The South Beach Diet vs. The Atkins Diet


We are looking at two diets that promote a phased approach to weight loss that have demonstrated very noticeable short term results. The short term results come via an all-out assault on carbs…primarily simple carbohydrates, but as you shift to later phases of the diet program, these diets become a bit more carb-friendly.  Both the South Beach Diet and the Atkins Diet were created by well-respected medical doctors and both camps seemingly have a very good understanding of the power of the marketing machine… The real questions become, which of the two diet programs is more sustainable and which is best suited for you?

The South Beach Diet – A phased approach

Dr. Agatston, similar to other diet program creators, did not set out to become the poster-boy for a diet program that bears the name of his neighborhood… It was a serendipitous by-product of his pursuit to help people before they required statins and other traditionally prescribed heart treatments to achieve a cleaner bill of health. He recognized that the source of many heart issues were directly related to food intake and that by properly managing blood sugar levels, not only would his patients be ‘heart healthier’, but they would also feel more energetic and lose a considerable amount of weight in the process… alas, a new ‘healthy lifestyle solution’ was born.

The South Beach Diet includes three phases. Phase one is a two week program designed to get your blood sugar levels in order. This is by far the strictest of the three phases in terms of foods that you can and cannot eat. Simple carbohydrates, meaning all the sugary snacks, breads, pastries and pasta are out as are certain complex carbohydrates like fruit and fruit juice and starch-heavy veggies like potatoes. It is important to remember that this phase is only two weeks and this is the phase where you will see the most dramatic weight loss. Many of the practitioners boast of a ten-plus pound drop during this two week period. Whether you are doing it yourself via the book or you are working through the online program… (great website…very user friendly) they provide a number of recipes for all three meals and your snacks that will get you through this phase with perhaps a new outlook on the taste of healthy food. For the busy people, the website provides recipes and daily plan suggestions with the approximate time to prepare all of your meals and snacks. For the really busy people, they will prepare them for you and deliver the meals to your home on a weekly basis.

So does ‘phase one’ mean you will essentially be starving and unable to concentrate on anything but your stomach for two straight weeks? Well, not really… There is no doubt that you will likely experience a bit of discomfort…but perhaps not as much as you may after your dentist tells you, “this may cause some discomfort over the next day or two,” and you can’t eat for the better part of a week. The cravings will definitely be there…but if you persevere they will start to subside by the end of the two week period… really. All three phases do recommend portion control via specified serving sizes, however, if need be, an extra snack specific to the phase will not condemn you to dieter’s hell.

Upon graduating to Phase two, the re-introduction of fruit, some previously outlawed vegetables, and certain simple carbohydrates like whole grain breads and pasta will give you a new appreciation for variety… but be careful…moderation is still super important! It is best to adhere to the prescribed serving sizes as best you can as you will be restricted to Phase Two foods until you have achieved your target weight. The general rule is…that if you follow the plan, the portion sizes, and incorporate a respectable exercise regimen, you can figure on losing between one and two lbs. per week. Do the math and you can figure out how long you are likely to be stranded in the second tier.

Phase Three adds quite a bit more to your menu options… and to a certain degree, the options are limitless as this phase is where you will remain for the rest of your living days providing you don’t start gaining the weight back. If you do… no, there is no jail time…the solution is simple… go back to Phase Two or perhaps even Phase One if you really fall hard.  

The South Beach Diet – The Food/The Price – Flexibility

In the end, there is a sufficient amount of flexibility built into the program which should make the whole process a little less stressful. The South Beach team also provides 24 hour access to the their community, daily e-mails, and an assortment of tools including a meal planner that will help you create your shopping list (pretty cool), access to counseling and the community, recommended work-outs, glucose and weight trackers and more to help you stay on course. There is a $5 monthly fee associated with the online membership which might be worth it early on… As time goes by and you establish a routine that maintains your desired weight, you might find that you can do many of these things on your own without paying the $5 fee.

A flexible, common sense plan to living a healthier, happier life… feeling great and confident because you like the way you look… So where is the downfall? Why isn’t everyone joining or at least for those who join…why aren’t they staying with the program? The fact that upon entering Phase Three, freedom of choice is granted, moderation and discipline are still essential to succeed. Once the yo-yoing starts between the phases, despite everyone’s best intentions and the numerous safeguards that are built into the program, it is not too difficult to see how the frustration and exasperation level could increase and the program slowly fades. From a psychological stand-point, there is pressure associated with staying with the program… from a logistical stand-point…precise measurement might be an issue but within a short time, this should become a natural process.

The South Beach Diet uses a combination of science and practicality to improve the life style and health of its followers which I appreciate… but it seems to flirt with the dark side too often which might result in the yo-yoing and negate some of the positive long term health benefits found in other diet programs.

The Atkins Diet – A Phased approach to Carbohydrate  Management

Speaking of other diet programs, let’s look at the Atkins Diet in the opposite corner. The Atkins Diet has a similar pedigree to the South Beach Diet. It was founded by Dr. Robert Atkins who started performing research as far back as 1963 specific to the obesity epidemic he saw coming on in the US. As a result of his findings, Dr. Atkins also proposes that the best route to a better body and better health is via a phased approach that juxtaposes recommended ratios of protein to carbs recommended by government sponsored programs.

