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Twelve Reasons to Avoid the South Beach Diet

June 09, 2004 | 232,704 views

By Dr. Joseph Mercola

Overall I believe The South Beach Diet's success is a powerful influence in several important respects. With sales in the millions, The South Beach Diet has joined the groundbreaking Atkins Diet in prompting deeper inquiry into the value of low-carbohydrate dieting, and has been central to making lower-carb cuisine more widely available. Just as important, it has also helped to destroy the dangerous myth -- a myth that prevailed for thirty years -- that low-fat dieting is safe and effective.

That said -- and as a physician with over two decades of clinical experience who is highly respected for my dietary program, with a New York Times bestseller of my own, and most importantly, who maintains strict adherence to the Hippocratic oath to "first do no harm" -- I would never recommend The South Beach Diet to any of my patients. In fact, I'd like to warn everyone about the dangers of adopting Dr. Agatston's popular diet.

If you know anyone on or considering The South Beach Diet, please forward this article to themforward this article to them forward this article to them so that they can make an informed decision

First, I have great respect for Rodale Press, the book's publisher. They also publish Prevention Magazine, which I used to read regularly back in the 1970s (one of their articles in fact inspired me to select osteopathic medicine as opposed to a traditional M.D. school), and the www.prevention.com website, which is the number two natural health website on the Internet behind only my own, www.Mercola.com. Rodale is also an exceptionally astute and effective marketing company, which leads me to my first point:

"The South Beach Diet must be a worthwhile diet," a widely prevalent logic goes, "or else it wouldn't have sold millions of copies!"

By now Americans ought to know that just because something sells well it doesn't mean that it's worth buying, and yet the flawed logic above prevails. Bottom line is, the major reason for The South Beach Diet's success is that Rodale has spent in excess of one million dollars per month to promote this book. A marketing budget of that size could turn a bicycle repair manual into a major bestseller.

What's more, according to various reports that are easily accessible by searching Google, with all they've spent on marketing the book versus all the book's sales, it is my understanding that Rodale has actually taken a loss on the book. They're a clever company, though, and I believe that loss is only temporary, serving more so as an investment in their ever expanding publishing empire. But don't be swayed by the book's phenomenal sales -- there are many reasons for you to avoid jumping on the South Beach bandwagon. I list twelve important ones below that should be enough to help you think twice about this diet that is synonymous with "fad" (in all honesty, I could write an entire book pointing out how misguided Dr. Agatston's diet is, but I am hoping twelve suffice here for you to think twice about this diet):

Reason 1: Gets the "Good" Carbs Wrong -- At the Risk of Many People's Health

Dr. Agatston promotes the concept that I have long recommended and detail in my TOTAL HEALTH Program--there are good carbs that you should be consuming and bad carbs you should avoid. But then, on the simplest levels, he gets the "good" carbs wrong, including promoting both whole grain breads and fruits as good carbs. This advice can seriously impair the health of the millions of people in this country with sub clinical gluten sensitivity. It is also a prescription for disaster for the large number who have high carbohydrate sensitivity and struggle with controlling their insulin. It is best that ALL grains and sugars (fruits, as opposed to vegetables, have high sugar content) be avoided until insulin levels are normalized.

Reason 2: Severely Misguided Advice Can Lead to Dangerous Levels of Mercury and PCBs in You

Dr. Agatston recommends fish, displaying absolutely no understanding that nearly all fish from every type of water source are now contaminated with dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs from generations of water pollution from coal plants and other sources. Mercury and PCBs can lead to all kinds of very serious disease including neurological disorders.

The dangerous levels of toxins in fish is not hearsay but a warning that has been issued by many health practitioners and major health and government agencies--even the very conservative EPA advises pregnant women to avoid fish --and I have witnessed the epidemic with thousands of patients in my own clinic.

Either Agatston is not aware of this important issue or decided not to cover it; no mention is made that, to safely avoid the mercury and PCB issue in fish while still getting proper omega-3 intake, substituting clean sources of bottled or capsule fish oil is by far the wisest option.

Moreover, a USA Today report suggested that it would cost over $90 a week to follow the misguided fish intake recommended by The South Beach Diet anyway.

Reason 3: Advice on Milk May Worsen a Common Allergy

Dr. Agaston freely advocates commercial pasteurized milk. He is obviously unaware of the major problems many people have with pasteurized casein and its prevalence as one of the most common food allergies (further, as he is positioning himself as a dietary expert, he should be aware and note that many people aren't even yet aware they have this allergy).

