Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The South Beach Diet

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on April 19th, 2012)

This week I started out not knowing anything about the South Beach Diet. I had heard about it but always thought it was another one of those fad diets. What I discovered blew me away. Without actually paying for the products and books there is only so much I can learn but if they actually provide what they say they do, I’m sold! This is by far one of the BEST diet programs I have ever come across. The South Beach diet emphasizes everything that I have been talking about since I started this blog: quality of food, pairing exercise with diet, and forming habits.

The South Beach Diet is based around a system called the Glycemic Index (GI), which is the ranking of how quickly a carbohydrate is broken down and absorbed into our blood stream from our food. The higher the ranking (A spoon of table sugar is 100), the faster this process is. This was originally developed as a way to help people with diabetes find food that would keep their blood sugar as level as possible.

The South Beach program is broken down into three relatively simple phases. Phase one is based around controlling blood sugar levels through limiting simple carbohydrates and only allowing complex carbohydrates with a Low GI value like fibres from legumes and nuts. This is designed to limit cravings and help control them. Phase one is only 2 weeks long and afterwards Phase two begins and allows more of our carbohydrate load to be from Middle GI foods and is designed to have stable, healthy weight loss. Phase three begins after you have reached your weight loss goal and continues on indefinitely. Phase three allows for a little more leniency with Middle GI foods and “occasional indulgences” with High GI foods. This is one of my favourite ideas… Moderation!

On top of this concentration on carbohydrates the program emphasises quality of fats and proteins as well resulting in increased Omega-3 fats and decreased Omega -6 and saturated fats. When Phase two begins whole wheat grains are added back in and throughout the diet low-fat dairy is allowed. This I have a little problem with. Both gluten (found in wheat and many other grains) and casein (the protein in all dairy) are inflammatory substances and counteract the wonderful anti-inflammatory effects of the Omega-3 fats we are loading up on. But really I’m just splitting hairs with this. Not many other diets take inflammation into account. But one good thing is that the program does eliminate the foods that are more susceptible to the damage of inflammation.

Just like the Atkins Diet Program, the South Beach organization has a great number of online resources for their subscribers. Everything from recipes to shopping list generators and support groups is there but only if you’ve paid and have a password. They have a hotline where you can talk to registered dietitians and even have a smartphone app. This is incredibly encouraging for anyone using this program.

One of the best tools they offer is a meal plan helper. It’s not something that just spits out a regimented meal plan that you have to follow, it is customizable which I think is a great tool to learn how to plan meals yourself and form healthy eating habits.

The other tool they provide that I love is exercise routines. This sets the South Beach Diet head and shoulders above all the others I know. Most diets separate out physical exercise and consider it not their domain. Combining exercise and diet is only natural and leads to the best health and weight loss results. The South Beach Diet provides simple explanations of exercises that can be performed either at the gym or within our own homes.

The South Beach Diet Program does have a line of foods that I have seen when I was in college and heard about from other people since but for the life of me I cannot find any reference to them anywhere, even on the South Beach Diet’s own webpage so I really can’t comment on their quality. If anyone has a link for this please let me know so I can cover that information here.

One habit of people approaching diets that cut out simple sugars is to turn to artificial sweeteners to get the same taste they are craving. The South Beach Diet does not say anything about this to either encourage or discourage it. This is a point against the South Beach Diet in my books. Artificial sweeteners are harmful and really should be discouraged by any diet worth its salt.

So my overall impression of this diet is very favourable. The only criticism I have for it is that inflammatory foods are not only included but encouraged as a source of complex carbohydrates (whole grains), and fat and protein (dairy). As I said before, this is getting to the point of splitting hairs and really, if you are concerned about these foods like I am then there are ways around it. The entire diet could easily be altered to fit a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Thanks for reading and come back next week for week four of Harmful or Helpful.
Dr. Ben

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