How the South Beach Diet Changed My Life

Twelve years ago, after weaning my first daughter, I decided it was time to lose the lingering baby weight. Breastfeeding had not been a weight-loss miracle for me, and now that my baby was no longer dependent on me as her primary food source, I was ready and willing to diet — something I had never really done before. The South Beach Diet had just hit the market and I rode the low-carb trend, and I will never do it again.

POPSUGAR Photography | Nicole Perry

Living without carbs for the first two weeks of the diet, called the induction period, was particularly hellish. I had a 1-year-old; though small toddlers are loving and sweet, they are not known for their supportive qualities or sense of logic. Plus, my husband was living without carbs; he ate many a milkshake with me during my pregnancy and was also looking to get back to his prepregnancy weight. While dieting together was good for moral support, we were both awfully cranky. I have since learned that cutting out entire food groups is not necessary to lose weight. But the South Beach Diet did change my eating habits in many significant ways. Here are three elements to put into practice to lose or maintain your weight, while keeping it healthy.

Become Label Able

Knowing what is actually in your food leads to much better choices. The South Beach Diet is a quick education on the glycemic index, which basically measures how foods affect your blood sugar levels. Foods containing high amounts of sugar are higher on the index, and these foods cause blood sugar levels to spike, then drop, leaving you hungry again quite quickly. Sugar, hiding under many tricky pseudonyms on labels, is added to many foods you would never guess, like crackers and tomato sauce. So I started reading labels and looking at the amount of sugar and fiber per serving. I also started measuring out servings and quickly learned that serving sizes are much smaller than I had believed. Both were illuminating! When checking out any new product, especially ones that seem healthy, I read the label.

Whole Grains Rule

The South Beach Diet hammers home this principle: fiber delays the process of turning carbs into sugars, keeping you sated longer. It was on the South Beach Diet, during phase two when carbs are reintroduced, that I came to love whole-wheat bread. This is "love" as in, I truly prefer the flavor of whole wheat. It doesn't feel like some sort of health-food penance to eat whole-wheat bread. It's high in fiber and should be low in added sugars (you still need to read the label, though, since many brands add honey and/or molasses to whole-wheat bread). This South Beach tip has become my mantra: "the coarser and heavier the bread, the better it is for you." White bread, made with refined carbs stripped of fiber and nutrients, is really one (digestive) step away from cake. CAKE! Thinking of bread this way makes skipping the baguette before dinner really easy — who eats cake before dinner?

Here's an easy-to-follow rule that combines these two takeaways: bread should have no more than 3 grams of sugar and have at least, if not more than, 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Smart Snacking: Nuts and Hummus

Almonds and walnuts, just a handful for portion control, are still my afternoon snack of choice. Full of healthy fats, nuts are filling and can keep me full between lunch and dinner. Fat also slows down the digestive system to help keep blood sugars stable, but you need to focus on the good fats, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). These days I like to pair my ounce of nuts with an apple or an orange — healthy fats mixed with healthy carbs.

Before the South Beach Diet, hummus was a dish I only ate at Greek restaurants, and now it's a staple in my fridge. Hummus, made of fiber-rich chickpeas and fat-filled sesame-seed-based tahini, is a great snack. Eaten with veggies — celery, carrots, cucumber — hummus fills you up. I will admit, after reaching my goal weight with the South Beach Diet, I couldn't eat hummus for a couple of years. I burned out on it. But hummus is back as a mainstay in my life, and I make my own, which means I can control the flavor. My favorites are sweet potato hummus and antioxidant-rich Thai-inspired hummus featuring turmeric and ginger. I use hummus as a condiment (way better than mayo) or the main protein in a sandwich.

Final Thoughts

In many ways, the South Beach Diet with its focus on healthy fats was a more wholesome redo of the no-carb Atkins Diet. It was also a forerunner to the now-popular Paleo diet trend. The original South Beach Diet book, from 2003, includes recipes for spaghetti squash pasta and cauliflower mashed "potatoes" that you see today on Paleo food websites. The promise of quick weight loss on the cover of the book should have been a red flag to me — but I wanted to fit into the jeans I wore before getting pregnant! I now know the slower the weight comes off, the more sustainable the diet and healthy habits are, the more likely the weight will stay off. But I thank the diet for what it taught me, both good and bad.