The South Beach Diet. A Complete How-to Guide

The South Beach Diet was created by Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist in the mid-1990s. Through his research in heart disease, he developed the Agatston score, which measures calcium levels in coronary arteries. 

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Dr. Agatston’s research included patients on the Atkins Diet that were losing belly fat vs patients on lower-fat, higher-carb diets who were not achieving the same results. He was concerned about the Atkins Diet’s high amounts of saturated fat and the restriction of high fiber foods, like whole grains and fruit. As a result, Dr. Agatston created a diet for chubby, overweight, and diabetics to lose weight easily without the increased risk of heart disease.

Summary of the South Beach Diet

The South Beach Diet is rich in low-glycemic-index (GI) carbs, lean proteins, and unsaturated fats developed by cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston. It’s broken into various phases or transitions with a prescribed list of foods and recipes.

How much weight can I lose on the South Beach Diet?

According to the Mayo Clinic,

“The South Beach Diet says that you’ll lose 8 – 13 pounds in the two-week period that you’re in phase 1. It also says that most of the weight will be shed from your midsection. 

In phase 2, it says that you’ll likely lose 1 – 2 pounds a week.

Most people can lose weight on almost any diet, especially in the short term. Most important to weight loss is how many calories you take in and how many calories you burn off. A weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week is the typical recommendation. Although it may seem slow, it’s a pace that’s more likely to help you maintain your weight loss permanently.

Losing a large amount of weight rapidly could indicate that you’re losing water weight or lean tissue, rather than fat. In some situations, however, faster weight loss can be safe if it’s done in a healthy way.”

How does the South Beach Diet work?

The South Beach Diet is broken into three different phases, Phase 1 and 2 for weight loss and Phase 3 for weight maintenance.

Summary of the South Beach Diet

What happens in phase 1 of the South Beach Diet?

Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet lasts for 2 weeks and is considered the strictest phase because you can’t eat fruit, grains, and other high-carb foods in order to:

  • Decrease blood sugar
  • Lower insulin levels
  • Reduce cravings
  • Stabilize hunger

In this phase, you eat 3 meals per day consisting of lean protein, non-starchy vegetables, and small amounts of healthy fat and legumes. You’re also supposed to eat 2 vegetable and lean protein snacks per day.

Check out the South Beach Diet Workbook here.

What is Phase 2 of South Beach Diet all about?

This phase starts on day 15 and should be followed for as long as it takes to get to your goal weight. On average, you may lose 1–2 pounds per week during this phase.

All “approved” foods from phase 1 are ok in phase 2, plus you can start adding in some fruit and “good carbs,” such as whole grains.

Phase 3 of the South Beach Diet

When you reach your target weight on the South Beach Diet, you move into phase 3 where you continue with phase 2 foods and add occasional treats. In this phase, there are no foods that are completely off-limits.

What happens if I start gaining weight on the South Beach Diet?

The Super Bowl, Christmas, or a donut eating contest, are legit reasons to fall off the wagon. If you binge and start plumping up again, Dr. Agatston recommends the following: 

  • Go back to phase 1 for one – two weeks 
  • Returning to phase 3 once you get back to your target weight

What can you eat in Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet?

Lean protein is good

You don’t need to cut portions on South Beach. It does recommend slowly consuming a small portion and then eating more if you’re still hungry.

  • Lean beef, pork, lamb, veal
  • 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/Greek yogurt, kefir and soy milk, limited to 2 cups per day

List of vegetables you can eat in Phase 1

All vegetables are good to go with the exception of the following; beets, carrots, corn, turnips, yams, peas, white potatoes, and most types of squash.

How many vegetables do you eat in Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet?

Try to eat at least 4 1/2 cups of non-starchy veggies every day.

Recommended amount of legumes in Phase 1 of South Beach

When it comes to legumes on South Beach phase 1, limit to 1/3–1/2 cup per day, cooked. And includes the following legumes:

  • Black beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Navy beans
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Hummus (only up to 1/4 cup)
  • Split peas
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans

Nuts and seeds in Phase 1

Limit seeds and nuts to 1 ounce per day.

