The South Beach Diet Is Still Going Strong

Gort Productions

A Q&A with Arthur Agatston, the diet’s founder.

Before it adopted the name and cachet of Miami’s sexiest neighborhood, the South Beach Diet was a ten-page pamphlet titled “The Modified Carbohydrate Diet,” handed out to the overweight patients of local cardiologist Arthur Agatston. It was differentiated from other prevalent regimens—more heart-healthy than Atkins, less draconian than Ornish or Pritikin—and benefited from Bill Clinton’s admission that he had used it to shed pounds. Almost a dozen years and a dozen books later, we speak with Agatston, who attributes the diet’s staying power to three things: It’s relatively simple to follow (no counting calories or measuring portions); it includes a wide variety of foods (lean protein, veggies, fruits, whole grains); and it’s not really a diet but a lifestyle.

Have you ever calculated the number of pounds lost on the South Beach Diet?
There have been 23 million copies of the books sold worldwide.

And the books promise that people will lose between eight and 13 pounds during the first two weeks alone, so that’s at least a few hundred million pounds, right?
It’s a lot.

What put the diet on the map and made people realize this one might work for them?
I was directing the cardiac rehab center here and had dramatic results getting people off the white stuff, the starches. The local Channel 10 came to us and said, “You have to put South Florida on this diet.” That’s when we came up with the more glitzy name. We partnered with a supermarket and had a menu of the day, and the station won its sweeps, so everybody said, “You have to write a book.”

Where did the name come from?
Several people claim the origin, but I will give official credit to my wife.

Why do so many diets fail?
Dieting has to be satisfying; it has to appeal to foodies.

Are you a nightmare dinner guest?
Since I like to cheat, I will have some dessert. The diet is a lifestyle, so cheating is built into it.