Change 2: What I Learned from my South Beach Diet Experience (or, Kicking the Refined Stuff out of My Diet)

Among my earliest memories are people telling me I needed to lose weight. At the age of five, both of my grandmothers wanted to help me ‘slim down’. (I realized years later that it was their issue they were projecting onto me because I really wasn’t that chunky, but the damage was done.) When I was in first grade, I had a red dress that had an elastic bunched midriff. I remember wearing it and my grandmother saying it was like a girdle, so it would remind me to hold in my stomach.

Meanwhile, she was the same person who rewarded me with treats, gave me comfort food when I was feeling low, and took me out for a hearty breakfast every Sunday after church. I know she was just doing all of these things because she loved me, but these mixed signals were one of the earliest things that set me up for some serious food issues. The earliest that I can recall is being repeatedly told by my dad that I had to clean my plate because people were starving in China. (I was four, so I didn’t see the illogical nature of that statement until I was much older.)

So after losing 150 pounds over the course of 15 months, I was feeling great, but I still had food issues. The lifestyle change didn’t end just because I reached a healthy weight. For years, I continued following the same planning and portioning strategies, but went back to eating 1,800 calories, up from the 1,500 a day I had been eating at the end of the weight loss segment. When I wanted to lose weight, I accepted that I would regularly feel hungry. After I reached a healthy weight and still felt hungry only an hour or so after I’d eaten, I was less okay with that. It was about this same time the South Beach diet became very popular.

For decades, the prevailing approach to weight loss had been to adopt a low-fat diet, with the bulk of the calories coming from carbohydrates. Fat had been demonized as the enemy of weight loss, so the idea was that it was best to eat only the minimum amount a body needs to survive. The first successful challenge to this dominant method of weight loss was the Atkins diet. It gained popularity in the 1990s, but critics claimed that its regimen of eating so much protein wasn’t sustainable. One of its critics was the cardiologist behind the South Beach Diet, who not only challenged Atkins, but whose findings completely flew in the face of traditional diet wisdom: Eat more healthy fats.

My spouse is one of those fortunate people who isn’t saddled with food issues. But heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes run more prominently in his family, so his concern for his genes prompted him to buy the book and try the South Beach diet. Since the cooking responsibility falls within my division of the household labor (and good thing!), I read the book, cried “Egad! I’m a sugar addict”, and decided I would try it out too.

How South Beach Works

South Beach advises resetting our bodies with a carbohydrate fast, followed by reintroducing healthier carbohydrates. The more carbohydrates are processed, the quicker our bodies digest them. When we eat processed foods, machines have done most of the ‘digestive’ work for us by removing the outer hulls and shells of grains. Refined flours certainly make fluffier pancakes, but don’t take very long for our bodies to process. As a result, we are set up to feel hungrier more quickly because it doesn’t take as long to process white flour as whole grain flour. Since simple sugars are the most basic form of a carbohydrate–whether it’s in the form of fruit juice, honey, or organic cane juice sugar–these carbohydrates digest even more quickly.

After reading the South Beach diet book, I conjectured that the reason I was frequently hungry was because I wasn’t eating complex enough carbohydrates. What happened next told me an awful lot about my food choices. We went into Week 1 of the diet–the carbohydrate fasting stage–with open minds, really hoping to make a change. But by about day 5, I was on the verge of eating our dogs’ biscuits when it was treat time. No lie! You know it’s bad when dog treats look and smell good!

My mom makes these and brings them for our dogs when she visits. How cool is that?!?

dog biscuits

The Aftermath of the South Beach Experiment

Admittedly, neither of us managed to get through even a whole week. But for the first time, I didn’t feel like a failure. Instead, because I was at a healthy weight, I was able to learn from this experience without feeling terrible. We ditched the diet (Michael lasted about a day longer than I did), but learned from this experiment that we were eating too many processed carbohydrates and foods. (Part of the problem also ended up being that, conditioned to fear fat, I wasn’t actually eating enough of it. But it took years to make this connection.)

A typical breakfast for me was Frosted Mini-Wheats, a banana, and a yogurt. For lunch I’d have a veggie burger on a wheat bun with ketchup, mustard, and fat-free cheese, along with raw carrots and a yogurt. As a vegetarian, dinner was something like faux BBQ chicken with roasted sweet potato wedges, some non-starchy vegetables, and a salad with fat-free dressing. My favorite dessert from my lifestyle change food plan was half of a Little Debbie’s brownie in an ocean of fat-free Cool Whip.

What I learned from my South Beach Diet experience was that I needed to reconsider everything I was eating. I vigilantly examined the nutritional data on food packages, no longer just looking at the total calories and grams of fat, but looking for the amount of added sugars, the fiber content, and the source of grains and sugar. Not surprisingly, the ‘frosted’ part of the Mini-Wheats added a lot of processed sugar, the ‘wheat’ bun turned out to be only wheat flour, not whole grain wheat flour (a significant difference), and thought the BBQ sauce was fat free, it contained mostly sugar. These things are more likely to be common knowledge today, as the food manufacturing industry responded to the diet industry’s trends, but at the time was not what I was conditioned to consider. It was just fat content.

So I readjusted my food choices. I switched from white rice to brown, white flour to whole grain pastry flour, and ordinary pasta to whole grain pasta. These were less palatable at first and took some getting used to, but before long, I came to prefer these over the more processed versions.

I also tried to reduce the amount of sugar in my diet. More information was coming out about high and low glycemic index foods. For a while, even Whole Foods advertised these numbers on their fresh produce. Eliminating refined sugars meant moving to sugars that have a lower glycemic index, like brown rice syrup. I love to bake, so it meant figuring out how to substitute liquid sugars for dry, but with the help of the Internet, that was easy enough to figure out.

It took some time, but I got really good at integrating more wholesome grains and reducing processed sugars when cooking and baking. We really cut back on the processed foods we were buying, which meant I ended up making a lot more of what we were eating. I even figured out how to make pretty fantastic, healthier brownies. Oh, and I ditched the Cool Whip.

Making these changes helped me to be less hungry sooner, but it wasn’t for years that I finally figured out what the real problem was…But first, I went through another major change. Next time, visit me for Change 3: Moving to a Plant-Based Diet. I promise I won’t proselytize, just explain how the next step in my food education made me quit dairy and eggs.

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