South Beach Diet Review

What it is

There’s comfort in knowing that the weight loss program you are following was created by a medical doctor. And if it was developed by a heart specialist, all the better. Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Florida, is the medical mind behind the South Beach Diet, which has enjoyed unabated popularity since Dr. Agatston’s book of the same name appeared in 2003.

Dr. Agatston developed his ideas for the diet while conducting research into ways to reduce his patients’ risk of having heart attacks and strokes. Dr. Agatston’s investigations led him to become a champion of “good carbs” and “good fats,” while declaring war on “bad carbs” and “bad fats.”

Good carbs, according to the South Beach Diet, are those that are high in fiber or high in good fats. A key characteristic is that they have a low glycemic index; that is, they break down slowly in the body. Bad carbs are those that have a high glycemic index; that is, they break down rapidly. The dietary theory is that the surge of sugars released during digestion of bad carbs causes the body to detect an energy surplus. In response, it begins transforming sugars the bloodstream into stored fat. On the other hand, the slow release of sugars during digestion of good carbs causes the body to sense an energy shortage. In this case, the response is to burn stored fat in order to meet required energy needs.

Good fats include monounsaturated fats such as that found in olive and canola oils, peanuts and avocados. Monounsaturated fats contribute to lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and help maintain levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which carries cholesterol from artery walls and delivers it to the liver for disposal. Bad fats are saturated fats found it red meats and dairy products and manmade trans fats found in many processed bakery products.

How it works

The South Beach Diet is a three-phased diet plan.

Phase 1 is a restrictive two-week phase designed to promote rapid weight loss. Part of Dr. Agatston’s theory is that the typical North American diet causes the body to crave carbohydrates. To eliminate these cravings, most carbohydrates are prohibited. Say goodbye to breads, pastas, potatoes, rice, baked goods, fruit, alcohol and vegetables with a high sugar content like corn and carrots. The diet promises that a couple of days in, you’ll no longer miss these foods. Acceptable vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, celery, asparagus, spinach, tomatoes and lettuce.

Phase 2 lasts until you reach your weight loss goal. During this phase, good carbohydrates such as whole grains and most fruits are added back onto the menu. As well, moderate amounts of wine are allowed. Carbohydrates that remain on the restricted list include white bread, white pasta, white rice, potatoes, corn, beets, and certain higher-sugar fruits and juices. Weight loss during this period should be one to two pounds a week.

Phase 3 is the diet you’ll adopt going forward to maintain your new weight level. Guidelines are provided to help you choose the right foods and amounts. You are encouraged to experiment with different foods to find out how your body responds.

Nutrition and recipes

Nutrition information, recipes and meal plans for each of the diet phases are provided in the Dr. Agatston’s original book. In addition, the subsequently released South Beach Diet – Good Fats/Good Carbs Guide gives a comprehensive rundown of the foods that are banned or acceptable during each phase of the diet.

Online resources and support is Dr. Agatston’s extensive online information centre and community. Members gain assess to a broad assortment of tools and resources, including a diet-profiler, meal planner and shopping list generator. The recipe finder combs through more than 800 recipes, and the discussion groups are a source of motivation and support. As well, online registered dietitians are available to provide professional diet advice. You can visit the online site here.


Diet options for vegetarians were not provided in the South Beach Diet book. This oversight is rectified in the online site, which has vegetarian recipes and meal plans.


Dr. Agatston encourages physical activity as part of the South Beach Diet. His recommendation is at least 20 minutes a day of cardio exercise. He also suggests that women in particular take up weight training for both the metabolism boost and the contribution this form of exercise makes to strong bones.


Supplements are not required, but the diet plan notes the benefits of fish oil capsules, a daily aspirin, a daily multivitamin and Metamucil before meals.

The good

As a follower of the South Beach Diet, you are not required to count calories or measure food portions. Rather, you eat until you feel sated. The high fiber content of the recommended foods contributes to a feeling of fullness that helps prevent overeating.

Another plus is the diet provides a plan for maintaining your target weight after the initial rapid and slower weight loss phases.

The diet’s emphasis on good fats, whole grains, vegetables and lean protein, while limiting saturated fats and processed high-sugar foods, is also worth applauding.

The online site is a comprehensive resource that provides strong support for the diet plan as outlined in the book. Dr. Agatston has also written several other books that make it easier to incorporate the South Beach Diet into busy lifestyles.

The bad

There’s not a lot to criticize about the South Beach Diet. However, the rapid weight loss component in phase one is something the diet could do without. Much of the weight loss would be water anyway. Why not start with phase two? It would take longer to achieve your desired weight loss goal, but the process would be healthier.

The bottom line

No diet is right for everyone. When it comes to the South Beach diet, some people might not care for the amount of food preparation and cooking required. Others will object to the reduced carb approach. Still others will prefer to follow a program that puts more emphasis on exercise. But for those who can make it work with their lifestyle and who stick to the long-term plan, the results should be worthwhile.

Learn more about the South Beach Diet.