What to Eat - My Take on The Beach

Nicole Johnson reviews the popular South Beach Diet.

By Nicole Johnson, MA, MPH

Well it’s officially spring, and by now most of us have broken our New Year’s resolutions. If you’re anything like me, it happened back in January. But now it is time to spring into action as the lure of summertime, sunshine, beaches –– and second quarter A1c tests –– provide us renewed motivation.

We’ve heard for so long that the key to a long, healthy life is a low-fat, low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet. That makes sense. I have followed that regimen for the last decade with a great deal of success. A steady, well balanced diet with, well, daily challenges. Perhaps I should say daily temptations and failures.

The much acclaimed South Beach Diet preaches a different, yet similar sermon: low-carbohydrate, higher-fat and smarter calories. The diet is part Atkins, part Mediterranean, part All-American. Confused yet? I was. I recently read the best selling book and my eyes were opened. In a nutshell, this diet philosophy teaches that fats are essential for healthy skin and proper digestion, carbohydrates are the reason we need insulin (or medication), and protein slows the absorption of glucose in the system.

The South Beach program is structured in three phases: phase 1, a two-week carbohydrate removal; phase 2, a slow reintroduction of carbohydrates; and phase 3, lifestyle maintenance. I am not sure I am ready for the full program. Frankly, I am not convinced that it is completely healthy for a person with diabetes. But there is gold to be found in the overall philosophy, if you ask me. Here’s some of what the South Beach Diet teaches, along with a little commentary from yours truly:

Not all carbohydrates are the same.

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a helpful tool for people with diabetes. The index ranks carbohydrate-containing foods on a scale from 0 to 100, according to their effect on blood sugar levels per gram of carbohydrate. Foods that are digested rapidly and release glucose into the bloodstream quickly are known as high-GI foods. Foods that are digested more slowly are known as low-GI foods.

Whole grains, fiber, barley, and steel-cut oats are in the low-GI category. High-GI foods are: breakfast cereals, rice, white bread, potatoes, crackers, cookies, cakes, etc. Arggggh … many of my favorites!

Surprisingly, some pastas are in the low-GI category and can be good for a diabetes diet. A recent scientific session in Rome confirmed that including pasta in the meal plan of a person with diabetes could be the ideal compromise between Atkins and the low fat diet. Satiety (feeling full) is increased, which helps prevent overeating.

I have often used the analogy in speeches that in terms of carbohydrate counting, you can pick between a loaded baked potato and chocolate cake –– same amount of carbs, same amount of insulin. Little did I know how true that is. According to this book, we should always avoid potatoes. Potatoes are very high in carbs and have little lasting benefit to the body. If you are going to eat potatoes, be careful of serving size. A serving should be no bigger than the size of your palm (and not much thicker).

In terms of basic bread, the best forms are those that are dense, high in fiber, include plenty of whole grains, and no sugar. The more processed the flour is, the fewer nutrients and fiber in the bread, and the more quickly and easily it passes through your digestive tract. The key is getting the stomach and intestines to work in the digestion process. So, read the ingredients and look for the word “whole” in front of whatever grain the bread is made from (e.g., whole wheat, whole oat, etc.).

If you are a fan of toast, you may want to rethink what you spread on it. Jelly and jam are the equivalent of table sugar. They dissolve quickly in the system and do little to slow down and complement digestion. A smarter choice, according to the South Beach Diet, is butter. Of course, remember moderation.

This is such a controversial and confusing element of nutrition. It seems the messages about fats change yearly. One sure thing is that there are some very dangerous fats out there, and they are included in many popular foods: trans fats. Trans fats are so dangerous that the FDA now requires companies to disclose the trans fat content in their products and list it on labels. The key phrase to look for: partially hydrogenated oil. According to the South Beach Diet, these fats are associated with more heart attacks and strokes than any other fats.

From everything I’ve read, the South Beach Diet seems pretty balanced. I am not sure if the deprivation period for the first week is safe for a person with diabetes, but I do feel that it is wise to limit white bread, white flour, and sugar in our diets. Also, the notion of “the more fiber, the better” certainly has merit. Eating bad carbohydrates makes you hungrier and makes you want more of those same bad carbs. This pattern leads to high glucose and is risky for heart health. This is also what has led to the national epidemic of obesity, prediabetes, and Syndrome X (or metabolic syndrome).

The good news is that there are more and more options for healthy eating. You just have to be aware.


Nicole Johnson

Read Nicole's bio here.

Read more of Nicole Johnson's columns.

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition. 

Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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