Saturday, January 23, 2010

Redux #14 - "The South Beach Diet Super Charged" by Arthur Agatston, MD

After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma; In Defense of Food; Enter the Zone; Skinny Bitch (the sneaky, science-lacking, vegan manifesto); and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it is pretty obvious that I like to read about nutrition, dieting, and eating. And it's not too surprising: I care where my food comes from and what it does to my body. I want to be healthy. What is always frustrating, however, is that there is no real consensus on what is healthy. There are so many different factors, unknowns, and differences between individuals that any kind of nutrition advice should be taken as "possible guidelines you might want to think about, if they make logical sense, and if you try it and it makes you feel good." Another problem is that if I stuck to a compiled "what-not-to-eat" list from nutrition guides I would starve to death. Meat is bad for you, soy protein is bad for you, beans have too many carbs, milk has been pasteurized, fish has mercury. Nothing is safe anymore.

I prefer books on nutrition that aren't trying to sell some fad diet, so I didn't think much about The South Beach Diet until recently. A couple of weeks ago my father had a heart attack. He's very active, doesn't smoke, isn't overweight, and doesn't eat badly, but his right coronary artery became completely blocked off while he was playing hockey. Fortunately he went to the hospital and they sucked out the clot, put some stents in and, except for a quick but very scary bad reaction to some of his new meds, he's feeling fine. My father doesn't have any history of heart disease in his family, so the only variable left, that I could see that led to this heart attack, was his diet. The nurse at the hospital mentioned that they often recommend some version of The South Beach Diet to their heart patients, so I immediately picked up The South Beach Diet Super Charged (2008) by Arthur Agatston, MD (with Joseph Signorile, PhD) to see what they had to say.

On the whole, I was impressed by the information and guidelines in this book. Dr. Agatston is a cardiologist who focuses on changing your lifestyle so that you'll eat healthy, nutritious foods for the rest of your life--and not just to lose weight. Although many of his recommendations stem from the same nutrition ideas as the Zone--the harmful effects sugars, simple carbohydrates, and saturated fats have on the body--Agatston's diet is more lenient, flexible, and user-friendly. Agatston cares only about the quality of the foods we eat while Barry Sears from Enter the Zone, although he also prefers healthy, whole foods, cares more about the ratio of fats, proteins, and carbs. The South Beach Diet comes in three phases. The first phase lasts two weeks long and is designed to stabilize our blood sugar and reduce cravings by restricting all rice, wheat, potatoes, fruits, etc. After those first two weeks, you can slowly reintroduce some whole wheats, brown rice, and fruit into your diet. By the time you hit phase 3 of the diet, you've hit your weight loss goal, and you've learned enough about nutrition and your body that you can make the right food decisions for yourself.

There is a short exercise section in this book as well. It's good that Agatston appreciates how important exercise is for basic health, and his program is simple to follow, not intimidating for beginners, and can be done easily at home. Between stints of "walking intervals," Agatston incorporates some strength and Pilates-based exercises that looked pretty good. I do much more exercise on my own, so I wasn't particularly interested in this section. My only thought on the subject was that people would be much better off going to a Pilates class than trying to do those somewhat complicated and boring exercises on their own.

I only had a couple of questions and concerns when it comes to The South Beach Diet. First, I appreciate that Americans eat too much sugar, but I really don't like artificial sweeteners or diet soda. I guess it's healthier than guzzling down the pounds and pounds of sugar you might eat otherwise, and I'm assuming that Agatston was trying to make the diet easier for more people to stick with, but at least in Skinny Bitch the authors had the balls to just tell people to stop with the diet soda. Another question/concern I had was about all the meat, and especially the eggs, in all the recipes. For many of the meal plans, Agatston has people eating at least two whole eggs a day. That's over 500 mg of cholesterol and significantly over the daily recommended allowance I've read that two whole eggs a week should be maximum. Of course, I've also read on weightlifting forums that eggs are the perfect food and, if you exercise a ton, you should eat between 20 and 40 eggs a week. I'm playing it safe for now and eating only egg whites, but it certainly isn't clear how good or bad for you eggs really are.

What I want most of all is to get all these authors pinned down in a room where I can ask them questions and they can debate and defend their positions. So many of them contradict each other and they don't give me enough information to figure out for myself what is best. My father's cardiologist said that, because of his heart attack, he should be "as close to vegan as possible" (I haven't been able to read anything specifically on going vegan for heart health yet, but that's my next stop). Then there's Agatston throwing in a lot of meat and eggs in his "heart healthy" diet and claiming that the ratios you eat don't matter, while Barry Sears says the ratios of fat, protein, and carbs is more important than anything else. They do all seem to agree that white bread, white rice, refined grains, and sugar are bad for you, and that a varied diet of whole foods and tons of vegetables is good and healthy. So there is that.

In the end, I liked The South Beach Diet Super Charged. Agatston discussed how sugar and simple carbohydrates affect your blood sugar and your body in a way that was easily understandable and informative, and his focus on exercise and a long-term, healthy lifestyle over simply "losing weight" was encouraging. I think most people could learn something about how to eat better or significantly improve their health by following his advice.

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