Though consuming raw (unpasteurized) milk is still a controversial topic, for some people many of the problems they experience with pasteurized milk disappear when they consume clean milk in its raw state (raw milk is becomingly increasingly available again). However, even in a clean, raw state many still are unable to tolerate it. The point is, none of this essential information that impacts many people is covered in The South Beach Diet.

Reason 4: Buys Into the Old Myth of Saturated Fat -- at Your Expense

Dr. Agatston fortunately does not buy into the myth that eggs are bad (eggs can be quite healthy for you, especially organic eggs), but he is still under the delusion that saturated fat is bad for everyone. Like carbohydrates, though, some high quality saturated food is not merely okay but needs to be part of a truly healthy diet. What matters, as with carbs and all macronutrients, is that you are getting your saturated fat from a clean and healthy source such as organic virgin coconut oil. (Search "saturated fat" on Mercola.com for more on this issue.)

Reason 5: Recommends Aspartame ... Widely Recognized as a Health Hazard

Though NutraSweet/aspartame has been shown in many studies to be dangerous, linked to a wide range of diseases such as cancer and diabetes and various emotional disorders (read "Articles on Aspartame" on Mercola.com or input "aspartame" into the Mercola.com search engine), Dr. Agatston actually encourages its use in The South Beach Diet.

Reason 6: Dangerous Misguidance on a Serious Trans-Fat Issue

Perhaps Dr. Agatston's most significant oversight is his lack of understanding of trans fats. Early in the book he states that trans-fats are dangerous and need to be avoided, yet on page 54 he makes the outrageous claim that French fries and potato chips are healthier choices than baked potatoes because of the "fat in which they're cooked." This is extremely dangerous misinformation, as French fries and potato chips tend to be profoundly high in trans fats and are amongst the unhealthiest foods on the planet.

I perceive this statement as irrefutable evidence of his nutritional ignorance. I can't possibly imagine anyone with even a minimum amount of nutritional biochemical education making a recommendation like that. Although Dr. Agatston is a cardiologist as Dr. Atkins was, he was never part of the pioneering group of physicians who understood nutrition as it relates to health (which Atkins was). I have some disagreements with Dr. Atkins' program, but they are relatively minor compared to my objections with The South Beach Diet. Dr. Atkins would never have advocated eating French fries or potato chips. These foods are the toxic equivalent of a cigarette and should be avoided like the plague.

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Reason 7: Even More Misguidance on Fats

Further displaying his lack of knowledge on fats, Dr. Agatston promotes the use of synthetic margarines like "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" (versus the healthier choice, real butter). He is not aware that the process of creating this type of margarine completely distorts the physical structure of its fats, making it nearly as dangerous as margarines that have trans-fats. He is apparently making this recommendation due to his phobia of saturated fat without realizing that, as mentioned above, some saturated fat -- such as healthy saturated fats that are found in raw organic butter and coconut oil -- are necessary for optimal health. Moreover, he classifies all unsaturated fats as healthy, obviously unaware that the high omega-6 unsaturated fat that causes a distortion of the omega 3:6 ratio is one of the major contributing factors to most chronic degenerative diseases.

Reason 8: The Lack of Nutritional Insight Can Be Carcinogenic!

Dr. Agaston continues to display his lack of nutritional awareness by advocating peanut butter on page 49 as a good source of monounsaturated fat and the polyphenolic bioflavanoid, resveratrol. While I am a fan of both of these nutritional items, it is very important to pay attention to the quality of the peanut butter, and the type of peanuts in general. He does advise to avoid peanut butters with added sugar and to use only all-natural peanut butter (though he ought to expand a bit on why -- peanuts are probably the crop most heavily sprayed with pesticides in the world, for instance). But he fails to mention one of the most serious peanut issues of all and make recommendations accordingly: most peanuts are very susceptible to contamination by afflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold spore, and so you should seek to restrict peanut butter (and any type of peanut product) consumption to Valencia peanuts only. This species grows in dry climates, which seriously restricts the growth of afflatoxin. Fortunately, Arrowhead Mills Organic Peanut Butter (which you can find in many stores now) meets both qualifications.

Reason 9: An Effective Diet Can Eliminate Dependency on Statins, but This One Does Not

Dr. Agatston is still absolutely unaware of the power of an optimized diet to normalize cholesterol, as he still takes a statin drug to lower his own cholesterol and is apparently unaware of the many dangers associated with statin drugs. It is quite possible to avoid statin drugs and supplements to normalize cholesterol levels, and my patients have experienced this success by following my own TOTAL HEALTH Program. I encourage Dr. Agatston to give my program a try as well so he can get off the statin drugs and avoid their risks.

