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The Promise

South Beach and Atkins are the celebrities of the low-carb scene. But though they share top billing, they choose different paths to weight-loss fame.

The key to losing weight quickly and getting healthy isn’t cutting all carbohydrates and fats from your diet, says Miami-based cardiologist Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of The South Beach Diet. It’s learning to choose the right carbs and the right fats.

This approach is part of a three-step program Agatston developed to help his heart patients lose weight and lower cholesterol.

Emphasizing foods that are loaded with fiber and nutrients, the South Beach Diet promises to help you kick your cravings, jump-start your weight loss, and keep those unwanted pounds off -- for life.

In the first 2 weeks, Phase 1 of the diet, you can expect to lose between 8 and 13 pounds, Agatston says.

Does It Work?

Yes. It's a healthy approach to eating that can help you shed pounds.

There are three phases, with Phase 1 the most restrictive: no bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, or fruit.

In Phase 2, you gradually add back in some of these foods. You move into Phase 3 when you hit your goal weight, and you stay there for life.

What You Can Eat and What You Can't

That depends on the phase you’re in. Phase 1 is the strictest and includes:

  • A lot of protein, such as beef, poultry, seafood, eggs, and cheese
  • Some fats, including canola oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and avocado
  • Carbs with the lowest glycemic index, including vegetables such as broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, and eggplant

What’s off-limits in Phase 1: Fruit, fruit juices, starchy foods, dairy products, and alcohol.

In Phase 2, you slowly reintroduce healthy carbs into your diet -- fruit, whole-grain bread, whole-grain rice, whole wheat pasta, and sweet potatoes. Expect weight loss to slow to 1 to 2 pounds a week, on average.

Phase 3 is about maintaining your weight. There’s no food list to follow. By this time, you’ll know how to make good food choices and how to get back on track if you overindulge once in a while. If cravings return or your eating gets off track, the plan recommends going back to Phase 1 or 2.

Level of Effort: Medium

The South Beach Diet is meant to be practical and uncomplicated. There’s no need to count calories or figure percentages of fats, carbs, and protein. Your meals are normal in size.

Limitations: It’s OK to bend or break the rules every now and then. If you overindulge in Phase 2, Agatston suggests switching back to Phase 1 until you lose the weight you put on. Then return to where you left off.

Cooking and shopping: Dishes are easy to make, with ingredients found in supermarkets or in most restaurants. The plan requires snacks between meals, but they are “the kind that can be thrown into a briefcase or backpack in the morning and eaten on the run," as the book says.

Packaged foods or meals: Yes, although you don't have to buy them. South Beach Diet foods for sale include everything from snack bars to smoothies.

In-person meetings: None.

Exercise: The South Beach Diet doesn’t depend on exercise to work. But The South Beach Diet Supercharged, Agatston’s updated version of his original book, has an exercise program that includes walking and strengthening your core muscles.

Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?

Yes. Flexibility is one of the diet’s guiding principles.

Vegetarians and vegans: This diet is both vegetarian- and vegan-friendly. Protein alternatives to lean meat include beans, legumes, and soy products. Enrolling in The South Beach Diet Online gives you access to vegetarian-only recipes and meal plans.

Gluten-free: Gluten isn't banned, but since you're cutting down on carbs, you could certainly ditch those that include gluten. You'll still need to read food labels to be sure.

What Else You Should Know

Cost: Healthy eating can be costly. The South Beach Diet web site offers money-saving tips, such as buying food in bulk, shopping at farmers’ markets, using coupons, and preparing simple meals.

Support: The South Beach Diet Online offers tools you can use to track your weight, recipes, a customized meal plan, dining-out guides, and community support. Membership is $4 per week, but the first 7 days are free.

What Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, Says:

Does It Work?

Yes. This is a healthy Mediterranean-style approach to eating that can help you shed pounds.

For long-term success, get regular exercise as recommended in the South Beach Diet Supercharged plan.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

Losing weight can improve many health conditions, and the South Beach Diet is flexible enough to work for people with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

But check with your doctor before starting any new diet.

The Final Word

The South Beach Diet is a nutritious diet plan that offers a wide variety of delicious food and a practical exercise plan -- at least in the Supercharged version.

And it relies on proven ways to lose weight: eating smart carbs, healthy fats, lean protein, low fat dairy, and plenty of fiber to keep hunger at bay.

This diet is ideal for anyone who wants to stop thinking like a dieter and embrace behavior changes that are necessary for long-term success.

Even picky eaters and busy people should find this diet plan easy to customize and fit into their lives.

WebMD Diet A-Z

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