  • Nuts
    • Almonds
    • Cashews
    • Macadamia nuts
    • Pecans
    • Pistachios
    • Walnuts 
    • Various nut butters, up to 2 tablespoons
  • Seeds
    • Flax
    • Chia seeds
    • Sesame seeds
    • Pumpkin seeds

What kinds of oils and fats can you eat in Phase 1 of South Beach?

2 tablespoons of oil per day. Ideally, monounsaturated oils

  • Monounsaturated oils
    • Olive
    • Canola
    • Macadamia oil
    • Avocado oil
  • Vegetable and seed oils
    • Corn
    • Flaxseed
    • Grapeseed
    • Peanut
    • Safflower
    • Sesame
    • Soybean oil

Alternative fat choices for Phase 1

Each serving is equivalent to 2 tbsp of healthy oils.

  • ⅔ of an Avocado
  • Trans-fat-free margarine
  • Low-fat mayonnaise
  • Regular mayonnaise
  • Salad dressing with less than 3 grams sugar
  • Olives, up to 20–30, depending on size

What sweets can I eat in Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet?

Only 100 calories or less per day.

  • Unsweetened cocoa or chocolate syrup
  • Sugar-free gelatin, jams and jellies
  • No sugar candies, popsicles or gum
  • Sugar substitutes
    • Stevia
  • Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols
    • Xylitol
    • Erythritol

Read Breaking down sugar consumption for more info on the effects of sugar on the body.

Condiments in Phase 1

You can eat as much of these foods as you want unless otherwise noted.

  • Broth
  • Herbs, spices, horseradish, mustard, lemon juice or salsa
  • All vinegars (balsamic limited to 1 tbsp)
  • Light coconut milk, up to 1/4 cup
  • Soy sauce, steak sauce or miso, up to 1 1/2 tsp
  • Heavy cream, whole milk or half and half, up to 1 tbsp
  • Light sour cream or cream cheese, up to 2 tbsp
  • Light whipped topping, limited to 2 tbsp

Beverages on South Beach Diet Phase 1

Unlimited quantities of these drinks are allowed in phase 1 (drink your caffeine in moderation)

  • Coffee, regular or decaffeinated
  • Tea, regular, decaffeinated or herbal
  • Sugar-free or diet sodas
  • Sugar-free drink mixes
  • Tomato or vegetable juice

What can’t I eat in Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet?

Some foods with higher fat content and those high in carbs, including fruits and grains, are forbidden in phase 1. The restricted list includes the following:

  • Fats
    • Fatty cuts of red meat and poultry
    • Butter
    • Coconut oil
    • Whole milk
  • Sweets
    • Anything made with refined white sugar
    • Honey
    • Maple syrup
    • Agave nectar
  • Grains
  • All fruits and fruit juice
  • Starchy vegetables
    • Beets
    • Carrots
    • Corn
    • Turnips
    • Yams
    • Peas
    • White potatoes
    • Winter squash
    • Sweet potatoes
  • Alcohol

What can you eat in Phases 2 and 3 of the South Beach Diet?

In these phases you will gradually introduce higher-carbohydrate foods into your diet starting in the first week adding the following: 

Fruits to eat in Phase 2 and 3

  • Eat 1–3 servings per day
  • All fresh and frozen fruits are allowed 
  • Still no dates, figs, pineapple, raisins and watermelon

How much is the serving size of fruit in phase 2 and 3?

In Phases 2 and 3 of the South Beach Diet, the recommended serving size for fruit is one small piece, which could be something like half a grapefruit, ¾ cup of berries, ¾ cup of cherries or ¾ cup of grapes to give you an idea.

South Beach Diet Phase 2 and 3 approved whole grains and starchy vegetables

The recommended amount of whole grains and starchy vegetables in these phases is 1–4 servings per day.

  • Peas
  • Rutabaga
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Yams
  • Turnips
  • Winter squash, up to ¾  cup
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole-grain cold cereal, up to 1 cup
  • 100% Whole-grain bread
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Whole-grain pasta, quinoa, couscous or farro
  • Taro, up to ⅓  cup
  • Popcorn, up to 3 cups
  • Half of whole-grain bagel
  • Half of pita bread
  • Small corn or whole-grain tortilla

What about drinking alcohol in Phase 2 and 3 of the South Beach?

