A Thumbs Down Book Review
The South Beach Diet
By Arthur Agatston, MD
Review by Stephen Byrnes, PhD
With the popularity of low-carb diets reaching a high point recently, it was only a matter of time before someone adjusted it into “nutritional correctness.” Enter The South Beach Diet by cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, of Miami, Florida, which has sold millions of copies and has remained on the best-seller list for many months.
The South Beach Diet is most certainly a low-carb eating regime with the usual carbohydrate foods such as bread (even whole grain), fruit, fruit juices, and rice, potatoes, and pasta excluded (or kept to a bare minimum). Of course, white sugar is out, as well as the whole gamut of processed carbohydrate snack foods.
So far, so good. But then the book gets the dieter into trouble because the author urges high protein consumption in the form of skim milk, lean meat and other nonfat foods, and prohibits the use of animal fats, a dangerous combination that rapidly depletes vitamin A stores leading to auto-immune diseases and underactive thyroid (which can cause weight gain) and even cancer and heart disease.
Furthermore, by eliminating both saturated fats and carbohydrate foods, the body has no ready source of the saturated fats it needs to build healthy cell membranes. Many studies have indicated that a regimen like the South Beach diet, high in unsaturated oils (even the so-called monounsaturated oils) and low in saturated result in disease, including heart disease. This is what happens when weak science is allied to political correctness.
The book makes some bizarre and nonsensical claims about saturated fats. Agatston claims that diets high in saturated fats cause chemical changes in the bloodstream leading to accelerated atherosclerosis and clogged arteries. They also raise the so-called “bad” cholesterol, LDL, which in the author’s opinion, elevates one’s chances of a heart attack and heart disease. Dr. Agatston is your basic run-of-the-mill cardiologist who adheres to the usual dietary claptrap taught about diet and heart disease. It does not seem to occur to him to check his theories with actual human history. If he had done this, as Dr. Price had done several decades ago, he would have discovered the embarrassing truth that people who traditionally eat diets high in saturated fats do not suffer from heart attacks or heart disease. It should also be noted here that the book contains no footnotes–not even a bibliography–to support any of Dr. Agatston’s nutritional claims.
Dr. Agatston gives the thumbs-up to politically correct fats like canola oil and olive oil, but avoids butter like the plague he thinks it causes. Instead, processed spreads are advocated and show up in a number of recipes. Nuts are OK, as well, due to their preponderance of monounsaturates. Fish oils are also ranked high on this diet.
Of the book’s 310 pages, only about 100 are devoted to explaining the diet to readers. Sprinkled within those first 100 pages are numerous testimonials. So the actual amount of writing from Dr. Agatston drops considerably. From page 108 on, however, the book’s content is meal plans and recipes in line with the diet’s principles.
While lots of the recipes look inviting and tasty, they all suffer from the same problem: They are full of low- or non-fat ingredients, non-fat sour cream and non-fat half-and-half being favorite ingredients. Any recipe for chicken requires it to be skinless, again to get rid of those nasty saturated fats that Dr. Agatston thinks are so lethal–except that chicken skin contains mostly unsaturated fats!.
In the recipes, contradictions abound. Although the author rightly gives the thumbs-down to margarine and shortening because of the trans fatty acids they contain, margarine shows up in several of the book’s recipes later on. Eggs are also viewed favorably, but egg substitutes show up in the recipes as well. Artificial sweeteners appear in the dessert recipes.
He also totally avoids any dairy product with the fat still in it. The recipes are full of no-fat cheeses, skim milk, fat-free sour cream, etc. One wonders how any of the recipes on this diet could leave one feeling satiated or happy with the taste of the meals because fat is what makes food taste good and is also what makes one feel full after a meal.
While cutting out white flour, sugar, and processed foods from your diet is a great idea, the South Beach Diet is actually one of the most dangerous diets out there. Many people claim to have lost weight on this diet, but it is bound to lead to health problems if followed for any length of time.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2003.