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The South Beach Diet is a commercial diet plan that Dr. Arthur Agatston and dietitian Marie Almon designed in the mid-1990s. It became popular after 2003, with the launch of a best-selling book.

At first, it aimed to help people to lower the risk of heart disease, but it rapidly became popular as a diet for losing weight.

Dr. Agatston devised the diet after noticing that many low-fat, high-carb diets were not helping individuals to lose weight in the long term.

The diet claims not to be a traditional low-carb diet. Instead, it focuses on selecting the right carbohydrates, or carbs.

These include whole grains, specific fruits and vegetables, appropriate fats, such as olive oil, and lean protein sources.

It recommends avoiding certain carbohydrates, based on their glycemic index (GI) score.

Foods with a high GI score tend to contain refined carbohydrates, for example, white sugar. The body digests these foods quickly, and this can lead to blood sugar spikes. The person feels satisfied after eating these foods, but not for long. They will soon feel hungry again.

Wholemeal foods that contain unrefined carbs have a lower GI score. The body digests these foods more slowly, and they release their energy over time. This helps to prevent blood sugar spikes and enables a person to feel full for longer. They will not feel hungry for some time.

The South Beach Diet has three phases: The first aims to kick-start the weight loss process, the second takes the dieter to their target weight, and the third aims to maintain the ideal weight.

Phase I: Kick-starting the weight-loss process

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Chicken and salad is a good choice during phase I.

Phase I of the diet lasts 2 weeks.

It aims to eliminate cravings for sugary foods and refined starches by stabilizing blood-sugar levels. Rapid weight loss may occur during this phase.

In Phase I, the dieter will eat normal-sized portions of:

  • lean meats
  • chicken
  • turkey
  • fish and shellfish
  • tofu
  • eggs
  • reduced-fat cheese
  • nuts
  • beans
  • vegetables

The person will eat three balanced meals a day, with desserts, plus snacks.

The snacks are important, even if the individual is not hungry, because someone who feels satisfied is less likely to overeat at the next meal.

Foods to avoid during Phase I include:

  • bread
  • rice
  • potatoes
  • pasta
  • baked and sugary foods such as cake, cookies, candy and ice cream
  • fruits
  • alcoholic drinks

People can reintroduce some of these in Phases II and III.

Phase II: Achieving the target weight

Phase II lasts until the person reaches their desired weight.

salmon, asparagus and brown riceShare on Pinterest
In phase II, the person can introduce some “good” carbs, such as brown rice.

The individual now learns to reintroduce some “good” carbohydrates.

Weight loss may now be steady, but slower than in Phase I. During Phase II, the diet says people usually lose 1–2 pounds a week, depending on their metabolism.

Slow, steady weight loss is better, says the South Beach Diet, because it is more likely to last.

Some participants worry about regaining the weight already lost when they start eating the carbs again.

Dr. Agatston stresses that they must reintroduce these carbs, because if they are going to follow this diet for life, carbs will be essential long-term for maintaining good health.

The person will introduce the carbs little by little.

Suitable carbs include:

  • most fruits
  • some whole-grain breads, and pastas
  • some additional vegetables, including peas and potatoes
  • some treats
  • brown rice

First, the person will add one single carb to just one daily meal for one week. The person should monitor closely how their body responds to a reintroduced carb over a few days.

If the body responds appropriately, they can add a second carb, again monitoring the body’s reaction carefully.

Examples of an appropriate response to added carbohydrates are:

  • improved energy
  • better sleep quality
  • better mood
  • continued slow weight loss
  • regular bowel movements
  • better skin

This continues until the person has 2–3 servings of the right carbs each day.

If a person does not feel comfortable at this stage, they can return to Phase I for a few days, until they regain control.

People might need to revisit Phase I if they experience:

  • food cravings
  • difficulty controling carbohydrate portions
  • weight gain
  • a return to old, unhealthful eating habits

On reaching the target weight, the dieter moves on to Phase III.

