The diet that ate Atkins

The latest weight-loss sensation that's got everyone from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey on portion control is The South Beach Diet - and it's about to arrive in Britain. Is this the end for the low-carb regime or just another food fad? James Sherwood investigates

Move over Dr Atkins. In 2004 the late doctor's low carb/high protein Diet Revolution is being overthrown by a younger, sexier weight-loss programme - The South Beach Diet. Penned by cardiologist Dr Arthur Agatston, The South Beach Diet - comprehensively subtitled The Delicious, Doctor-Designed Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss - has already usurped Atkins at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The paperback hit UK bookstores in December and claims weight loss of 8 to 13 pounds within a fortnight.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are the poster boy and girl of South Beach, with New York magazine reporting Clinton's claim that "all his Hollywood friends" were converts. The powerful Democratic troika Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Donna Karan are all said to subscribe. Kim Sex and the City Cattrall is a South Beacher (amongst other things).

New weight loss regimes are as vulnerable to deposition as a South American dictator. Dr Atkins, however, was a Juan Peron of diet dictators. His Diet Revolution was first published in the 1970s but didn't gain worldwide acclaim until just before his death in 2002. To date, over 10 million copies have been sold and lollipop ladies Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Aniston and Geri Halliwell have all credited their dress-size-in-minus-numbers to the good doctor.

Whether beautiful genes, personal trainers and live-in dieticians or Atkins are responsible is a moot point. But celebrity endorsement gave the Atkins diet legs and it's only a matter of time before Hollywood royalty migrates to South Beach. After all, these are the people who change their lifestyle regime as often as their red-carpet outfits.

Nobody disputes that Atkins' no-carbohydrates diet was a ruthlessly efficient catalyst to dropping a dress size. The exorcism of carbohydrate-rich potatoes, pasta, rice and bread ("a junk food" according to Dr A) in favour of oodles of protein-rich, high-fat cheese, steak and butter seemed like Nirvana compared to a SlimFast shake.

But it also happened to give one breath like the bottom of a Labrador's basket and potentially increased risk of heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, osteoporosis and kidney damage.

"The major problem I have with the Atkins Diet is the liberal intake of saturated fats", says Dr Agatston in the introduction to The South Beach Diet. "Eating a meal that's high in saturated fat can trigger a heart attack ... This is why we have strongly encouraged the right fats in the South Beach Diet." Whereas Atkins demonised carbohydrates, South Beach is neither low carb nor low fat. Instead there's a Good-Carb/Bad-Carb routine combined with an equally moderate balance of protein and fat.

"South Beach is really designed for the tummy area', says LA-based beauty guru Linda Silver, creator of the Roy male grooming collection. "I did it and it really works. I lost 14 pounds in two weeks and better than that I had no desire for sugar, bread or carbs. It works and I'm glad I answered your question before I headed into the kitchen for lox and bagels. You really only have to sacrifice for two weeks and the weight loss is immediate." Endorsements of this ilk are doing the rounds on the cocktail circuit from Miami and Manhattan to Beverly Hills.

Targeting the stomach area is the dieter's equivalent of a direct hit. Dieting without feeling hunger pangs as Agatston promises and Atkins delivered is a Slam Dunk. Agatston's approach is less controversial than Atkins. Just as George Dubya oversimplified global conflict by divvying up the atlas between Good Guys (Americans) and Bad Guys (Arabs), so Dr Agatston divides food groups with the latest buzzwords of the world's diet tribes: The Glycaemic Index.

GI is the latest nutribabble that grades foods on the rate they raise blood sugar levels. Sugar rush (High GI) foods such as white bread, Coca Cola, mashed potato, sweetcorn, bananas and white rice are Bad Guys. Slow-burning (Low GI) foods like oily fish, chicken breast, coffee, apples, milk, muesli and chickpeas are Good Guys.

The South Beach is appealing because it ostensibly denies you nothing and encourages such dietary sacrilege as eating until you're full and snacking in between meals. Alcohol is permitted as is tea and coffee. Of course there's a catch: a banana peel upon which most quick fix dieters will fall. This is the success rate of the initial Phase 1 of the programme. For two weeks Agatston DOES cut all carbohydrates, alcohol, fruit and dairy to cleanse the body's intake of bad carbs. Democratic deployment of good carbs comes later.

