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New diet squeezes in on weight-loss scene

South Beach plan offers ample portions, skips calorie counting


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(CNN) -- A new eating-by-numbers method has arrived on the diet scene, and it's not Weight Watchers.

Called the South Beach Diet, the plan is poised to overtake the Atkins method as the newest weight-loss rage.

The diet bears the name of the famous, high-life beach in Miami, Florida, conjuring up images of glamorous people in sexy bathing suits. The book, "The South Beach Diet" by Dr. Arthur Agatston, has been a best seller for months and has moved ahead of "Atkins for Life" to top The New York Times list for hardback advice books.

While people count calories on the Weight Watchers regime, the South Beach Diet picks out foods with low glycemic-index numbers and allows dieters to eat generous portions. The glycemic index rates foods that contain carbohydrates on how quickly they are digested and how they affect the level of sugar in the blood.

According to the diet's inventor, a food's calories alone aren't responsible for weight gain.

"It's really the reactive hypoglycemia that causes people to be hungry," said Agatston, a Miami cardiologist.

Eating foods rich in carbohydrates leads to hunger, and the result is bingeing on carbs, according to Agatston.

Refined carbs are rated so high on the glycemic index scale that white bread has a higher, i.e. worse, score than chocolate. Fat-free milk rates worse than whole milk with all the fat left in.

'Automatic red flag for ... a fad diet'

These seeming contradictions raise the eyebrows of critics such as Rachel Brandeis, a registered dietitian from the American Dietetic Association.

"If a diet tells you some foods are good or some foods are bad, that is always an automatic red flag for an extreme diet or a fad diet," Brandeis said. "The cause of obesity is multifactorial."

The glycemic index is nothing new nor are the diets based on it. Canadian researchers developed it about 20 years ago, and it has inspired other diets such as The Zone, Sugar Busters and even the Atkins Diet to a degree.

The evidence on long-term weight loss on glycemic-index diets remains insufficient, according to the American Dietetic Association. Agatston cites one short-term empirical study in his book to back up his argument. In the study, people who ate "bad" carbs early in the morning went on to consume more calories during the day than those who did not.

Since they are both based on the glycemic index, the South Beach and Atkins diets have some things in common. But there are also differences.

"We are not against carbohydrates at all," said dietitian Marie Almon, who worked with Agatston on the diet. "Our emphasis is on the right carbohydrates -- brown rice, whole grains."

High-fiber foods, fresh veggies

The South Beach Diet recommends high-fiber foods, fresh vegetables and lean meat, but it also allows for an occasional indulgence. Easy-to-follow instructions keep dieters from having to count the numbers the way they do on calorie-counting regimes.

In addition to the adherence to the glycemic index, Agatston also steers clear of animal fat. He suggests sources of unsaturated fats such as nuts and olives instead of bacon and fatty meats.

Nevertheless, the American Dietetic Association's Brandeis said she sees a diet like many others.

"If you look at the nuts and bolts of these diets and really get into the calorie level, they're all about the same," Brandeis said. "They're all pretty much really between 1,300 and 1,500 calories a day."

Dietitian Almon confirms similar calorie levels in the South Beach Diet.

That level is hard for most people to maintain, said Brandeis, and that's why 95 percent of dieters break their diets and regain their weight.

But Agatston maintains that his diet is easier to keep because portions are ample and nutritious. "It's the way man was meant to eat -- to chew and take in food over the course of hours."

Though he gave no statistics on how many people stick with his diet, Agatston said the number must be high because "the satisfaction rate of our patients was so high."

Brandeis said a good diet "is something that you can stick to for a long term."

"If this works for you, then good," she said.

But she added, "You can't expect to lose weight and keep the weight off without moving your body."

Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.


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