The South Beach Diet has been popular for over a decade.
It’s a lower-carb diet that has been credited with producing rapid weight loss without hunger, all while promoting heart health.
On the other hand, it’s also been criticized for being a restrictive “fad” diet.
This article provides a detailed review of the South Beach Diet, including its benefits, downsides, safety and sustainability.
What Is the South Beach Diet?
The South Beach Diet was created in the mid-1990s by Dr. Arthur Agatston, a Florida-based cardiologist. His work in heart disease research led to the development of the Agatston score, which measures the amount of calcium in the coronary arteries.
According to published interviews, Dr. Agatston observed that patients on the Atkins Diet were losing weight and belly fat, while those on low-fat, high-carb diets were struggling to achieve results.
However, he was uncomfortable with the high amount of saturated fat allowed on the Atkins Diet, especially for people with heart disease. In addition, he didn’t believe in restricting high-fiber foods with “good carbs,” like fruit and whole grains.
Dr. Agatston wanted to create a diet that allowed overweight, diabetic and prediabetic individuals to easily lose weight and reduce their risk of heart disease.
Therefore, he developed the South Beach Diet, which is rich in low-glycemic-index carbs, lean proteins and unsaturated fats.
After losing weight and belly fat when he tried the diet out on himself, he began prescribing it to his patients, who reported similar results.
Dr. Agatston’s book The South Beach Diet was published in 2003 and became a bestseller around the world. An updated version called The South Beach Diet Supercharged was published in 2009 and also became a worldwide bestseller.
Summary: The South Beach Diet is a lower-carb diet that emphasizes lean meats, unsaturated fats and low-glycemic-index carbs. It was created by cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston.
How Does the South Beach Diet Work?
The South Beach Diet has three different phases: two for weight loss and a third for weight maintenance.
Phase 1 lasts 14 days.
It’s considered the strictest phase because it limits fruit, grains and other higher-carb foods in order to decrease blood sugar and insulin levels, stabilize hunger and reduce cravings.
Most people can expect to lose 8–13 pounds (3.5–6 kg) of body weight during this phase.
During phase 1, you consume three meals per day composed of lean protein, non-starchy vegetables and small amounts of healthy fat and legumes.
In addition, you consume two mandatory snacks per day, preferably a combination of lean protein and vegetables.
This phase begins on day 15 and should be maintained for as many weeks as necessary to achieve your goal weight.
You can expect to lose 1–2 pounds (0.5–1 kg) per week during this phase, on average.
During phase 2, all foods from phase 1 are allowed, plus limited portions of fruit and “good carbs,” such as whole grains and certain types of alcohol.
Once you achieve your target weight, you advance to phase three.
In this stage, although the phase-2 guidelines should be the basis for your lifestyle, occasional treats are allowed and no foods are truly off limits.
However, if you overindulge and start putting on weight, Dr. Agatston recommends returning to phase 1 for one to two weeks before returning to phase three.
In The South Beach Diet Supercharged, Dr. Agatston also recommends regular exercise and provides a three-phase fitness program to accompany the diet phases.
Summary: The South Beach Diet consists of three phases: a low-carb phase for rapid weight loss, a less restrictive phase for more gradual weight loss and a third phase for weight maintenance.
Phase 1: Foods to Include
Please note that the guidelines for all phases are from the book, The South Beach Diet Supercharged. The guidelines on the South Beach Diet website may be different.
Although portions aren’t limited, the diet recommends slowly consuming a small portion and returning for seconds if you are still hungry.
- Lean beef, pork, lamb, veal and game
- Skinless chicken and turkey breast
- Fish and shellfish
- Turkey bacon and pepperoni
- Eggs and egg whites
- Soy-based meat substitutes
- Low-fat hard cheese, ricotta cheese and cottage cheese
- Buttermilk, low-fat milk, plain or Greek yogurt, kefir and soy milk, limited to 2 cups (473 ml) daily
Consume a minimum of 4 1/2 cups daily.
All vegetables are allowed except beets, carrots, corn, turnips, yams, peas, white potatoes and most types of winter squash.
Limit these to 1/3–1/2 cup per day, cooked, unless otherwise noted.
- Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans and other bean varieties
- Split peas and black-eyed peas
- Edamame and soybeans
- Hummus, limited to 1/4 cup
Nuts and Seeds
Limit these to 1 oz (28 grams) per day.
- Almonds, cashews, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and other nuts
- Nut butters, limited to 2 tbsp
- Flaxseeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and other seeds
Oils and Fats
Limited to 2 tbsp of oil per day. Monounsaturated oils are encouraged.
- Monounsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, macadamia and avocado oils
- Vegetable and seed oils, such as corn, flaxseed, grapeseed, peanut, safflower, sesame and soybean oil
Alternative Fat Choices
Each serving is equivalent to 2 tbsp of healthy oils.
- Avocado, limited to 2/3 of one fruit
- Trans-fat-free margarine, limited to 2 tbsp
- Low-fat mayonnaise, limited to 2 tbsp
- Regular mayonnaise, limited to 1 tbsp
- Salad dressing with less than 3 grams sugar, limited to 2 tbsp
- Olives, limited to 20–30, depending on size
Limit consumption to 100 calories or fewer per day.
- Sugar-free or unsweetened cocoa or chocolate syrup
- Sugar-free gelatin, jams and jellies
- Sugar-free candies, popsicles or gum
- Sugar substitutes, including Stevia, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol
You may eat unlimited quantities of these foods, unless otherwise noted.
- Herbs, spices, horseradish, mustard, lemon juice or salsa
- All vinegars, with balsamic limited to 1 tbsp
- Light coconut milk, limited 1/4 cup (59 ml)
- Soy sauce, steak sauce or miso, limited to 1 1/2 tsp (7 ml)
- Cream, whole milk or half and half, limited to 1 tbsp
- Light sour cream or cream cheese, limited to 2 tbsp
- Light whipped topping, limited to 2 tbsp
You may drink unlimited quantities of these beverages, although drinking your caffeine in moderation is advised.
- Coffee, regular or decaffeinated
- Tea, regular, decaffeinated or herbal
- Sugar-free sodas
- Sugar-free drink mixes
- Tomato juice or vegetable juice
Phase 1: Foods to Avoid
Certain fatty foods and those high in carbs, including fruits and grains, are not allowed in phase 1. These include:
- Fatty meat and poultry
- Butter and coconut oil
- Whole milk
- Foods made with refined sugar
- Honey, maple syrup and agave nectar
- All fruits and fruit juice
- Beets, carrots, corn, turnips, yams, peas, white potatoes and winter squash
Phases 2 and 3: Foods to Include
Phase 2 includes all phase 1 foods and gradually adds in higher-carb foods, beginning with one daily serving of fruit and whole grains or starchy vegetables for the first week.
On the 14th day of phase 2 and thereafter, you may consume up to three servings of fruit and four servings of whole grains and starchy vegetables per day.
An occasional alcoholic drink is also allowed, although choices are limited to light beer and dry wine.
Once you’ve achieved your goal weight, you move to phase three for maintenance. During this phase, you should generally follow the guidelines from phase 2.
However, you can include “treat” foods occasionally, since no foods are completely off limits.
Consume 1–3 servings per day. All fresh and frozen fruits are allowed except dates, figs, pineapple, raisins and watermelon.
A serving size is one small piece of fruit, half a grapefruit or 3/4 cup (about 115 grams) berries, cherries or grapes.
Whole Grains and Starchy Vegetables
Consume 1–4 servings per day.
Except where noted, one serving size is 1/2 cup cooked starchy vegetables, 1 slice bread or 1/2 cup cooked grains.
- Sweet potatoes and yams
- Winter squash, limited to 3/4 cup
- Whole-grain hot cereal
- Whole-grain cold cereal, limited to 1 cup
- Whole-grain bread
- Brown or wild rice
- Whole-grain pasta, quinoa, couscous or farro
- Taro, limited to 1/3 cup
- Popcorn, limited to 3 cups
- Whole-grain bagel, limited to 1/2 small
- Pita bread, limited to 1/2 pita
- Corn or whole-grain tortilla, limited to 1 small
One daily serving of dry wine or an occasional light beer is allowed.
