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Is Arthur Agatston the next Dr. Atkins or just the latest in a long line of low-carb disciples?
There are striking similarities between Agatston, 56, of Miami Beach, and the late Robert Atkins.
Agatston is a cardiologist who needed to lose some weight and wanted to help his patients drop pounds, so he created a low-carb, high-fat plan that bucked traditional diet advice. He succeeded in his goal, some of his patients did, too, and the diet caught on.
The same was true for Atkins, who created a wildly popular diet that bears his name. Atkins died in April at age 72 after an accidental fall.
Now, Agatston's book, The South Beach Diet (Rodale, $24.94) is No. 11 on this week's USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. The book is vying for the top slots with three Atkins books, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution (No. 3), Atkins for Life (No. 12) and Dr. Atkins' New Carbohydrate Gram Counter (No. 30).
Both diets severely restrict many carbohydrates, including cakes, cookies, candies, crackers, breads, pasta and potatoes, especially during the initial weight-loss phase. And both plans encourage people to eat diets high in fat and protein.
But unlike the Atkins diet, Agatston's plan steers dieters away from saturated fat found in butter and fatty meats like hamburger and bacon and encourages the consumption of monounsaturated fats like olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
Agatston, who at 5-foot-8 weighs 164 pounds, says he doesn't mind the comparison to the famous diet doctor. ''I knew Atkins. I know he was sincere. I liked him. He bucked the system and taught us fat doesn't make you fat.
''My book explains what the latest science is and goes way beyond Atkins' books. But I'm not going to slam the others,'' he says. ''I don't care if there are three other books written about the same thing.''
But some people aren't amused. ''This is obviously a copycat diet. It's not the first, and I'm sure it's not going to be the last,'' says Colette Heimowitz, a nutritionist for the Atkins companies. She says the first phase in The South Beach Diet is very similar to the induction phase of the Atkins diet.
The search for new diets
Agatston agrees the programs are similar. In fact, his search for a diet began in the late '80s and early '90s when he started to put on weight and noticed that many of his patients ''were developing bellies and getting heavier,'' and the cholesterol-lowering drugs weren't enough to keep their blood fats under control.
''At the time, the party line and conventional wisdom was the Atkins diet was horrible,'' he says. He told patients not to follow the plan.
But he noticed that some people were succeeding with Atkins while others were struggling to lose weight on the American Heart Association diets, which are relatively low in fat and high in carbohydrates.
So he read Atkins' book and started to review the research of others who were espousing the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
One theory Agatston uses in his diet is the idea that people should eat foods low on the glycemic index scale. Some experts theorize that certain foods high on the scale -- white bread, white rice, pastries, candy and sugar-laden soda -- cause blood sugar and the hormone insulin to rise and fall sharply, prompting more hunger three or four hours later. But other experts say the verdict isn't in on this idea.
Agatston started putting patients on his program, and it caught on locally. After all, what better birthplace for a diet? Miami Beach has a ''worldwide image as a mecca of physical beauty and body consciousness,'' he says in the book.
Yet, he seems a little embarrassed by the book's glitzy title, which he calls ''a compromise'' between himself and the publisher.
Agatston's plan draws interest
Robert Eckel, chairman of the council on nutrition, physical activity and metabolism for the American Heart Association, says he's ''cautiously interested'' in Agatston's diet, but he says it would be ''premature'' to say that this diet is better than the heart association's nutritional guidelines. And it will be years before it's determined whether people can stick to this diet, keep their weight off and lower their risk of heart disease, he says.
Agatston considers himself a serious academic and says he has done research on his diet, which will be published soon in a peer-reviewed journal. He didn't expect he'd ever be serving diet advice. ''I never intended to be a diet doctor and publish diet books. I am here accidentally. I still have a day job.''
But now that he has been thrust in the public spotlight, he's determined to make the most of it. It'll be years before the medical establishment and guideline committees accept the benefits of a diet like his, he says. ''To educate the public, you have to go directly to the public. If I waited for the guidelines to catch up, it would be far after I've stopped practicing.''
But isn't this diet, which eliminates many foods that people love, going to be hard to follow?
''We acknowledge failures and that people fall off the wagon, but that doesn't mean all is lost,'' he says. ''They can get right back on the weight-loss phase and get to their healthy weight again.''
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