Monday, February 02, 2009
It's funny the reaction you get from people when you tell them you've gone on the South Beach Diet:
"Oh, God, why would you do that?" "It's not healthy you know." "You don't need a stupid fad diet." "You'll just gain it all back as soon as you go off it."
Let me answer the first question. Why would I do that? Because I was starting to get desperate. After quitting smoking almost three years ago, I put on quite a bit of weight that I wasn't happy about. I wasn't obese or anything, but I'd certainly gotten chunkier and wasn't at all comfortable with it.
Last year, I resolved to fix that. I didn't believe in diets, so I worked hard at fixing it with exercise. Ruthlessly disciplined. Four to six hours a week, on a program designed by a personal trainer. Weight training, cardio, horribly painful abs work. Careful monitoring of heart rates to ensure optimal exercise level. The whole nine yards.
After twelve months of that, I'd lost maybe five pounds out of the forty I was looking to lose. To call it frustrating would be an understatement. Sure, my heart and lungs were in better shape, but my waistline definitely wasn't.
So I turned to diet. After (in my view) basically wasting the previous year, I wanted fast results. The South Beach Diet promised that.
Designed by cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, the South Beach Diet seems to have gotten lumped in the category "crazy unhealthy fad diet" along with Atkins or the grapefruit diet. Some of this criticism is fair, but mostly it isn't. The diet has a certain Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.
On the Dr. Jekyll side: the ultimate message of South Beach is that you should eat lots and lots of a variety of vegetables and fruits and moderate portions of lean meats. Limit consumption of fats, sugars and carbs, but don't eliminate them because they're essential for proper nutrition. When you eat carbs, lean towards "good carbs" such as whole grain breads. Avoid refined sugars and carbs.
Is there a nutritionist anywhere in the world who would argue with that message?
But that is end state of the diet, the so-called Phase Three of its three stages. It starts off with the monstrous Phase One, an essentially zero-carb, zero-sugar (including fruit) two week endurance test that is pure Atkins lunacy, except that Agatston's plan is low fat and doesn't encourage people to binge on proteins quite like Atkins does.
Make no mistake, near-zero carbs is a distinctly unnatural way to eat. These people who go on Atkins long term must be out of their minds. I started off scoffing at reports of side-effects, but before the end of the first week I was scouring online forums for tips on dealing with headaches, dizziness and gastro-intestinal difficulties.
Agatston presents the two-week carb fast as a detox period to help break the typical North American addiction to sugar and carbs. After the detox, his goal is to reeducate dieters to eat and appreciate "good carbs" and stay away from refined sugars.
I give this detox notion some credit. After Phase One, I found my tastebuds had changed. I tasted some Bull's Eye barbecue sauce (my favourite brand) but it now tasted weird, as if someone had taken a half-full bottle of sauce and topped it up with corn syrup. Reading the ingredients, I found that this is essentially what they do. The top ingredient in barbecue sauce is sugar, ahead of tomato paste! Previously, my tastebuds had been too desensitized to notice that.
But, despite these detox benefits, there is no doubt that Phase One is not a feasible long-term diet. Agatston sort of acknowledges this, but he's kind of vague about it. He just sort of gently encourages dieters to move on to other phases. I don't think either Agatson or his nutty, cult-like followers are definitive enough in saying "Don't even think about staying on Phase One longer than two weeks! It's unhealthy!" And that is a serious ethical flaw in my books.
Still, I've gained a lot of better habits from the diet. I'm eating way more vegetables, drinking way more water and I'm making choices about sugars and carbs much more intelligently.
And I've lost a lot: I've been on for three weeks (halfway through the transitional Phase Two) and I'm down 14 pounds and almost five inches off my gut - and still dropping!
Will I be able to keep it off? Who knows. People love - love! - to sneer in my face with stories about some friend or coworker of theirs who went on South Beach but put it all back on "as soon as they started eating normally."
Well, you know what? I know lots of people who have lost weight on nutritionist-revered Weight Watchers who have put it all back on as soon as they started eating "normally."
If "eating normally" means a typical North American diet super-high in carbs, refined sugars and fats, then no shit you're going to put weight back on if you go back to eating like that.
For all of its ethical pitfalls, South Beach has helped me reprogram my eating habits and I think that will be permanent, or at least long term.
Ultimate recommendation: if you're in a hurry to drop a few pounds for a special event (e.g. a wedding), you could do worse than South Beach Phase One. It's healthier (barely) than Atkins.
But I think most people should avoid Phase One and jump straight to Phase Two or Three. Or just do Weight Watchers. Potato - potatoe (mmm... potatoes!)
posted by Mentok @ 9:52 AM,
- At 1:50 PM, Natsthename said...
Hats off to you! My husband and I did this diet a few years ago, and, as per usual, he lost more and faster than I did. I HATED phase one, but did lose 8 lbs in two weeks, and then it slowed to a painful crawl. I lost even more slowly than I did using Weight Watchers. But hubby sped right along, losing 20 lbs in about 6 weeks. He kept it off, too, for the most part, since he's not a big carb addict.