Phase III: Adopting a lifestyle

In Phase III, the individual learns to make good food choices and maintain their new weight in the long term, while enjoying all foods in moderation.

Phase III is the “maintenance phase.” Now, the person should feel that they are adopting a lifestyle, rather than following a diet.

If the food cravings return, or if weight increases, the dieter can go back to Phase I or II.

The creators of The South Beach Diet say that, in Phase III, people do not go back to eating whatever they like. Instead, they continue to make good food choices, try new recipes and ingredients, and enjoy a new lifestyle.

Phase III is about maintaining an ideal body weight and experiencing better health.

Research published in 2019 suggests that a low-carb diet may help people who:

  • wish to lose weight quickly in the early stages
  • have type 2 diabetes and need to control their blood sugar levels

However, it remains unclear whether it will help to manage cardiovascular risk. Some studies have found that low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol rose when a person followed a low-carb diet, but others have found only small changes.

The creators of the diet list several advantages of their approach.

They say that people who follow the diet are better able to:

  • maintain an ideal body weight for the long term
  • avoid diabetes
  • achieve normal cholesterol and blood fat levels
  • prevent hypertension

The South Beach Diet, they say, means that people enjoy better health and feel satisfied with the food they eat. The approach offers a lifestyle, rather than a diet.

Why is it popular?

The creators of the diet say that people choose it because it is an effective and flexible way of losing weight, without having to count calories.

Part of its popularity might be that it helps people to change overall eating habits, and because there are cook books and diet food products that accompany it.

A number of recipes are available on the South Beach Diet website for people who want ideas for suitable meals to cook and eat.

Sample dishes in Phase I

In Phase I, examples of suitable dishes include:

Breakfast options: Asparagus omelets with goats cheese or cinnamon breakfast ricotta crème

Lunch: Beef and bean chili or crab and avocado salad

Dinner: Grilled steak with Texas mop sauce or garlic and homestyle turkey meatloaf with mushrooms and white beans

Snack: Cherry tomatoes stuffed with low-fat cottage cheese, or iced vanilla coffee milk

Meal plan for Phase II

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Edamame beans make a good snack.

A meal plan for a day during Phase II might be as follows:

Breakfast: Spiced oatmeal with dried apricot and walnuts and vegetable juice cocktail

Mid-morning snack: Spicy lemon edamame beans

Lunch: Spice-rubbed chicken fingers with cilantro dipping sauce, festive 5-veggie slaw, and non-fat milk

Mid-afternoon snack: Cherry tomatoes stuffed with low-fat cottage cheese

Dinner: Grilled chicken with savory Asian plum sauce, Vietnamese-style vegetables with brown rice noodles and non-fat milk

Dessert: Chocolate meringue kisses

The South Beach Diet is popular, but people should approach all lifestyle changes with caution.

Low carbohydrates

Restricting carbohydrates too much can lead to ketosis. This is a potentially serious health problem in which substances known as ketones build up in the body as the body burns fat for energy.

To learn more about ketosis, see our article here: /articles/180858.php

Lack of supporting evidence

In 2006, three years after the South Beach Diet book appeared, research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine suggested that up to 67 percent of the “facts” stated in it may not have scientific evidence to support them.

Some of the health claims and “facts” that were disproven or not supported by an exhaustive medical review of evidence include:

  • “People lose 8 to 13 pounds in the first 2 weeks.”
  • “Carrots, beets, and watermelon promote weight gain because of a high GI (glycemic index).”
  • “Fats and protein cause satiety more efficiently than carbohydrates.”
  • “This diet (South Beach) has been scientifically studied and proven effective.”

Experts recommend being skeptical of popular diets’ health guarantees.

For anyone who is interested in finding out more about the South Beach Diet, the latest materials are available for purchase online.

Before making any major dietary change, it is best to speak to a healthcare provider or dietitian.