The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, Md

The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, Md

Over the years, the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and practical weight-loss experience has shown that the extreme low-fat, high carbohydrate diets promoted by the American Heart Association, Nathan Pritikin and Dean Ornish do not work.

What’s even worse, the less fat Americans eat, the fatter they grow — because they are eating more carbohydrates.

Now we understand that people need adequate amounts of protein and fat — which often go together in meats, dairy products and nuts.

People do need carbohydrates, but too many carbohydrates send your insulin levels sky high, adding fat to your cells and over the long term causing many other health problems including heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Dr. Atkins’ saw this problem way back in the 1970s, but his diet went too far in the other direction. It was all protein and fat, and no carbs. People couldn’t not keep eating that way and, according to Dr. Agatston, the large amounts of saturated fat are also bad for your heart. (For the record, he believes that the state of ketosis — when your body goes into fat-burning mode because you’re not eating any carbs — is not particularly hazardous. But the saturated fat is.)

In the 1990s Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades published PROTEIN POWER, and Dr. Barry Sears THE ZONE. Although their programs differ in details, both stress getting enough protein and limiting carbohydrates.

Dr. Sears’ Zone diet advocates eating meals 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbohydrates. He set up an entire system — several, actually — to help readers follow his plan.

The South Beach Diet is, to my mind, much like those two, only simplified to the bare essentials. Dr. Agatston emphasizes eating foods with a low glycemic index. He’s okay with grain foods so long as they’re unprocessed so they take longer to digest. He rails against white flour and sugar in a way that reminds me of Adele Davis.

So Agatston throws out the idea of controlling how much food you eat, or how often, or counting calories, or counting fat grams, or keeping meals a particular balance of carbs, fat and proteins, or anything else that overcomplicates the process.

Just confine yourself to lean meat (he’s still against saturated fat), nuts, dairy, whole grains and vegetables. You can add fruit in after the first two weeks.

It’s obviously working for people. And it should, since it obviously does keep insulin levels somewhat under control — it’s certainly a big improvement over the typical American diet of gorging on high glycemic carbohydrates.

It strikes me that in many ways it’s similar to how our great-grandparents ate. They didn’t have white flour — they ate whole wheat bread by default. They ate a lot more fish. They no doubt ate beef and pork, but not as often as chicken. They ate eggs. They ate fruit only in season, but vegetables year round. They cracked walnuts and gathered pecans.

They got a lot more exercise just by going about their daily chores, and so were a lot healthier — except for infectious diseases of course.

Dr. Agatston goes somewhat into the science of insulin. I appreciated his explanation for insulin tolerance — it happens because your fat cells grow so big with fat that insulin cannot reach the fat cell insulin receptors.

Thus, belly fat helps keep you fat and sets you up for heart disease and diabetes.

I’m no doctor, but I used to take disability claims, and I can testify that I spoke to many people who have the complex of high blood pressure, arthritis and diabetes. And later, heart disease and cancer. And most of those people were obviously overweight. I could almost predict everything they’d say about their medical problems — down to the list of their medications — just from watching them waddle to my desk.

However, if you want to know a lot more of the science of why too many carbs are unhealthy for you, you must read the Zone books.

Personally, I believe the Zone diet is more accurate, effective and healthy. However, if you can’t or don’t want to keep track of how many Zone blocks you eat for each meal, following the South Beach diet is a lot better than the conventional American diet.