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The Un-Diet Diet with the South Beach Program

Posted - Jan. 8, 2004 at 2:40 p.m.



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The first two weeks were tough.

Helen Michael had to give up two weaknesses: bread and pasta.

But the real estate agent was determined to shed 10 pounds by her 38th wedding-anniversary party. She stuck with the South Beach Diet. She cut out starches and lost.

Since July, I've lost 18 pounds. That's 10 pounds away from the weight I was when I got married,'' she boasts.I thought I was awesome then, but I look pretty awesome now even with 10 pounds of extra weight. I'm thrilled.''

She's also thrilled that she didn't have to live at the gym. The South Beach Diet, the latest weight-loss craze, recommends but doesn't emphasize exercising.

Still, people on the plan can expect to lose seven to 14 pounds the first two weeks, says Miami Beach cardiologist Arthur Agatston, who developed the regimen to help his heart patients improve their cholesterol and insulin levels. The weight loss was a bonus.

It was an accidental diet,'' Agatston says.I'm not a diet doctor. I still keep my day job.''

The former noninvasive cardiology director of Miami's Mount Sinai Cardiac Prevention Center currently oversees Agatston Research Institute for heart-disease prevention. He's also working with chefs on a cookbook for his New York Times best seller ``The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss'' (Rodale, $24.95).

Since April, the book has sold nearly 4 million copies. It was recently translated into Portuguese, and a Spanish edition will be on bookstore shelves next month.

The South Beach Diet has catapulted Agatston into the realm of diet gurus, poised to knock Dr. Atkins off his high-protein pedestal.

Atkins is too extreme,'' says Houston interior designer Carolyn Michael (no relation to Helen Michael).South Beach makes total sense to me. It's heart healthy.''

The South Beach Diet is composed of three phases. Rapid weight loss occurs in Phase 1, when fruits, breads, pastas and cereals are forbidden. Certain high-fat beef, poultry and pork cuts are to be avoided and, no alcohol. Period.

Ample seafood and lean meats, including skinless chicken breasts and veal chops, are allowed with fat-free cheeses and low-glycemic vegetables.

The philosophy behind the South Beach Diet is the glycemic index of a food, or the measurement of how that food affects your blood sugar. High-glycemic carbs, or the bad carbs including potatoes and white bread, cause blood sugar to spike, bringing hunger pangs soon after. Foods with a low glycemic index, including nuts and whole grains, are converted into energy more slowly than those with high glycemic, staving off hunger longer.

Agatston incorporates hefty amounts of low-glycemic vegetables throughout the program. He reintroduces certain fruits and whole grains in Phase 2.

At this point, people will lose about one to two pounds a week,'' he says.We don't want to continue the rapid weight loss because it encourages yo-yo dieting.''

In Phase 3, the weight maintenance segment, dieters can indulge in high-glycemic foods, such as pork tamales, chocolate-chip cookies and wine, in moderation.

``We wanted a program people can stick with,'' Agatston says.

Unlike the Atkins diet, South Beach makes a distinction between bad carbs and good carbs. It also steers people toward good fats in nuts, fish, olive oil and canola oil. Atkins allows unlimited rib-eye steaks, bacon, margarine and butter.

Even so, the South Beach Diet isn't without its critics.

Phase 1 is such a strict phase,'' says Molly Gee, registered dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.He eliminates some very good foods, like pastas and all fruits. In general, it raises a red flag when somebody suggests that you eliminate a food group.''

Cynthia Sass, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, is concerned that South Beach is so restrictive of the kinds of carbohydrates it allows that people will ``fall off the wagon.''

The diet recommends avoiding bananas, pineapple, watermelon, raisins, beets, carrots, potatoes, corn, cornflakes and white rice.

Is it really practical? Is it really something people can do long-term?'' Sass asks.Carbs are like the gasoline in your car. It's the fuel that the cells in your body run off. When you don't get enough carbs, it's like putting windshield-wiper fluid in the gas tank. The body becomes fatigued. You don't have the physical or mental strength to deal with everyday stress. You become very moody.''

A big plus with South Beach dieters is that they don't have to mind their food portions. They simply stop eating when satisfied.

``The reason is that we wanted to emphasize that the program is a lifestyle, not a diet. People will measure portions and count calories for a short period of time, but not indefinitely,'' Agatston says.

Gee disagrees. ``Portion control is probably one of the most important things that we can do so we can enjoy a variety of foods,'' she says.

While nutritionists found plenty of holes in Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet, they noted several positive aspects of the final two phases.

``They emphasize whole grains, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy types of fats,'' Sass says.

Helen Michael considers the last two stages of the diet a breeze as she inches toward her goal.

People who haven't seen me in months can't believe it,'' she says.It's so much fun when someone tells you that you look fantastic.''

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(The Houston Chronicle web site is at http://www.chron.com )

c.2004 Houston Chronicle

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