The South Beach diet is no fad, its creator says, rejecting the notion that his eating plan would fizzle out with the rest of the low-carb craze.
“We are not low carb. We are good carb,” Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist who developed the diet to help patients in his Miami practice, said in a recent interview. “There is a lot of misunderstanding.”
Because carbohydrates like fruits and brown rice are allowed on the diet, Agatston even resists calling it low-carb, particularly when it means comparisons to the Atkins diet and its high-fat, bacon-and-eggs reputation.
Agatston’s book, “The South Beach Diet,” has sold about 8.4 million copies in the United States since it was published in 2003, according to Nielsen BookScan. It has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for the last 85 weeks.
Agatston plans to publish a heart disease prevention book next year and also hopes to pen a book of fast recipes - and another on dining out - sometime in the next year.
The South Beach diet advocates eating lean meats and leafy vegetables while eschewing refined carbohydrates like pasta and bread. He says physicians and nutritionists have backed it.
“Those principles are really the consensus of expert opinion now,” Agatston said. “As far as we are concerned, the diet debates are over.”
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, said there is indeed a growing consensus around the idea of “good” carbohydrates like whole grains, as opposed to refined carbohydrates like cookies. But she did not endorse the South Beach diet in its entirety.
“It’s pretty mainstream, but not totally,” Nestle said. “To tell people that they can’t eat pasta or potatoes is just silly.”
Agatston shrugged off recent evidence showing consumer interest in low-carb diets has declined, saying he was disturbed by comparisons of South Beach to Atkins.
South Beach differs from Atkins, which was created by Dr. Robert Atkins, in that it discourages consumption of foods that are high in saturated fat and advocates eating more fruits and whole grains like brown rice, Agatston said.
The Atkins diet soared to prominence by arguing that people can lose weight by eating high-fat foods like steak and cheese while avoiding starches like potatoes and rice. But Atkins has recently downplayed its “cheeseburger” image.
Even though the South Beach diet, like Atkins, puts limits on refined carbohydrates, Agatston rejects the “low-carb diet” label. He says Americans have been misled to think that consuming packaged foods claiming to be low in carbohydrates will help them lose weight.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there, like you can live on bars and shakes as long as they are low-carb,” Agatston said. “That’s not going to solve the problem.”
The percentage of Americans following some form of low-carb diet dropped to 4.6 percent in September from a peak of 9 percent in January, according to research firm The NPD Group.
With fewer consumers following low-carb diets, sales growth of low-carb packaged foods has slowed. But the South Beach name has popped up on some Kraft Foods Inc. products, including Polly-O part skim mozzarella cheese and Boca meatless burgers.
“I certainly have a goal of making it easier and more convenient for people to stay on the diet,” said Agatston.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.