Is the South Beach diet for me?

Originally Published: January 16, 2009
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Alice,

What is good and bad about the South Beach Diet? What group of people does it work best for? What does it consist of? Would you advise someone to use the diet?

Dear reader,

It's easy to get confused with so many diets out there. The South Beach Diet has received a lot of press and it's a good idea to learn as much as you can before starting any new diet.

The South Beach Diet is categorized as a glycemic-index diet. This means that foods included in the South Beach Diet have a low-glycemic index — in theory they do not cause a rise in blood sugar. However, there are factors other than food that influence glycemic index, including age, weight, and amount of food eaten at a meal.

The hallmark of the South Beach Diet is classifying carbohydrates as "good" and "bad." The South Beach Diet begins with a carbohydrate detox period known as "phase one." During these first two weeks, dieters must avoid nearly all carbohydrates including bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, fruits, and dairy products. Next, phase two slowly re-introduces a limited quantity of "good" carbohydrates. So-called good carbs are categorized as unprocessed foods with small amounts of natural sugar such as whole grains, fruit, and some dairy products. "Bad" carbs include processed foods and items with a high glycemic index like white bread, juice, and cookies. In reducing carbohydrates the South Beach Diet resembles the Atkins Diet, another popular low-carb diet that is higher in saturated fat.

Since the South Beach Diet also limits the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products (especially during phase one), the overall intake of fiber, vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron is also reduced. This may not be very healthy for many people since these foods offer high nutritional value. Women and older people in particular may want to avoid the South Beach diet since it is low in calcium, a mineral needed for good bone health. Vegetarians and vegans may also have difficulty following the South Beach diet since it limits carb-laden fruits, veggies, and dairy products.

The South Beach Diet has been criticized by leading nutritionists for inaccuracies and pseudoscience. However, this does not mean it doesn't work. Rather, the South Beach Diet may work for individuals because calories are controlled and kept under a certain level. The weight loss achieved by cutting calories has nothing to do with blood sugar or "good" vs. "bad" carbs, simply the overall number of calories a person is eating compared to the number of calories they are burning.

There is no evidence that low-carb diets are any better or worse than other diets. In general, diets don't lead to long-term weight loss for most people; once someone tries to resume normal eating patterns, they gain back weight they lost dieting. That being said, the South Beach diet, or any other diet, may work best for people who don't mind limiting their food choices and are able to control cravings. If you are considering starting a diet, ask yourself these questions to help you determine if a diet is right for you:

  • Does it include a variety of foods from all of the major food groups?
  • Does it include foods that you enjoy eating and could eat long-term (i.e. once the diet is over)?
  • Does it include foods you can easily find (and afford) at local stores?
  • Does it fit into your lifestyle?
  • Does it help you lose weight safely and effectively?
  • Does it include physical activity?

Speaking with a health care professional or a nutritionist may help you figure out a plan that works for you and keeps you healthy. Columbia students can take advantage of nutritional counseling on campus by using Open Communicator or call x4-2284 to make an appointment.

Stay healthy, no matter what size you are!

Alice