foods and white flour, will make healthy food choices.

Instead of replacing these dangerous processed foods with more nuts, fruits, beans and vegetables (phytochemical rich anti-cancer food), the South Beach diet and all three of these popular authors recommend that we eat more animal products.

Americans already consume 40% of calories from animal products, whereas populations with few or no heart attacks consume much less. As animal product consumption approaches 10% or less of total calories and when high fiber vegetables, beans and raw nuts increase, we see heart attacks almost disappear. Vegans generally have cholesterol levels of about 125. For any diet program to claim it is "heart healthy", it must reduce both refined carbohydrate and animal products.

The worst part about the South Beach diet is the false claim about being healthy for the heart. As a cardiologist, Agatson must be well aware that cardio-protection occurs with LDL levels below 100 and total cholesterol below 150. Following a program with heavy amounts of animal foods, like the South Beach diet, guarantees that a favorable cholesterol level and lipid ratio will never be achieved. Comparatively, those who incorporate my Eat To Live recommendations routinely drop their cholesterol into this favorable range, without drugs. Agatston admits that he takes cholesterol-lowering drugs. As a representation of my program of proper eating habits, I have a total cholesterol level of 125 using no drugs.

Evaluation of the South Beach diet food list is important. A typical South Beach diet breakfast is two eggs and lean bacon. Meat and cheese are allowed at every meal. Yet Agatston claims his diet is better than the Atkins diet program because the Atkins food is too high in saturated fats. I wonder if Agatston really knows how much saturated fat is in low fat cheese and lean bacon? Lean bacon usually contains even more sodium than salt-rich regular bacon and is still high in saturated fat. Swift Premium Sizzling (lean bacon) has 3 grams of saturated fat per strip and 230 mg of sodium per strip. A typical slice of bacon contains 5 grams of saturated fat per strip.

While Agatson mentions the value of eating less saturated fat, most of his South Beach diet menus nonetheless contain over 20 grams of saturated fat daily and are high in sodium. Menus very high in saturated fat are completely contrary to the new recommendations of the American Heart Association. The conclusion of the nutrition committee of The American Heart Association is something we all should agree on:

There is overwhelming evidence that reduction in saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and weight offer the most effective dietary strategies for reducing total cholesterol, LDL-C levels, and cardiovascular risk. Decreases in saturated fat should come at the expense of total fat because there is no biological requirement for saturated fat.1

Most cheeses are over 50% of calories from fat, and even low-fat cheeses are very high saturated fat foods.

Cheese Percent of Calories
from Fat %
Percent of Fat
that is Saturated %
Cream cheese 89% 63%
Gouda cheese 69% 64%
Cheddar cheese 74% 64%
Mozzarella cheese 69% 61%
Mozzarella cheese, part skim 56% 64%
Kraft Velveeta Spread 65% 66%
Kraft Velveeta Light 43% 67%
Ricotta, whole milk 68% 64%
Ricotta, part skim 51% 62%


Saturated Fat Content of Common Foods 2
Grams of Saturated Fat
Cheddar cheese (4 oz.)
American processed cheese (4 oz.)
Ricotta cheese (one cup)
Swiss cheese (4 oz.)
Chocolate candy-semisweet (4 oz.)
Cheeseburger large double patty
T-bone steak (6 oz.)
Braised lamb (6 oz.)
Pork shoulder (6 oz.)
Butter 2 tbsp
Mozzarella part skim (4 oz .)
Ricotta cheese part skim (one cup)
Beef-ground-lean (6 oz.)
Ice cream, vanilla (one cup)
Chicken fillet sandwich
Chicken thigh no skin (6 oz.)
Whole milk 3.3% fat (one cup)
Plain yogurt
Two eggs
Chicken breast (6 oz.)
Salmon (6 oz.)
2% Milk (one cup)
Tuna (6 oz.)
Flounder (6 oz.)
Sole (6 oz.)

There are literally hundreds of respected scientific studies demonstrating that as animal products, staples of the Atkins and South Beach diet food, increase in a population's diet that tha cholesterol levels soar and the occurrence of heart disease increases proportionally. The amount of raw greens and raw nuts, beneficial components of a healthy diet, are still dangerously low in the South Beach diet plan, running contrary to the preponderance of scientific research in the last 30 years documenting the dietary causes of both heart disease and cancer.

Agatston's South Beach diet does a disservice to America. The doctor uses his credentials as a cardiologist to market the false promise that a diet based on the consumption of animal products is heart-healthy. He offers lots of claims, like "lose belly fat first" without scientific references or even scientific credibility. While such a claim may sell books, many studies have demonstrated that no diet can target a specific area of the body, and that where fat accumulates and where you lose it is based on genetics, not food choices.

So, many of The South Beach Diet's erroneous claims, like you are better off eating ice cream or a dark chocolate bar instead of a baked potato because of the glycemic index of potatoes is higher, are simply poor advice. Also, Agatston claims that eating a baked potato is less fattening topped with low-fat cheese or sour cream, compared to eating it plain. He gives not one scientific reference to back up these erroneous claims. When actresses give flawed information in their diet books, it is not as annoying, since you don't expect scientific integrity from an actress.

Nobody would disagree with the accepted concept that refined grains, flour and sugar (the bad carbs) are to be avoided, but Agatston's unlimited license for people to eat a diet rich in heart clogging saturated fat is dangerous, especially when you consider that his book demonstrates a lack of awareness of foods high in saturated fat. Of course, some people may lose weight cutting back on the junk food which should be applauded, but we need to cut back on the junk diets by replacing them with a truly healthy eating plan that will protect us for a lifetime.

Those who want true, long-term weight reduction and cardiac protection must adopt a diet dominant in fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. Nature's high antioxidant and phytochemcial rich foods show a remarkable ability to protect us against a wide range of chronic diseases, as well as lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. To get cholesterol levels into the favorable range without drugs, it is necessary for you to eat a predominantly plant-based diet and limit animal product intake significantly.

No diet can promote consuming animal products three times a day at each meal and claim to be healthy. This is precisely the formula that causes 50% of our population having lethal heart attacks and strokes with another 30% getting cancer. The world's health experts are in agreement. The March 2003 report from the World Health Organization compiling the evidence and opinions of the foremost international nutritional experts concluded that the consumption of foods like oil, meat and cheese, the staples of the South Beach diet, will promote heart disease and cancer, and fruits vegetables, beans and nuts protect against premature death.

Sure, there are even unhealthier ways you can eat, and sure, many overweight Americans eat an even worse diet. But wouldn't you want to see a more heart healthy plan from a heart doctor? The tragedy is that many people with atherosclerotic heart disease will follow his popular plan and die unnecessarily, when they could be enjoying life for years to come.

My book, Eat To Live, documents and describes the healthiest way to eat to protect and reverse heart disease. At the same time, you will easily lose your extra weight in the process.

Quick weight loss programs such as the Atkins diet plan and the South Beach diet, may lower triglycerides and even lower cholesterol a little bit as people lose a little weight and cut out processed grains and sugar. For those looking for long-term good health and freedom from heart disease, they must learn more and do more.


1 Lichtenstein AH, Van Horn L. Very low fat diets. Circulation 1998;98(9):935-939.

2 Composition of Foods - Raw-Processed-Prepared, Agriculture Handbook 8. Series and Supplements. United States Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Information Service. Minnesota Nutrition Data System (NDS) software, developed by the Nutrition Coordinating Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Food Database version 5A, Nutrient Database version 20. USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Release 14 at:
U.S. Department of Agriculture


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