Jul 3, 2006

The South Beach Diet

South Beach DietYesterday my wife came home from the church in North Jersey (we actually go to two churches, one in the city and this one) with a copy of the South Beach Diet. She was amazed at the weight loss she was seeing in the pastor's wife (who apparently had gone from a size 14 to a 4) and was encouraged to try it. She brought me the book and asked if I could read it and give her my opinion. The nice thing about these diet books is that they can normally be read in an hour, especially if you skip or skim the recipe portions.

People who haven't known me for years might ask, "What makes you so qualified to give an opinion on diet books?" That's a valid question. I'm not a medical doctor or nutritionist, or even a physical trainer. I am in bad physical shape. I am, however, a pretty good researcher and spent a lot of time, starting in 1999, learning everything I could about healthy lifestyles, exercise, and eating right. I've read scores of books, interviewed many qualified people, subscribed to lots of health magazines, and, of course, there's the ever-reliable internet to give you more than enough opinions than you can ever use in your lifetime. Of course, a lot of it is utter crap, but if you can filter through the junk, you can find lots of amazing gold out there. Incidently - the best site out there? John Hussman's site. My problem isn't knowledge, it's consistent application. Have to work on that.

So to me, it isn't enough if a diet is effective in having people lose weight. If that were the case, everyone would be on Atkins. I don't like Atkins because I can't agree with the high concentrations of saturated fats and near-complete elimination of carbohydrates. Yes, you might lose lots of weight, but so is heroin - and heroin might be healthier in the long run than Atkins.

Body for LifeThe litmus test that I compare any diet to is Bill Phillips' Body for Life. The pictures above from 1999 are a personal example of what Body for Life can do when taken seriously. The problem is that BFL is hard to maintain for a lot of people. Many just don't have the mental toughness to complete some of the workouts he recommends with the intensity that they need to be completed with. So alertnatives must be considered, and compared if they're to be considered safe and effective. That's where South Beach comes in.

Prior to picking up the book, my impression of South Beach, knowing very little about it, was that it's another ultra-low-carb atkins look-a-like, with perhaps a little more discipline about the saturated fats. Glad to report that this is not the case.

It does have a two-week ultra-low carbohydrate phase - which at the very beginning you do to "correct the blood chemistry" to reduce the effects of insulin resistance. This appears to be sound advice and I'm not opposed to a brief & temporary restriction on carbs to kick-start the diet, especially when they're not replaced with blatantly bad-for-you fats. During this phase, Agastson (the author) allows for plenty of vegatables, nuts, dairy, eggs, and low-fat meat products. He cites that the main benefit as far as appearance is that it reduces waistline fat, which would be extremely beneficial from a health standpoint, particularly in men.

After the two week "phase 1", the dieter enters "phase 2", where carbohydrates are gradually added back in. This is where I'll draw the comparison to Body for Life, which has no concept of phases.

My main complaint about South Beach (SBD) with regards to phase 2 is its exclusion of exercise. I consider exercise and a generally active lifestyle to be an absolutely crucial aspect of healthy living, and Agatston's take on exercise is that it's "not required, but it helps." BFL considers exercise as important as nutrition, and so do I.

Like BFL, SBD draws a lot of focus on eating low-glycemic carbohydrates rather than high-glycemic. When you hear about "good carbs" vs. "bad carbs", this is what they're talking about - the glycemic index, or GI, of carbohydrates. A lower-glycemic carb (that is - a carb with a lower GI) takes longer for you to digest, thereby giving you a more steady stream of nutrients, as opposed to a lot of nutrients at once, which can cause a spike in insulin. This is sound advice. Generally speaking, natural foods have a lower GI than processed foods; a piece of fruit is USUALLY better than a piece of wonder bread. Brown rice is better than white rice, which has had its husk removed. Fruits from tropical regions tend have higher GIs than more northern fruits. There are exceptions to this rule, of course - watermelon, for example, is very high-glycemic, more so than mashed potatoes.

SBD seems to be stand-offish about fruit, and I suspect that this is how it gets away without requiring exercise. Those extra calories from fruit can easily kill your caloric deficit if you're not exercising. But to eliminate or even limit fruit spells disaster to me - fresh fruits are a great source of fiber, not to mention all the naturally occurring vitamins in them. And we all know that we should be exercising anyway - even light exercise (30 minutes of CONTINUOUS effort) a few times a week would allow you to eat those fruits while also increasing your cardiovascular endurance, strengthen your muscles, lower your resting heart rate, increase bone density, and all the other things we've heard over an over that exercise does for you.

SBD has no concept of portion size, and instead relies on eating strategies that make you feel full sooner. BFL is very strict about portion sizes, but with rules that are easier to follow.

It seems to me that the underlying strategies are different. BFL's plan is geared towards driving your metabolism has high as possible while eating right, SBD's focuses isn't so much on eating right as it is about employing strategies to effectively lower the GI of foods. Take a fiber supplement prior to eating will slow down digestion, effectively reducing the GI - or if you're going to eat a baked potato, add the sour cream or butter - because the added calories will be offset by the fact that fat slows down digestion just like fiber. (to be fair, he recommends against this, but if you must eat the potato, he wants you to add the fat.) This will reduce cravings, which is important if you're only going to use incidental portion control..

SBD also has three square meals, plus light snacks in between, plus desert. BFL has 6 square half-sized meals. BFL has more consistent nutrient flow that is less likely to cause hunger pangs. And the portion control is there.

So my tweaks to the SBD would be as follows:
Keep phase 1 the way it is (might as well..)
Phase 2:
Introduce simple and easy-to-follow portion control, as indicated in BFL.
Add at least light exercise for 30 continuous minutes several times per week.
Reduce the reliance on nuts - they're very calorie-dense.
Completely eliminate high-glycemic carbs, rather than use strategies to make them lower-glycemic.
If you're willing to exercise harder during the week, add one free day a week where you can eat whatever you'd like.
Plan meals and exercise.

-steve