Reason 10: Many Will Not Even Temporarily Lose Weight

The South Beach Diet is a one-size-fits-all diet that completely ignores the fact that we have different genetic requirements for optimal health ... one-size-fits-all diets never work for all, or even close to all. Because of their biochemistry, some people actually need a high carb diet (with limited or no grains), while others require the low-carb, high-protein diet that Dr. Atkins advocates.

This is the principle of "nutritional typing," and explains why one person will lose weight on a low-carb diet (though, as covered throughout this article, they may not necessarily improve their health or lose it permanently, unless it is a healthy low-carb diet) while another person will not lose any on the identical diet. To understand this principle in more detail and learn your own nutritional type so you can optimize your efforts at truly effective weight loss and improve your health while you are at it, I urge you to read "Modify Your Diet So You Feel Terrific" on Mercola.com, or type in "nutritional typing" on the Mercola.com search engine. You can also find a basic test to determine your specific type in my TOTAL HEALTH Program.

The South Beach Diet also contains a serious lack of appropriate guidance on the Glycemic Index. Dr. Agatston relies on this index as a tool in weight loss, but I have found it anything besides useful, as it contains far, far too many exceptions to be of any value. A classic example is fructose, which has a very low glycemic index yet has been clearly established as a major reason why many people are overweight. If you follow Dr. Agaston's advice in this regard you will be going down the weight gain path for sure. This is also an issue with some of the low glycemic index foods like chocolate, cherries, and apple juice, which we know should be avoided if you want to lose weight, yet would seem to have nearly unlimited access to if you follow The South Beach Diet.

Reason 11: Too Lax on the Exercise for Most Readers

Exercise is a critical part of any permanent weight loss regime, but Dr. Agatston's advice on exercise is highly debatable. While I absolutely agree with his central thesis that we don't need to train like an Olympic hopeful and that 20 minutes a day is sufficient, this advice is only for people who are already in shape. Most people in this country, and likely even a higher proportion of those reading a weight loss book, have developed a serious exercise deficiency and will need far higher levels of exercise to make a significant influence on up-regulating the body's metabolic machinery to burn fats continuously, especially while one sleeps.

Reason 12: Most Will NOT Lose Weight Permanently with this Diet

The book is subtitled, The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss, but I suspect many people buying the book care much more about the weight loss aspect than the "healthy" aspect. As you can figure out from points above, the diet has very little to do with improving your health anyway, and can lead you in the opposite direction.

Even in terms of losing weight, though, the book might succeed for some in the short-term like many fad diets, but most will not permanently lose weight. Agatston even alludes to this in the chapter entitled "Why Do People Occasionally Fail on This Diet?" though he seems to demonstrate just more lack of insight on the real "why" in that chapter.

By far the main reason most people will fail at losing weight permanently on this diet (and many other popular diets) is because no real solutions have been presented for the emotional challenges that come with dieting ... and those challenges are, far more than knowing what is right and wrong, the biggest challenges of all.

There are solutions to the emotional challenges such as cravings, food addictions, self-image issues and the other self-sabotaging behavior (I encourage you to search Mercola.com for more on this topic), so it is extremely distressing that in Dr. Agatston's program -- and in this day and age in any dietary program -- these weren't covered effectively.

In short, even if The South Beach Diet's nutritional recommendations were solid -- and they are by no means solid -- without covering the emotional component, adherents to the diet are left with a void where some of the most important advice to them should be. Therefore, most who "swear by" the diet because it helped them shed a few pounds in the short-term will ultimately end up where they started before The South Beach Diet ... that is, desperate for real help and a prime target for yet another heavily marketed fad diet book promising the world but delivering

Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder of Mercola.com, the world's most visited natural/alternative health website with over 36,000 pages of health information and the free Mercola.com health & wellness e-newsletter. He is also the director of The Optimal Wellness Center in Chicago, one of the nation's leading natural health clinics, and a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, TOTAL HEALTH Program, presents his entire renowned dietary health program. An Illinois licensed medical physician, he is trained in both conventional and natural healthcare, and has been in practice over two decades. Prior to The Optimal Wellness Center, he was Chairman of the Department of Family Practice at St. Alexius Hospital in Illinois for five years. He has been interviewed and profiled extensively for his health and dietary expertise, including ABC's World News Tonight, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox TV shows across the nation.

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