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South Beach Diet Offers Dangerous Advice PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.   
Tuesday, 21 September 2004 12:35

South Beach DietAs a physician who specializes in nutritional medicine, over the last twenty years I have spent thousands of hours reading more than 30,000 medical studies on the relationship between diet, health and disease. With everything I’ve learned and after many years in practice, I wrote a book called Eat to Live, offering people the healthiest way to lose weight and protect their precious health.

Now, I am writing to convey my dismay that a cardiologist would write a book in the hopes of winning popularity and sales, in spite of the clear and evident dangers it poses to heart patients. Unfortunately, Arthur Agatston, M.D., the author of The South Beach Diet offers advice that is potentially deadly and he makes one statement after another demonstrating a devastating ignorance of the science of human nutrition.

Medical doctors should know better. We take an oath to “first do no harm.”

We have an obligation to give accurate information that will allow individuals to make choices to protect their precious health. That obligation assumes integrity and a desire to supply information that will help, and definitely, not hurt anyone. Giving people advice about their diets should teach and motivate people to achieve nutritional excellence to safeguard their future from needless medical tragedies. Guidance about food and nutrition should not be taken lightly, especially when people can and do die from incorrect advice.

The Meat-Based Diet Fad Begins with Atkins

Medical research demonstrates atherosclerotic plaque builds up rapidly on high-protein diets. Individuals following an Atkins diet for only one year suffered a 40 percent decreased blood flow to the heart. (Angiology 2000;51(10):817-26.) Alarming are the reports of sudden death in healthy young women, like the 16 year old girl who died after following the Atkins diet for two weeks. (South Med J 2002;95(9):1047-9.) In her case, severe blood electrolyte imbalances were noted, which can result when people restrict carbohydrates sufficiently to cause ketosis. Life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias are the most serious short-term dangers of these meat-based diets.

Aside from the heart attacks that are commonly observed on meat-heavy diets, a strikingly high number of patients have been reporting problems with irregular heart beats, and reports of deaths related to this issue are now being investigated further. At, those who have developed heart and other health problems from meat-heavy, high-protein diets can register their adverse outcomes. As a result of increasing reports on this site of life-threatening arrthymias, doctors have urged the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to take immediate action.

In the May 2004 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, 59 patients were followed and assigned to a low-carbohydrate (meat-based) diet and significant adverse effects were noted including constipation in 68 percent, headache in 60 percent, muscle cramps in 35 percent, and weakness in 25 percent. Apparently, the heart is not the only organ suffering.

While these high-protein diets have increased in popularity, medical statistics have seen a parallel jump in sudden cardiac deaths in younger women. Sudden death was never a younger woman’s illness. But lately thousands of women between the ages of 35 and 44 are dying of cardiac arrest each year. There’s a difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack. A heart attack is usually caused by a blockage in an artery from a clot. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions. It’s like a power outage in the heart.

Today, more than half of the deaths in this country are from heart disease and strokes. It is no surprise that the diet Americans eat is unhealthy. Nutritional scientists have known for years that the high amounts of animal products and processed foods and the low amount of unrefined plant foods (meaning fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds) assures almost all Americans develop atherosclerosis. The battle cry to save lives from heart disease is “eat more vegetables, beans, fruits and nuts!” It is not, “eat more meat.” There is no controversy here, but those attempting to make a buck selling popular but dangerous information about dieting and nutrition have hoodwinked the uninformed.

The South Beach is All Wet

Agatston (author of The South Beach Diet) claims in his book that eating a baked potato is less fattening when it is topped with cheese or sour cream, compared to eating it plain.

He tells us to eat ice cream and chocolate, but not potatoes; to eat bacon and cheese, but not watermelon, and then to take cholesterol-lowering drugs as he does. The front cover of The South Beach Diet begins the litany of false and misleading statements. He starts with “lose belly fat first.” Every nutritional scientist worldwide knows that where one loses and gains weight on their bodies is genetically determined and not dependent on the method of weight loss, but telling people what they want to hear without regard for accuracy or reality is the objective.

Agatston gives not one scientific reference to back up his many erroneous claims.

First came Atkins, advocating his popular “meat-based” diet, embraced by the nation in spite of over 15,000 scientific studies and overwhelming evidence that diets high in saturated fat and animal products significantly increase occurrence of both heart disease and cancer.

Agatston’s three-phase design is just as dangerous. People forget that losing weight temporarily offers no benefit and is actually more dangerous than not losing weight at all. When you lose weight quickly on Agatston’s (an Atkins clone) induction phase and then move on to phase 2 and 3 and gain back the lost weight, Agatston instructs his followers to jump back on the first phase again as needed to control their weight. When you lose and gain, lose and gain, changing the way you eat, it promotes the deposition of atherosclerosis (heart attack causing plaque), bringing you closer to a premature death each time. It is worse than not losing weight at all. Permanent weight loss only occurs as a result of changes one makes permanently. It is true that a ketogenic diet (one that severely restricts carbohydrates) will cause some dehydration and initial weight loss, but as soon as carbohydrate-rich foods are reintroduced in the diet, steak, cheese, bacon and other animal products become fattening again.

Many people are aware that ketogenic diets are dangerous if maintained long-term; but many are not aware that

if it is done on and off as recommended in the South Beach plan, you yo-yo your weight at the expense of your heart. Too bad so many people fall for this dangerous fad.

A diet program is valuable only if it results in you making healthful changes that you stick with forever. Americans al-ready eat 40 percent of calories from animal products, whereas populations with no heart attacks consume much less. As animal product consumption approaches 10 percent or less of total calories and when high fiber vegetables, beans, and raw nuts increase, we see heart attacks almost disappear. For any diet to claim it is “heart healthy,” it must reduce both refined carbohydrate and animal products.

While Agatston mentions the value of eating less saturated fat, most of his menus contain over 20 grams of saturated fat daily and are also high in sodium. These are menus very high in saturated fat, completely contrary to the new recommendations of the American Heart Association. The conclusion of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association is something we all should agree on.

There is overwhelming evidence that reduction in saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and weight offer the most effective dietary strategies for reducing total cholesterol, LDL-C levels, and cardiovascular risk. (Circulation 1998;98(9):935-939.)

Agatston and his South Beach Diet do a disservice to America. He uses his credentials as a cardiologist to market the false promise that a diet based on increasing the consumption of animal products is heart-healthy. Heart patients follow Agatston’s approach thinking it must be healthy if recommended by a cardiologist for his patients. He seems to care not if people live or die as long as he sells books.

Those who want true, long-term weight reduction and cardiac protection must adopt a diet predominating in fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Nature’s high antioxidant and phytochemical-rich foods show a remarkable ability to protect us against a wide range of chronic disease as well as lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. To get cholesterol levels into the favorable range without drugs, it is necessary for a diet to be plant-based and limit animal product intake dramatically.

No diet promoting animal product consumption three times a day can claim to be healthy. That is precisely the formula that begets 50 percent of our population dying of heart attacks and strokes and another 30 percent getting cancer. The world’s health experts are in agreement. In a March 2003 report from the World Health Organization, compiling the evidence and opinion of the world’s foremost nutritional experts, researchers concluded that the consumption of foods like meat and cheese, the staples of the South Beach Diet, promote heart disease and cancer, and that fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts protect against premature death.

©Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. Health Science is the publication of the National Health Association. This article reprinted from the Fall 2004 issue.


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