Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fitness and Health Week 2

"Oh, you're on The South Beach Diet. All those low-carb/high-protein fad diets are the same: ridiculous and unhealthy."

I get so annoyed with this comment, which is usually delivered with a dismissive nose wrinkle.

"The South Beach Diet is not low-carb. Nor is it low-fat. The South Beach Diet teaches you to rely on the right carbs and fats - the good ones." (P. 3, The South Beach Diet.)

Arthur Agatston is a cardiologist. After becoming disillusioned with the 1990's American Heart Association-recommended low-fat diet (the results were not as good as expected, patients relapsed into bad habits, significant health benefits were few) Agatston developed his own diet to combat his patients' cardiac and vascular problems. Weight loss was a side effect, but a good one, he says, since it gets younger people interested in eating healthfully and keeps people of all ages motivated. Oddly enough, not dying of a heart attack is less motivational to many Americans than not fitting into skinny jeans.

Many people talk about The South Beach Diet and The Atkins diet as though they're interchangeable. I tried Atkins briefly a long time ago and did not find that to be the case. At the time I had only a few pounds to lose and I quickly did so, but the diet was not one I was willing to maintain long-term. I couldn't believe I was eating such decadent foods on a DIET. I couldn't drink milk or coffee, alas, but I could lighten my morning tea with heavy cream. I couldn't have a whole wheat pita, but I could make a ham and cheese roll with real mayo - not low fat or Miracle Whip. I couldn't enjoy a piece of fruit, but I could eat buttered steak with a side of sauteed mushrooms and spinach au gratin, heavy on the gratin. Dr. Atkins didn't recommend eating like that, of course. But fat and cholesterol aren't - or weren't then - considered worrisome on the Atkins diet. (IIUC, The Zone diet is similar in its strict restriction of carbohydrates.)

That's different from the South Beach Diet.

The South Beach diet has three phases. Phase one is challenging, optional, and not intended for long-term use. Nor is it - like the Atkins "Induction Phase" - intended to put the body into ketosis. It's intended to change bad habits. That it does, at least for me.

Phase two is sustainable long-term. This is important, since it's how you eat for months or years until you reach your desired weight/BMI/size/cholesterol level.

Phase three is maintenance. Basically, it's healthy eating for the rest of your life. The horror!

A sample Phase 1 menu from the book includes:
  • Breakfast: 2 vegetable quiche cups (spinach and low cholesterol egg substitute with a little cheese, baked in a muffin tin) and V8
  • Morning snack: 1 part-skim mozzarella cheese stick
  • Lunch: Greek salad (feta and olives: yum!)
  • Afternoon snack: hummus with raw vegetables
  • Dinner: fish kabobs, oven-roasted vegetables, and sliced cucumber with olive oil
  • Dessert: mocha ricotta creme (I hate ricotta and skip this one, though Paul loves it)
Tasty and healthy! But after a little while, I start wanting bread. Fortunately, it's soon time to switch to Phase 2 (which you can do at any time, if you use Phase 1 at all. As I'm young-ish and healthy with no kidney disease, I find that I can do Phase 1 for two weeks before my body is ready to switch. More on this tomorrow.) A sample Phase 2 menu from the book includes:
  • Breakfast: fresh strawberries and oatmeal
  • Morning snack: apple and peanut butter or skinny cow cheese
  • Lunch: Lemon Couscous Chicken, tomato and cucumber slices
  • Afternoon Snack: "lite" yogurt
  • Dinner: turkey meatloaf, steamed asparagus, tossed salad
  • Dessert: chocolate-covered strawberries
Delicious. I could eat like this all the time. And I did, actually, for months before I got pregnant with Ada. All of a sudden I needed to chew Wheat Thins all day long to avoid throwing up, so I got busy snacking. And then I was too exhausted/lazy to do the weekly shopping for lean meats and fresh produce thing so we ate a lot of casseroles and take out. Bad eating habits crept into our lives and multiplied. But eating as I did before my second pregnancy didn't feel like a "diet," especially as I allowed myself one meal a week to eat whatever I was craving, whether it was spaghetti and garlic bread or tortilla chips and enchiladas. An unintended benefit of this was that I found myself really looking forward to such "treats." These meals became extra special again rather than just the way I ate every single night.

The South Beach Diet (re)teaches good habits, like listening to your body's hunger signals rather than snacking indiscriminately, portion control, reacquainting oneself with the outside of the supermarket rather than the aisles, and so forth. Naturally our weekly grocery bills increase accordingly.