Despite Agatston saying one can gobble as much salad as you like (as long as you lay off the pies), this phase of the South Beach is no less draconian than Weight Watchers' points counting. One can't help but lose weight if one cuts out processed food, fat, carbohydrates and alcohol. Cynics claim that it's water rather than fat loss that makes Agatston's one stone in a fortnight promise work.

The trouble starts when the good carbs are reintroduced after this purging period in Phase 2. White rice, pasta, bread and potatoes, bananas, fruit juice, pineapple, carrots and corn are still out but the temptation is to overcompensate for the fortnight of deprivation. Agatston recommends staying on Phase 2 until target weight is achieved which could mean a severely restricted palette for as long as it takes. Once achieved, Phase 3 is for the rest of your life.

All dieticians understand that overweight people want to see results and fast. Unless they've gone from Kathy Bates to Mena Suvari by February, they move onto the next fad. Not coincidentally, the South Beach Diet's initial two-week purge will gobble body fat as surely as does the Cabbage Soup diet endorsed by Elizabeth Hurley.

It doesn't take a genius to surmise that if you brew up a vat of cabbage soup and drink it exclusively then the pounds tumble like Miss Hurley's credibility as an actress. A packet of Marlboro Lights would be just as effective. Dr Agatston scores points because he emphasises health as much as aesthetics. Fasting and/or eating raw vegetables exclusively may be marvellous for the internal organs but both tend to destroy the soul.

"It's a diet truism that you can't lose in a day what took you years to put on," says Agatston in his chapter "Why do people fail on the South Beach Diet?" Hence the overriding tone of South Beach is evangelical tinged with AA-meeting rhetoric. Dieting is not dissimilar to Alcoholics Anonymous. You get with the programme and you stay with it for life. It's a discipline few people can exercise after the initial burst of drop a dress size cheerleading.

With around 60 percent of Americans somewhere between Ricki Lake and The Hindenberg, it's tempting to arch a collective eyebrow and wonder whether yet another miracle diet can change the shape of a nation. Won't South Beach go the same way as all the other fad diets of Christmas past like the Scarsdale, F-Plan, Grapefruit, Hay and Blood Group diets?

The South Beach Diet's trump card is combining medical research - here comes the science part - alongside good old fashioned vanity. Like Crème de la Mer, the miracle moisturiser originally formulated to treat severe burns, The South Beach Diet has morphed from its medical beginnings. Dr Agatston created TSB as a complementary nutrition programme for his cardiology patients.

The messianic Dr Agatston, now associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami medical school, claims "My concern was not with my patients' appearance, of course; I wanted to find a diet that would help prevent or reverse the myriad heart and vascular problems that stem from obesity."

The irony that a diet would emanate from Miami, the "Mecca of physical beauty and body consciousness", is not lost on Dr Agatston. But it didn't prevent him giving his programme the glamorous South Beach moniker. The Perky Aorta Diet wouldn't play so well on Oprah's Book Club.

Before we wallow in a morass of British cynicism, it is worth stating that Dr Agatston's South Beach formula is a common sense eating plan albeit dressed up as a sexy new bestseller. It doesn't advocate wallowing in fat (Atkins), risking a swoon (Cabbage Soup) or meaningless nutribabble (Metabolic Typing and Blood Group Dieting).

"South Beach is not as bizarre as Atkins", said Catherine Collins of the British Dietetic Association when the diet was unveiled in the UK. She warns "These diets assume that a steady blood sugar level stops overeating but cravings are only one reason we eat too much."

Just as another lonely evening in front of Eastenders can tempt an alcoholic (or anyone) to lift the elbow, so carbohydrates, fats and sugars can sing their siren song when we're feeling bored, insecure or lonely rather than just greedy for a sugar rush. Fat is not just a physical issue. As anyone who's tried and failed to give up smoking will tell you, the mental addiction is titanic and the physical merely a tug boat.

The world would be a kinder place and diet gurus would be out of a job should the Rubenesque figure be as celebrated today as it was in the 18th century. But it just so happens that the 21st century sees fat as Jerry Springer-esque - ergo rather common and incontinent - while emaciated teenagers on catwalks are icons of youth and beauty.

It's going to take more than a fat lady like Michelle singing on Pop Idol to shift our ideal of the perfect human form and I could bet my South Beach abdominals that the lady will lose a considerable amount of weight before she shoots her first video. For every Michelle there's a Marjorie Dawes taking the piss out of lardy Brits. Undoubtedly South Beach could indeed help Michelle lose a stone and potentially change her life. Whether weight loss changes anyone's life for the better is a whole other story.