I think it's a great way to eat, if you can stay away from the breads and potatoes. More power to you!
- At 2:12 PM, Mentok said...
Finally! A positive comment about this diet. I've a gutful (har!) of negativity about it from just about everyone else I know.
But, year, that Phase One is a bitch. At first I thought "Back-bacon and eggs for breakfast... steak for supper... this diet is going to be easy!" By about day 3, my carb cravings started to feel a lot like early-stage nicotine withdrawl. Painful!
- At 6:16 PM, Natsthename said...
I found that dessert of ricotta cheese, some sweetner, and toasted slivered almonds was quite filling and sinfully delicious. I looked forward to it every evening. If you like ricotta, by all means, try it.
- At 7:22 AM, Rick said...
Hey, Mentok. Here's another positive comment - my wife and I did this for several months (maybe 6?) a couple of years ago and I lost a lot of weight. I don't know how much, but it was significant - people commented on my face looking thinner, etc. Even if you fall off the bandwagon, as long as you keep in mind the basic principles (avoiding lots of refined carbs, fat isn't necessary a bad thing, etc.), you can keep your weight under control. I'm still eating yogurt and cottage cheese with my lunch and even without so much as one calorie of exercise since March, I've kept my weight down. (This is not to say that not exercising has been good for me!)
This diet works. Good luck!
- At 10:46 AM, said...
As someone who's tried a variety of these diets over the year with similar yo-yo results, I now feel they're like an Internet forum. Half the people love them and say they work, the other half just want to tell you how stupid they are.
Truth is diets and dieting are really personal. You have to find out what works for you and then stick to that. I've still retained some techniques from some of the diets but I found that what really works was just common sense. Eat more natural foods. Replace sugar treats with healthy treats. Fibre. Fibre. Fibre. If you do want to cheat, do so, but commit to short-term cheating. Let food know you are its master not vice versa.
Oh, yeah, exercise. That was the one thing missing from every other diet. What a difference that makes. Walking and weight lifting. Trust me - after dropping 8 inches off the waistline, I know. Even though I haven't lost any poundage in over a year, I know I'm on track because I keep having to tighten my belt.
- At 10:57 AM, Mentok said...
Yes, that's what gives me confidence about this eating system (let's not even call it a diet). I feel I've found a groove that I can stick with that I know will work for me. I know, for example, that I can still go out for beer 'n' pizza on the weekend and I'll still lose if I stay on track during the week.
The main thing about South Beach is that it reprogrammed me to eat a lot of vegetables. My wife says "well, why didn't you just start doing that on your own?" The fact is I don't think I would have been able to force myself to do that without chasing the carrot (har!) of rapid weight loss.
I was also fortunate going into this that I already had a disciplined exercise routine going. I'm sure that made my results atypically high.
- At 11:52 AM, mjrc said...
ha! i was eating potato soup while i read this!
i have to say that i agree with toontom. moderation and exercise, no matter what path you take to get there, are the keys to keeping it off.
i lost about 60 pounds and have kept nearly all of it off for over three years now, and regular exercise is KEY!
- At 3:58 AM, adam said...
Eat less and exercise more, and concentrate on fresh food over processed, and avoid sugar salt and fat, on the whole. I have issues with all sorts of 'carbs' diets because both of my kids have type 1 diabetes and regular eating with regular complex carboydrates are the essential part of what keeps them going. I can see, entirely, that the structure of a particular diet can instill good habits in people and that without a structure people can flounder but, really, I kind of take objection to people commodifying the medically obvious - it's not difficult to find out, in a non-commercial way, what healthy eating is, and really the diet industry is all about people making money out of gimmicks.
- At 12:56 PM, Mentok said...
Adam - I'm glad you raised the commercialization aspect, which is something else that bugs me about South Beach.
The first book is quite stingy with the info it hands out. They don't really give you enough info to make your own meal plans. To do that, you'd either have to a) buy ALL their books and subscribe to their website or b) hunt through the infinitely more useful and informative free user forums.
Plus the whole book is replete with stomach-churning product placement. You can't just buy low-fat ricotta; you're supposed to buy Land O'Lakes low fat ricotta. Ridiculous.
Of course, the diet is not at all suitable for diabetics and Agatson is quite clear about that. And, again, the diet never suggests that all carbs are unhealthy but rather emphasizes the importance of "good carbs."
As for "commodifying the medically obvious"... Yes and no. In the words of Ovid "Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor": I see the better way but do otherwise. In the previous year, I had started exercise A LOT and had, I thought, improved my diet.
However, my idea of "more vegetables" was having six carrot sticks with lunch instead of four and my idea of cutting back on fat was just having one cheese sandwich for a midnight snack instead of two. I needed a strict structure to show me the error of my ways.
- At 1:01 PM, Mentok said...
[BTW, I learned that Ovid quote from Spy magazine back in the 80s. It was used, tongue in cheek, as part of a tirade about the declining quality of music videos on MTV.]
- At 11:59 AM, said...