1 daily serving of dry wine or light beer is acceptable

  • Light beer, up to 12 oz
  • Wine, dry red or white, up to 4 oz

What happens after you reach your goal weight on the South Beach Diet?

Once you’ve achieved your goal weight on the South Beach Diet, you should move to phase 3 for maintenance. During this phase, you should follow the guidelines from phase 2.

However, you can include “treat” foods occasionally, since no foods are completely off-limits.

What can’t you eat in Phases 2 and 3 of the South Beach Diet?

Phase 2 discourages consumption of fatty meats, saturated fats, and other processed foods with both refined and natural sugar. Here’s a list to work off of:

  • Fatty cuts of meat and poultry
  • Butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Whole milk
  • Foods 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

South Beach Diet sample menu

Here are a few meal plans for phase 1 and phase 2, to give you a snapshot of what a typical day might look like.

South Beach Diet Phase 1 sample day

  • Breakfast: 3 eggs and 1 cup kale cooked with 1 tsp olive oil
  • Snack: 1 oz string cheese with green pepper slices
  • Lunch: Roasted salmon and asparagus salad
  • Snack: 2 tsp peanut butter on celery sticks
  • Dinner: Lean cut sirloin steak with steamed broccoli

Phase 2 Sample day

  • Breakfast: Quick oatmeal with 2 tbsp of peanut butter
  • Snack: 1/4 cup hummus with 1 cup sliced cucumbers 
  • Lunch: Chicken salad on romaine lettuce
  • Snack: Cottage cheese with sliced tomatoes
  • Dinner: Pork fajitas with 1/3 cup guacamole

Benefits of the South Beach Diet

There are some benefits of the diet, including its ability to lose weight fast without being hungry.

Weight loss is the key benefit of the South Beach Diet

Research has consistently shown that high-protein, low-carb diets are effective for weight loss. This is due to protein’s ability to increase your metabolic rate,  modify hormone levels that reduce hunger and promote fullness.

Drop in fasting insulin levels

In one study, overweight and obese people with metabolic syndrome followed the diet for 12 weeks 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.

The South Beach Diet helps to fight inflammation

The high consumption of fatty fish like salmon, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and other foods help fight inflammation

Heart health is another big benefit of the diet

Regular consumption of eggs, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and other foods on the diet have been shown to help with heart health.

Downsides of the South Beach Diet

Just like any other diet, the South Beach Diet does have some drawbacks and downsides.

Healthy fat consumption discouraged

Many researchers are critical of South Beach’s restriction in the types of fats allowed. As well as the potentially harmful types of fat, such as soybean oil and safflower oil, which are extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids that are encouraged.

South Beach may increase inflammation and heart disease

Consuming large quantities of omega-6 to omega-3 fats has been linked to inflammation, heart disease, and other health problems. 

South Beach discourages healthy fats like coconut oil

Coconut oil has been credited with several health benefits, including weight loss, a reduction in belly fat, and better heart health markers in overweight and obese adults. 

Eating less processed fat and eating plenty of fish high in omega-3 fats may be more important for heart health than restricting saturated fat.

Is the South Beach Diet sustainable?

The diet can be a healthy way of eating that is lower in carbs than other low-fat diets. It encourages dieters to eat unprocessed foods, lots of vegetables, and healthy, high-fiber carb sources.

The diet does allow processed vegetable oils, but you can avoid this downside by choosing unprocessed monounsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or macadamia oil instead.

So yes, the South Beach Diet is a sustainable way of eating.

Final thoughts on the South Beach Diet

The South Beach Diet was developed by a cardiologist. The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease. The diet helps with many of the key factors of heart disease.

There are benefits and downsides, restrictions on certain foods, and the allowance of other foods that may be unhealthy. Overall the diet is not difficult to implement. The phases give you clear parameters of what you should be doing and not doing. And then when you reach your goal weight, you can maintain it fairly easily in phase 3. 

Like any other diet, consult with your doctor before making any dietary changes. But given that the South Beach Diet was developed by a doctor, you may be in good hands. Based on everything laid out, you should have a good idea about the expectations of this diet. Give it a try and see if it works for you.