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South Beach Diet Creator Topping the Charts

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MIAMI - Anthony Tammero, as you may guess by his name, is Italian.

This can be a problem.

"I'm a carb guy, I love pasta. "I'm Italian!" Pasta, bread, all of that I love," he jokes.

Tammero, the executive chef at The Palm restaurants, and co-author of "The Palm Restaurant Cookbook", decided he needed to lose weight.

Weight Watchers' point system? Too much math. Atkins? Too much sat fat. The Zone requires measuring.

So Tammero, 58, selected Miami Beach cardiologist Arthur Agatston's South Beach Diet, which debuted in April and has since bounced atop The New York Times bestseller list, dancing with that other diet book, "Atkins for Life".

"I didn't expect it to go this far this fast," Agatston said.

The success has spawned "The South Beach Diet Cookbook", due in April. Another book, with the tentative title, "Good Fat, Good Carb", will follow. Agatston also plans to oversee a research institute and prevention center but declined to go into specifics until a lease is signed. "We have plans to do it," he'll allow.

Agatston built his diet around the glycemic index (GI), a system developed in the late `70s by Dr. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto. The index measures how a food spikes blood sugar, which causes your appetite to surge.

Low-glycemic foods - whole grains, nuts, low-fat cheese - take your body longer to process and keep your hunger in check, Agatston contends. High-glycemic foods - candies, many cereals, and the baked potato - cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly, leading to food binges.

The South Beach Diet has three "phases." Phase One is designed to purge the system for two weeks, so no carbs, no fruits, no alcohol but plenty of protein, which makes it a close cousin to the popular Atkins diet. Unlike Atkins, Phase Two and Three reintroduces carbs, focusing on the more complex ones that break down slowly.

Those include vegetables and fruits - and "good" fats such as the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and nuts. Lean red meat is fine, too.

Pasta? Bread? Nope.

"What's an Italian to do?"

Lose 12 pounds in six weeks, as Tammero did. "It's great! It's so easy," he gushes.

Univision associate producer Mayra Rocha, 25, is also down 12 pounds in about two months, she says. "I've tried other (diets) but they never worked. I was always hungry."

Florida International University journalism student Ginelle Torres, 24, shed 32 pounds since mid-June. "I used to live off carbs before; pasta for dinner, sandwich for lunch, and I was always tired and hungry. Now I'm full and feel better."

The diet is not without its critics.

For one, the Florida citrus industry. His diet singles out orange juice (and toast, of course) as the real evil in an American breakfast of bacon, eggs and OJ. Way too much sugar, a no-no on the GI scale. "If it's processed and sold in a carton," he writes, "you could drink cola with nearly the same results."

Ignorant, says Eric Boomhower, a spokesperson for Florida Citrus. "It's only common sense to question the thinking behind any eating regimen that would say exclude from your diet a category as indisputably healthy as the fruit category. The problem is empty calories that don't contribute anything to your nutritional requirements."

(For the record, Agatston says EATING an orange is acceptable. The fiber is a plus, as it slows down your blood sugar. But the 28 grams of sugar in a 10-ounce serving of orange juice is not acceptable.)

The American Dietetic Association says people should count their calories rather than track blood sugar. And, says Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami registered dietitian, the index was developed when foods were eaten in isolation.

"The numbers can change when eating a whole meal," Rarback says.

"To come up with a specific GI for a mixed meal is very complicated," Agatston contends, "but the basic concept of knowing what's in the meal and understanding the principles (can) help you get by. If you add fiber to the meal it lowers the glycemic index of the meal."

Dr. Abby Aronowitz, a New York-based consultant to Weight Watchers, assails the diet's yo-yo effect.

"After surviving two weeks of deprivation, the South Beach Diet basically advocates healthy eating: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, poultry, fish and olive oil.

"However, Dr. Agatston seems to be aware that people can only eat this way for a limited time, so his solution is to return to the deprivation period whenever a tune-up becomes necessary. This mentality of being on and off diets has failed people for quite some time. We need a plan for life, which is physically satisfying and psychologically fulfilling," she e-mailed.

Agatston notes that his diet offers a wide variety of foods.

"I'm not a magician to say people will go on a diet and not revert back and gain pounds in different situations," he says.

Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, is more effusive.

"Phase One isn't completely balanced, but after that it is, and it emphasizes eating frequently lots of vegetables and lean proteins. The only negative is the claim that you can lose 13 pounds in two weeks. That will depend on the person's current weight, and a lot of that will be fluid loss."

That promise, concurs Dr. Patricia Byers, chief of nutrition at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital, is a drawback. "That initial phase is to get you excited about weight loss, but that kind of weight loss is not meaningful. All you have to do is eat carbs the next day and you'll gain it back."

But, she notes, the diet's second and third phases are healthy.

Dr. Jeffrey Rosen of Coral Gables, Fla., urges his patients with high cholesterol readings, high triglycerides and excess weight to consider the diet.

"It's an improvement on the Atkins diet," he says. "It separates the carbs into healthier carbs. Simple carbs can be bad, (they) stimulate insulin and with people who have a problem with insulin control it can lead to diabetes."

However, nothing has been published in medical journals proving that lower carb diets - such as South Beach and Atkins - improve blood glucose levels, said Dr. Luigi Meneghini of the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami.

"As with Atkins, South Beach needs to be studied. There is a lot of interest in getting the epidemic of obesity under control. It behooves us to find out (more.)"

No one, Agatston included, says it's a cinch.

"The first couple of days were hard because you have to get off the carbs and get rid of your cravings," said Pat Boyle, 66, who says she lost about 10 pounds. "After a couple days they go away. When I went into the second phase of it I got sidetracked because of birthdays and invitations."

Boyle gained back five pounds.

Agatston, 56, acknowledges he, too, slips. He's an admitted chocoholic.

"My 15-year-old (Adam) follows the diet and if I go cheat he'll grab the stuff out of my hands. He'll say, `What are you DOING?! You have to be the poster boy.' "


(c) 2003, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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