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Weighing The Worth of South Beach, Dr. Phil Diets

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When it comes to a crusade, Americans have never been known to tread softly. Hopefully our latest crusade will lighten our steps a bit.

As a country, we are fat. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 64.5 percent of Americans are overweight. That's a higher percentage of overweight people than any other country in the world.

Americans aren't taking that news lying down. Instead, they're on a diet crusade fueled by several new books, including "The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss" by Dr. Arthur Agatston (Rodale, $24.95) and "The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom" by Dr. Phil McGraw (Free Press, $26). Suddenly everyone seems to be "doing low carb" or lacing up walking shoes and falling into step with Dr. Phil.

Here's a look at how the two books shape up:

Dr. Agatston's "The South Beach Diet"

More than 5 million copies of "The South Beach Diet" are in print. The diet, similar to "Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution" first published in 1972, is based on limiting carbohydrates. The difference in the South Beach plan is that it is based on what is perceived as healthier fats. For example, Atkins allowed eggs. Agatston recommends using egg substitutes when possible. Atkins allowed butter. Agatston steers dieters toward olive oil.

"It seems to be a good diet," says Kirsten Ransbury, registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in Sacramento. "His main goals are to keep blood sugar stable and eliminate saturated fat. I do like how he recommends never skipping a meal and that he has tried to make the diet simple to follow. You don't need to measure food, for example. He doesn't say much about exercise, though, and I think that is crucial to good health."

Agatston's diet is broken down into three phases. In phase one, which lasts for two weeks, dieters eat no bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, baked goods, fruit, candy, cake, ice cream, beer, wine or liquor. He says you should expect rapid weight loss -- 8 to 12 pounds -- in this phase.

In phase two, some carbohydrates, such as fruits, whole-grain breads and cereals, are gradually reintroduced. Dieters stay on phase two until they reach their goal weight.

Phase three is maintenance. It is a permanent lifestyle.

In an interview from his Miami Beach office, Agatston said he did not set out be the new diet guru and is amazed at the response to his book.

"Many of my patients were struggling to get their weight down," says Agatston, a cardiologist. "In 1995 I worked with a dietitian to develop a diet to hand out in the office. It was based on low carbohydrates and eating good fats. Patients had such good success with it they began handing out copies to their friends and family. We started getting calls from all over the country from people who had questions about the diet."

Agatston's plan has been described as the "new and improved" Atkins diet.

"When Atkins wrote his book we didn't really know much about good fats and bad fats. Now we know about things like omega fish oils and good fats and how they help to keep insulin and sugar metabolism balanced."

But does the diet work?

Mike Keriakos, founder of Agora Media, publishers of Agatston's Web site ( says that 100,000 people joined the Web membership and in three months they had lost a total of 700,000 pounds.

"We offer a daily meal plan with shopping lists, a buddy system and a monthly chat with Dr. Agatston," says Keriakos.

When The Bee asked readers if they had tried the South Beach diet, about 75 dieters responded.

Tracey Smith of Elk Grove started the diet this fall with a goal to fit into her ski pants before a January ski vacation.

"I don't have a scale, but my goal was to go from a size 16 to a 12," says Smith. "The challenging part was eggs and salad. I'm not a huge fan of eggs (and egg substitutes) and some mornings I admit I skipped breakfast because I just couldn't get down the eggs. I love salads, too, but after seven lunches and seven dinners with salad, that was too much even for me."

The good news is that she now fits into her ski pants.

For Lisa Levering of Carmichael, following the South Beach diet was an eye-opening experience.

"I didn't realize how much sugar I consumed as part of my everyday diet," Levering said in an e-mail. "I also felt there was nothing to snack on with the South Beach diet. Having no carbohydrates those first 14 days was a killer. It required me to cook like I used to 20 years ago -- everything from scratch."

Levering says she didn't need to lose a lot of weight and in the first two weeks she lost 5 pounds -- not the 8-to 12-pound loss the book predicts. After her vacation, she has gained back what she had lost and is now starting over.

Dr. Phil McGraw's "The Ultimate Weight Solution"

McGraw is a psychologist, motivational speaker and host of the daily television show "Dr. Phil." Predictably, McGraw's book is 50 percent behavior modification and 50 percent diet. "Change can come in either of two important ways: Start behaving positively or stop behaving negatively," he writes in the opening of his book.

The next 181 pages are about making decisions, changing habits and developing self-control and self-analysis. There are lots of quizzes to take, each revealing more about your psyche than you might want to know. For example, in one quiz he asks how you feel about exercise, overeating and who you blame for your weight challenge. Then he tells you to get over it and get to work on making positive changes.

Many people will probably skip right to page 182 where the actual diet begins.

Dieters eat a variety of foods including fish, fruit, vegetables, high-fiber grains and beans. McGraw encourages eliminating salt and drinking plenty of water. Dieters should not eat sugar or sweets and should avoid unhealthy fats, including fatty animal products, tropical oils and trans fats.

The key is variety in small portions. He also recommends moderate amounts of exercise, primarily walking.

If you need a good psychological kick to get going, this book might do the trick.

"As a whole, the menus are certainly simple and straightforward," says Judy Fields, registered dietitian in Fair Oaks and president of Nutrition for You. "He is not specific about portions and I believe that is the key to success. I do like how he uses a positive visualization of a plate half filled with vegetables, one-fourth filled with protein and one-fourth filled with a starch. He also stresses whole grains, which is a plus."

When we asked Bee readers if they had tried Dr. Phil's diet, not many responded, but those who did reported good results.

"I have been using 'Dr. Phil's Ultimate Weight Solution' since before Halloween," wrote Sandy Phillips of North Highlands. Her goal is to lose 200 pounds. "I have lost 31 pounds so far and I have been battling my weight my whole life. I have lost this totally on my own, no surgery, no pills. I feel like I am being paroled from fat jail! He has changed my life."

For some, motivation to lose weight doesn't come from a book. Consider the experience of Daniel Schmitt, 55, of Wilton:

"I've been about 30 to 40 pounds overweight for about 15 years. I've always been a big eater," he says.

One day last summer he and his 16-year-old daughter were watching a TV program dealing with extremely overweight people. He said he was surprised that his daughter was sympathetic to their "it's not my fault that I'm overweight" reasoning.

"I told my daughter that my excessive weight was just a matter of overeating and not getting enough regular exercise. She was not convinced so I decided to teach her a lesson.

"I began cutting down my portions at meals and completely cut out eating at fast food restaurants. I started packing my own lunch and I began walking three and four miles two to three times a week. It was not a radical approach. I've dropped from 215 pounds to 190 and plan to drop another 20.

"So, as I've always taught our kids, I really am the captain of my own ship."

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