Phase One food restrictions or recommendations are really close to those recommended by the South Beach Det. They both consider phase one as a two week minimum used to stabilize blood sugar levels, reduce cravings, and get your body on track to use fat as a fuel source rather than insulin producing carbs. This is the phase where you will experience the most drastic drop in weight but it is also the phase in which you will be most tempted to revert back to…eating dessert, having toast with your breakfast, or having pasta with your meatballs and sausages. Where the South Beach Diet recommends phase one for two weeks, Atkins suggests that you remain in phase one until you are fifteen pounds from your target weight. As difficult as this may sound at the onset…if you can do it for two weeks, why not try for another two weeks and two after that if need be? Ultimately, the longer you stay in phase one, the more likely the chance that this type of eating becomes habitual.

In terms of measuring… with the Atkins Diet, most emphasis is placed on carbohydrate restrictions. The Atkins approach uses a unique and interesting tracking system based on net carb intake at each phase. They define net carbs as total carbs (measured in grams) less carbs from fiber and they provide comprehensive, easily accessible lists as to which foods are acceptable for each phase along with the net carb levels for each associated food. Phase one is the induction phase and for the most part, the majority of your carbs should be from foundational vegetables. This would be leafy greens, peppers, cucumbers etc. and they should account for 12-15 net carbs from a daily requirement of 18-22 net carbs. This phase is void of almost all the carbs that Americans see as staples… namely all things made with refined sugar, flour, grains…yes this means bread, pasta, and all sweets…so be careful with the additional 3-10 required daily net carbs. Think in terms of other types of veggies, salad garnishes, or cheese.

Moving to each of the next phases is really about climbing what is coined, the ‘carb ladder’… essentially re-introducing new carbs food group by food group such that your weight and your will-power will not start moving in the wrong direction. From this point on…for the rest of your days, it is about testing foods and determining whether or not these types of foods work for you…or against you. Phase two is a big step forward… You can start eating certain fruits again like berries and melons… nuts and seeds… and some dairy like cottage cheese and yogurt. The recommended number of net carbs increases to 25 and 12-15 of those should continue to be a result of foundational carb consumption. You will stay in this phase until you fall to within 10 pounds of your goal weight. This phase is about properly balancing your ingestion of new foods groups while allowing you to continue losing weight albeit not at the same pace. There is some great advice on the site as it relates to ‘doing it right’. Avoid what they call carb creep…listen to your body and be aware of whether or not certain types of food results in those evil cravings again… and of course continue to drink a lot water and exercise.

Don’t move onto phase three prematurely! If the cravings are coming with the addition of fruits, nuts and cottage cheese…and/or you are not losing that dastardly last five pounds to move up… you can be sure that if you do proceed prematurely…you are going to have an even tougher time with cravings after re-introducing phase three foods like oatmeal, brown rice, and beans. Patience, discipline, and a bit of asceticism it necessary. In phase three you can work our way up to increasing net carb intake to upwards of fifty. That being said, everyone’s built differently so for some of you… sorry but you will never be able to consume 50 net carbs and lose weight. The recommendation is to increase the number of net carbs incrementally by five or ten… See how you do with the increase…see how you do with the re-introduction of new food groups and proceed with caution… When you have reached your goal weight and maintained that weight for a month… you are ready to move on to phase 4… You did it!!! Now you can celebrate with fried chicken and a hot fudge sundae…haha just kidding… Now you know the formula for feeling good for the rest of your life!!!

Similar to the South Beach diet, this program comes fully equipped with a solid website, a community at the ready, and other support tools. Although the tools are not quite as handy as those of the South Beach program… they are plenty sufficient to get you where you want to go. 


So it is all laid out for you… a fool proof plan to ready yourself for SI’s swimsuit issue or People’s sexiest Man of the Year award… or will you just become a frustrated mathematician on a roller coaster ride. Similar to the South Beach diet, a calculator is necessary to get you through the early days…but here again, over time, you will likely get a feel for your net carb count so you can stop taking your socks off to complete the net carb equation. Big Caution! Be careful of carb creep…it is very real and very dangerous especially when you base portion size on ‘the feel’ (It might be a good idea to occasionally crunch the numbers to ensure you are staying within the lines). There can also be a fair amount of yo-yoing within each phase which has put many a well-intentioned dieter down for the count. Unfortunately, the world is against you… Every turn has a burger joint, a bakery, or a bar… none of which are going to do you any favors in the earlier stages where you could be spending a fair amount of time depending on your weight, metabolism etc. All of the phases require discipline and it may work inversely to the phase achieved as more groups are in play as you climb the ladder which will likely lead to a heightened ability to manage cravings. Also similar to South Beach, this program seems to flirt with the dark side in the later stages…primarily with their brand named snacks.

A second note of caution: Obviously there is a ton of money in snack bars because every diet program that preaches resistance to sweets offers some type of chocolate nut bar that will undoubtedly, at the very least induce cravings… If you can rely on proper meal and snack planning and stay away from the candy bar type snacks either of these programs can be successful.

In the end, it really comes down to which of these programs speaks more clearly to you. I prefer the structure of movement between phases with the Atkins diet especially if you have a fair amount of weight to lose. It is undoubtedly more restrictive in each phase but the goal of each phase is more tangible. If you don’t need that type of structure and you can resist ‘cravings’ temptation with the likes of those nominated for canonization… the South Beach Diet will be a really good fit for you.