Top Diets 2004: South Beach Diet

Can you find low-carb bliss on South Beach?

Wine-and-food editor Cynthia Hacinli hasn't had a brownie for breakfast since October.

One week I was gorging on espresso brownies. The next, they were history. How did a bread-, pasta-, and cookie-loving restaurant critic become a low-carb convert?

I'd managed to appease the diet gods for years by nibbling on asparagus and hard-boiled eggs and other skinny-girl staples. As long as I didn't overindulge when reviewing, the scale didn't betray me. After turning 40, I began walking to and from work from Georgetown as a metabolism booster.

That all changed when my husband, Bill, and I adopted a newborn, moved to upper Northwest DC–and I hit my midforties. I started eating more, and not wisely–brownies for breakfast, an afternoon cookie. And I drove to the office. The pounds started piling on–first five, then over two years 13 more. My husband, who has always been slender, was grousing about his pants being too tight.

One morning he overheard a woman on the Metro raving about a low-carb, lowfat diet conceived by a Miami cardiologist. He picked up Dr. Arthur Agatston's weight-loss bible, The South Beach Diet, that night. The basic principle: Easily digestible carbs like those in potatoes, refined sugar, and white-flour breads and pastas make us gain weight because our bodies don't use up as many calories digesting them. Insidiously, they also create a cycle of cravings: The more we eat, the more we want. Agatston's solution: Banish nearly all carbs and fats for two weeks, then slowly add back "good" carbs–the ones in whole grains and fruit.

By the next day Bill was whipping Egg Beaters into South Beach crustless quiches for breakfast. I watched him bemusedly for two weeks. Our daughter and I even ate Daddy's dinners–salmon with olive-oil-sautéed spinach, filet mignon with roasted asparagus, stir-fried shrimp with pea pods, vegetable-and-black-bean chili. Unlike the vigorously low-carb Atkins diet, South Beach green-lights a wide array of greens and beans in Phase I. It's more ascetic about fats–no bacon, no butter.

But even as I dabbled with the diet, when I was reviewing restaurants, biscuits, potatoes au gratin, and coconut cake would find their way onto my plate. And I was still noshing on sweets in the afternoon.

That is until 14 days later, when Bill got on the scale. He had lost 11 pounds.

I was an instant convert. To do my job, I'd have to tweak Dr. Agatston's formula. I would still taste everything when I was reviewing, but no more clean plates. And I'd have to have some chocolate every day.

So it began. Breakfast was eggs (one yolk, two whites) scrambled with bits of smoked salmon, lowfat cream cheese, and chives, or an omelet with lowfat Cabot cheddar cheese and a thin slice of ham. Or I'd have a cup of nonfat plain Total Yogurt (an ultracreamy Greek brand available at Whole Foods, Sutton Place Gourmet, and Dean & DeLuca) sweetened with Splenda and scattered with two or three chopped pecans. Sometimes a couple of sugar-free Jell-O cups–lime and black cherry are best–with a dollop of lowfat sour cream. Though skim and nonfat dairy products are preferable, 1-percent and lowfat are okay, and there's a whopping enough flavor difference between the two to make it a sanity-sparing indulgence.

Midmorning I'd have a snack of maybe 15 pistachios. Lunch was usually a green salad with chicken or feta and roasted red peppers. To break the monotony, I'd occasionally have tuna, red onion, and white beans tossed with lemon and olive oil or shrimp and avocado with a smidgen of real mayo.

In the afternoon I'd savor my low-carb chocolate. Yamate, sold at Whole Foods, makes marvelous milk and dark bars, and Pure De-Lite dark-chocolate bars sold at GNC stores are pretty good, too.

Dinner was in the spirit of Bill's meals but with a boost in condiments. Boring food was simply not allowed. That shrimp stir-fry got a drizzle of peanut butter, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and chilies. Steak was smothered with onions or mushrooms sautéed in Pam, and pork loin sidled up to light sour cream studded with horseradish.

Planning, shopping, and preparation were key–it's a lot more work to maintain a low-carb lifestyle than to pick up a pizza on the way home–and dining out required its own strategy. I'd order fairly legal items like a veal chop, trout amandine, and cioppino, but I had to sample forbidden ones, too: focaccia, pappardelle, Key-lime pie.

After a few days, I found that my moods and energy level didn't ebb and flow as dramatically as before, and my craving for sweets diminished. I was also sleeping better.

It took a few more days for the first pound or two to melt away, but by the end of the two weeks, I was 13 pounds lighter. Gradually, over the next month, wine came back into my life, as did fruit, bulgur pilaf, and whole-grain and low-carb bread. (Arnold makes a great multigrain and whole-wheat loaf, and Atkins rye is edible toasted). I lost another five pounds.

But I've gotten greedy and want to go down another five, which means serious exercise. Still, I made it through the holidays without gaining an ounce–the adaptability of this diet makes it user-friendly.

Now, eating for the Cheap Eats issue in June, I'm discovering how to reconcile low-carb and ethnic. Tandoori meats and vegetable dishes at Indian restaurants work well, as do Japanese sushi and starters like edamame and seaweed salad. Thai can be tricky because of sweet sauces.

Like everyone who loves food, I've been known to cheat. But now it's not with that greasy burger on a cottony bun. For the ultimate hamburger fix, I'll head to Palena in Cleveland Park and bite into the house-ground beef patty on a fresh-baked challah bun. Because if I'm going to stray, I'm going first-class.

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