The South Beach diet focuses on choosing healthy carbohydrates and fats so you can drop excess weight while lowering your risk of developing heart disease.
The plan unfolds in three phases, and average weight loss runs between 8 to 13 pounds during the initial two weeks. There’s no need to count calories or tally up carbohydrate and fat grams. Three meals and two snacks each day make hunger an unlikely issue.
Cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston designed the diet with help from dietitian Marie Almon in the 1990s to improve patients’ poor results using low-fat diets. Originally developed for heart disease patients, the plan later gained general popularity as an effective weight-loss diet. (1)
The restrictive introductory phase of the South Beach diet is set up to stabilize blood sugar levels as it jump-starts weight loss. (2)
Initial success can help with ongoing motivation to follow the South Beach diet plan, and more food choices are allowed in the second phase. Weight loss after phase one usually levels off at a pound or two a week for most dieters. (3)
For those who want to drop ten pounds or less, starting with the second, more liberal phase can be a viable option.
Some people may find the list of prohibited foods difficult to stomach, but succeeding with the South Beach diet depends on your ability to follow the plan.
There are plenty of approved foods to choose from:
- Lean meats and fish, all you want in every phase of the plan; this includes fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey
- Low-carb vegetables and salads in generous portions, up to 4 ½ cups daily
- Eggs, beans, soy products and legumes
- Low-fat dairy products, a maximum of 2 cups a day
- Healthy fats, up to two tablespoons daily, including extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts
You won’t be eating or drinking anything listed below during the first phase:
- Fruit or fruit juice
- Starchy foods like rice, potatoes or pasta
- Whole grains, including bread, crackers and brown rice
- Sugar and all foods made with sugar and other sweeteners
- Alcoholic beverages
Phase 2 starts at the beginning of week 3 and is less restrictive. Continue eating lean meats and fish, as well as low-carb vegetables in abundant quantities.
Begin the process of reintroducing good carbs like whole grains and fruits. You can enjoy a glass of red or white wine with dinner if you like, as well as a low-carb, high protein dessert.
While snacks are required in the first phase, they’re optional once you pass the two-week mark. Gradually reintroduce carbohydrates as you keep an eye on the scale. For example, you might add in a single piece of fruit the first day, and a slice of whole-grain bread the next.
If you stop losing weight, back off on the carbs. Experiment with which kind of foods support slow and steady weight loss for you, as well as what amounts you can tolerate.
Since everyone’s a little different, some people might continue to lose weight while adding carbs from fruit sources and stall out when they add grains. For others, it could be the opposite.
Low-carb, high-protein desserts like ricotta cheesecake can be added as long as they don’t hamper your progress. Recipes can be found on the website, along with advice about how to limit yourself to three bites when you can’t resist ordering a rich dessert when eating out with friends. (4)
Once you’ve dropped the weight you need to lose, you enter the maintenance phase; Dr. Agatston recommends following phase 3 guidelines for the rest of your life.
- Don’t think of any food as off-limits; continue to use good judgement with choices and portion control as you apply the new habits you’ve instilled
- Keep fruit servings to 3 daily
- Eat up to 4 servings of starchy foods each day if you like
- Focus on quality fat sources with the day’s total around two tablespoons
Since the South Beach diet allows unlimited quantities of lean, quality protein, following the plan could round up your grocery bill. Branded food is available, but not required for success.
You may also find yourself spending more time in the kitchen, but dining out can be workable with careful planning. It helps if your favorite restaurant is amenable to substitutions.
Dr. Agatston says you’ll lose weight following the South Beach diet whether or not you combine it with exercise, but he recommends including moderate cardio workouts like brisk walking as part of your health plan. (5)
Trials and Studies
In a randomized trial conducted in 2004, results were compared between subjects following the South Beach diet and a control group following a standard, low-fat diet. The South Beach group dropped twice as much weight over 12 weeks. During a second study done the following year, similar results were reported, and cholesterol measurements of the South Beach diet group also decreased. (6)
While the South Beach diet is primarily focused on weight loss and long-term maintenance, other health benefits can be achieved with the reduction of abdominal fat. (7)
Lower carbohydrate plans, like the South Beach diet and the Atkins diet, have proven effective for burning off both abdominal and intermuscular fat. Positive effects on fat distribution, as well as insulin sensitivity, have been noted with adults classified as high risk for developing type 2 diabetes. (8)
With any diet plan encouraging unlimited consumption of lean protein foods, it’s important to make sure adequate fiber is included in daily food intake. The USDA recommends 38 grams per day for men and 25 for women. (9)
Since fruits are allowed only in moderate quantities on the South Beach diet, focus on low-carb vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, green beans, and cauliflower to keep dietary fiber at healthy levels. If you need to rely on a laxative for regularity, you’re not eating enough fiber. (10)
Summary: The South Beach diet is effective for fast weight loss up-front, and moderate for keeping weight off long-term (11)