Cardiologist and author
Born in 1947; married Sari. Education: Graduate of New York University School of Medicine; specialized medical training at Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and New York University.
Addresses: Office—c/o Author Mail, Rodale, 33 East Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098-0099.
Doctor in private practice, South Florida Cardiology Associates, Miami, FL; University of Miami School of Medicine, associate professor of medicine and director of the Mt. Sinai Non-Invasive Cardiac Lab; expert consultant for the Clinical Trials Committee of the National Institutes of Health; co-director of the annual Symposium on Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. First book, The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss, published by Random House, 2003.
Florida cardiologist Arthur Agatston became America's newest diet guru with his best-selling South Beach Diet book in 2003. The Miami doctor had not originally set out to write a weight-loss bible, but instead had devised the healthy-eating plan for his patients to help them avoid heart attacks and strokes. He originally called it a "modified carbohydrate diet," but it became known as the "South Beach diet" on its way to a publishing deal that would put seven million copies on the market a year later and make it the newest diet craze of the 2000s. A title linked to the fit model types who populate the hedonist-hipster beach spot of Miami worked better than images of his northern Miami waiting room, he admitted to Time's Joel Stein. "My waiting room is not exactly filled with South Beach models."
Born in 1947, Agatston grew up in Roslyn, New York, and earned his medical school degree from New York University. He went on to advanced training in cardiology, and eventually settled in the Miami area and in private practice with South Florida Cardiology Associates. He also served as an associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine and headed the Mt. Sinai Non-Invasive Cardiac Lab.
Agatston was already known in cardiology circles thanks to his research projects. With a radiologist colleague, he devised a way to measure calcium levels in coronary arteries, which predict the risk of a heart attack. Their unique electron beam tomography scan, or EBT, ranks the level of calcium in what is known in medical parlance as the "Agatston Scale." But calcium deposits in the arteries were just one part of the heart-attack equation. Agatston wondered why so many people, himself included, seemed unable to lose that last ten pounds they carried around the midsection. He worked out regularly, and his only indulgence were low-fat chocolate chip cookies, but still he could not shed his "spare tire."
Agatston began to look into research involving insulin resistance and how the body converts calories into glucose. Insulin is a peptide hormone, produced by the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, which regulates the level of glucose, or sugar, in the blood. Food is converted into energy in the form of glucose, but certain foods have a quick turnaround time, while others take much longer to become fuel for the body's needs. Their rate of conversion is known as the glycemic index, or GI. Its numbers are an indicator of the blood-sugar level and insulin response to various foods. If a food is converted slowly, for example, the GI, which rates items on a scale of zero to 100, will be low.
On the other hand, eating something that converts quickly into glucose—foods that hit the 70s range on the GI scale—means the person will be hungry again sooner because of the insulin response. Agatston wondered if stabilizing the body's insulin levels could end overeating due to hunger and food cravings. Insulin levels could be leveled out by avoiding the foods with the highest GI, which all seemed to be made from refined carbohydrates. Examples are items such as white bread, bagels, and pastries. Agatston devised a diet plan that avoided these foods and included lots of others that had low GI numbers. He tried it on himself, and shed eight pounds in one week.
Agatston then began trying it out on his patients in 1996. They came back, thrilled they had lost weight without increasing their exercise level, and he was pleased to note that their cholesterol and insulin levels had plummeted. When a Miami television station did a story on his plan and followed a group of dieters, Agatston became a local celebrity. Restaurant chefs began offering menu items that adhered to his diet, which advised eating foods with a GI of 55 or lower. He believed that a reliance on a high-carb diet had helped Americans become the fattest nation on the planet. "Nobody in the history of man ever ate complex carbohydrates like we have," he pointed out in an interview with New York Times journalist Abby Goodnough.
The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss was published in April of 2003. It hit the bookstores just as Dr. Robert Atkins' venerable "no-carbohydrate" diet was enjoying a renewed bout of popularity. But some nutrition experts warned that the famous Atkins no-carb regime, which was heavy on meat and saturated fats, was unhealthy for the heart and arteries. Agatston's modified-carbohydrate plan, on the other hand, promised to keep cholesterol low and help dieters lose those unwanted midsection pounds. It had three phases: during the first one, bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, and even fruit were verboten. During the second phase, carbohydrates that were rich in fiber were permitted, as well as some fruits. The third phase provided suggestions for a healthy-lifestyle eating plan that was meant to be adopted permanently.
Agatston's South Beach book remained on the bestseller lists for 26 weeks, with sales boosted by celebrity endorsements that included Bill Clinton and Bette Midler. As with any diet book, there were detractors, who claimed that a food's GI rating had a lot to do with what else had been eaten during a meal. They also pointed out that following a reduced calorie plan—Phase One of Agatston's regime featured a daily calorie intake of just 1,500—would cause anyone to lose weight.
Agatston followed up his immensely successful first book with The South Beach Diet Cookbook: More Than 200 Delicious Recipes That Fit the Nation's Top Diet and The South Beach Diet: Good Fats and Good Carbs Guide. He was so busy promoting his book in 2003 that he actually regained a few pounds. His wife, Sari, an attorney who handles the financial boon that his book brought in, told him it was time to do something about it. According to her, "I was the only person in the country," Agatston joked in a People profile, "not on the diet."
The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
The South Beach Diet: Good Fats and Good Carbs Guide, Rodale (Emmaus, PA), 2004.
The South Beach Diet Cookbook: More Than 200 Delicious Recipes That Fit the Nation's Top Diet, Rodale (Emmaus, PA), 2004.
Cosmopolitan, May 2004, p. 220.
Guardian (London, England), July 13, 2004, p. 8.
Independent (London, England), July 21, 2004, p. 2.
New York Times, October 7, 2003, p. F1.
People, April 26, 2004, pp. 65-66.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 2003, p. 76; March 1, 2004, p. 65.
Time, April 26, 2004, p. 121.
Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, May 2004, p. 1.
Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.