It shocks me how little modern science seems to know about the female reproductive system (or, more accurately, how much we seem not to know). Similarly, it surprises me how little "science" goes into official - and even government - recommendations for a healthy diet. Was anyone else surprised to learn that "drink 8 glasses of water a day!" was purely invented advice? Ridiculous! This is the 21st century, after all.

I'm not a vegetarian, though I understand all the wonderful environmental, health, and ethical arguments for making such a diet choice. Barring that (or, rather, not barring meat, etc.) I hardly think that a diet featuring fresh vegetables and fruits alongside low-fat dairy products, lean meats, eggs, and whole grain breads is "unhealthy" or even a "fad." It's just new packaging for healthy advice.

Sure, it's a gimmick. But even if one doesn't stick with The South Beach Diet forever, some of the good habits - or at least the knowledge - might stick longer. I needed to break bad habits, create healthier ones, and wanted a guidebook to walk me through the an overwhelming transition.

This did it for me.


Kathy G said...

Thanks for the information. I've never known that much about the South Beach diet (and did, indeed, did think it was similar to Atkins).

HiddenChicken said...

What kills me is that how you eat is controversial at all. It's almost as bad as parenting. Everyone works differently based on their environment, habits and genetics - it amazes me that others assume that the same diet works for everyone.

I'm glad you've found something you can stick with. It's such a pain to find something that works. Personally, I think the whole thing is a question of labels. Stick the low-carb label on it and some people think you've decided to do something as bad as smoking. Put another label on it and you're eating well.

For example, I'm a big fan of Weight Watchers. It's what works for me. The meal plan you've described under South Beach is one I could eat under Weight Watchers and fall well within my points range while meeting my daily fruit and vegetable requirement. If I were to describe what I ate, then say I was on Weight Watchers, someone would probably say, "Good for you!" If I were to describe the same thing and say I was on South Beach, I'd probably get a far more negative reaction. It's ridiculous.

Sarahlynn said...

Kathy, it's interesting, but I think a lot of people's negative assumptions of even The Atkins Diet come from "dieters" using the basic idea (extremely low carb intake) but not using the diet as recommended. Some people abuse the diet by eating lots of fatty, high cholesterol foods. They lose weight but aren't necessarily healthier. And those examples give the whole "low carb diet" movement a very bad name.

HiddenChicken, I've done Weight Watchers, too, and agree that there are a lot of similarities between the approaches. In my limited experience, South Beach talks more about the types of foods one eats and in which combinations (for example, eating fiber with a simple carb slows down how fast it's converted to sugar) while Weight Watchers talks more about portion control. And both pieces are important but I agree that you can get to your goal - health, weight management, whatever - via a number of different approaches.

Carmie said...

I could not agree more with your comment on the female reproductive system and how little we know about it. What concerns me even more is that health professionals seem to be pretty confident that we know what we need to know!

My husband studies nutrition, specifically digestion, and tells people that we know about 10% of what is going on in the human gut. I'm sure women's health comes in somewhere after gut health!

Good luck with the weight loss! I read a book recently called Fat!So? and it was a great read; a comical look at fat in American culture. Put things in perspective, for sure. :)

flatflo said...

I am trying to get around to looking into researching weight loss options. I've tried the "try to eat better and work out more" option for the past few months and have gained even more weight. So I am to the point of needing to actually diet, but am hesitant to take the next step. So many options, so many opinions. Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig? South Beach or Nutrisystem?

The women in my family have always believed there was a direct link between our female parts and our digestive system. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) would be triggered by menstrual cramps. Stomach-tossing migraines at the onset of PMS. These are both major factors in why I am on the Depo shot.

Sarahlynn said...

Carmie, my two best friends, my two sisters, and my sister-in-law have all gone through fertility treatments. That's just weird. Or a disturbing trend. Or we just don't know what's going on in there. (Listening to the conflicting advice they're given by doctors, I think it's the latter.)

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Fat!So? I think I might know of some of the people who work on the 'zine. Cool.

Flatflo, good luck! My in-laws did Jenny and I found that surprising because my MIL loves to cook and a diet with prepacked food did not sound like the thing for them.

For me, on the other hand . . . I am exhausted by the responsibility of meal planning, shopping, preparing. I'd love to give Jenny a try sometime, when I'm not also planning meals for a family.

I don't know anything about Nutrisystem. But I did get a lot out of both Weight Watchers and South Beach. Some people can just decide to be better and poof! It works. For me . . . being passionate about a concrete plan is very helpful. And a guidebook? Hell, yes.