- Light beer, limited to 12 oz (355 ml)
- Wine, dry red or white, limited to 4 oz (118 ml)
Phases 2 and 3: Foods to Avoid
Phase 2 of the South Beach Diet discourages intake of fatty meats, saturated fat and foods high in refined or natural sugar. Try to avoid:
- Fatty meat and poultry
- Butter and coconut oil
- Whole milk
- Foods made with refined flour or sugar
- Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar
- Fruit juice
- Beets, corn and white potatoes
- Dates, figs, pineapple, raisins and watermelon
- Alcohol other than light beer and dry wine
Sample Days on the Diet
Here are sample meal plans for phase 1 and phase 2 of the South Beach Diet, to give you a snapshot of what a typical day might look like.
Phase 1 Sample Day
- Breakfast: 3 eggs and 1 cup kale cooked with 1 tsp olive oil
- Snack: 1 oz (28 grams) string cheese with bell pepper slices
- Lunch: Roasted salmon and asparagus salad with mustard vinaigrette
- Snack: Celery sticks with 2 tsp peanut butter
- Dinner: Lean steak with broccoli
Phase 2 Sample Day
- Breakfast: Quick and easy peanut butter oatmeal
- Snack: 1 cup cucumber slices with 1/4 cup hummus
- Lunch: Apple-walnut chicken salad
- Snack: Cottage cheese with cherry tomatoes
- Dinner: Pork fajitas with 1/3 cup guacamole
There are hundreds of recipes available for all three phases of the South Beach Diet, including many with ingredients that are cheap, tasty and easy to find.
Summary: You can find many recipes for the South Beach Diet, with the sample days above indicating how the days might look.
Benefits of the South Beach Diet
There are several benefits of the South Beach diet, including its ability to produce weight loss without hunger.
Part of this is due to protein’s ability to increase your metabolic rate. In addition, protein helps modify hormone levels that reduce hunger and promote fullness, so you end up naturally eating less (5, 6, 7).
What’s more, gradually adding small amounts of healthy carbs back into your diet may promote continued weight loss in some people and make it easier for them to stick to the diet long-term.
In one study, overweight and obese people with metabolic syndrome followed the South Beach Diet for 12 weeks (8).
By the end of the study, they had lost 11 pounds (5.2 kg) and 2 inches (5.1 cm) from around their waists, on average. They also experienced significant decreases in fasting insulin and an increase in the fullness hormone CCK.
The South Beach Diet encourages a high intake of fatty fish like salmon and other foods that fight inflammation, such as leafy greens and cruciferous veggies.
The book makes meal planning easy and pleasurable by providing two weeks of sample menus and recipes for each phase. There are also hundreds of recipes available online for phase 1 and phase 2 meals.
Summary: The South Beach Diet may help you lose weight and belly fat, reduce insulin levels, increase hormone levels that promote fullness and help protect heart health.
Downsides of the South Beach Diet
Unfortunately, the South Beach Diet also has a couple of drawbacks.
The main issue is that it may be overly restrictive with respect to the amounts and types of fats allowed.
In addition, it allows potentially harmful types of fat, such as soybean oil and safflower oil, which are extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Although it’s important to get some omega-6 fats in your diet, if you’re like most people, you probably already get far more than you need.
In contrast, if you eat a Western Diet, it’s likely you get too little of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel.
In contrast, butter and coconut oil aren’t included on the South Beach Diet because they are high in saturated fat.
Overall, choosing less processed fat and eating plenty of fish high in omega-3 fats may be more important for heart health than restricting saturated fat.
Summary: The South Beach Diet may be overly restrictive by prohibiting many saturated fat sources and limiting fat intake overall. In addition, it allows the use of processed vegetable oils.
Is the South Beach Diet Safe and Sustainable?
The South Beach Diet is a healthy way of eating that is far lower in carbs than conventional low-fat diets. It also encourages dieters to eat mainly unprocessed foods, liberal amounts of vegetables and healthy, high-fiber carb sources.
However, the diet allows processed vegetable oils, which could pose health risks. Nevertheless, you can avoid this drawback by choosing unprocessed monounsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil or macadamia oil instead.
All this being said, the South Beach Diet is likely a sustainable way of eating.
Many people have reported losing weight and keeping it off by following the diet.
Yet in the end, the most effective diet for weight loss is whichever one you can easily stick with long-term.