Fla. Schools Try South Beach Diet

Four elementary schools in Florida's Osceola County have agreed to implement the popular low-carb South Beach diet as part of a study by South Beach diet books author Dr. Arthur Agatston to determine whether the regimen can help children maintain a healthy weight. Two other schools will retain their previous menus and serve as a "control group" against which results at the four test schools will be measured.

Agatston, a successful cardiologist before he achieved wealth and fame with his diet books, emphasizes that the goal of the initiative is not to put students on a "diet" so much as to teach them to make good food choices.

Unlike the "all-butter/no-bread" stereotype associated with many lowcarb diets, the South Beach approach emphasizes the fiber and complex carbohydrates found in foods like whole grains and many fruits and vegetables, and on low-fat proteins like lean meats. (The initial two-week carbohydrate deprivation period traditionally required for strict South Beach dieters was waived for the this study.)

Jean Palmore, FSD for Osceola County Schools, says the district's involvement started with a school board member from one of the schools who is a patient of Dr. Agatston. "She learned that they were looking for schools and pushed for our involvement," Palmore says. After meeting with parents and allaying concerns, four schools decided to join up.

How has it been working? Palmore says the program got off to a slow start, initially because the hurricanes that hit Florida in early fall delayed implementation until October. Once the program began, students were wary of the changed menu. "Participation dropped off early on but has slowly come back," Palmore says.

"The kids didn't like the fact that many of their favorite things were no longer available and they didn't take quickly to the new items," she notes. The breakfast program, which saw the elimination of most kid-friendly sweets like muffins, pancakes and cereals, suffered the most. "We found only a couple of cereal alternatives that met the South Beach nutritional requirements," Palmore says.

During lunch, the most traumatic changes were the elimination of breaded chicken nuggets and fish sticks and potato-based sides. They were replaced by unbreaded fish and chicken and sweet potatos, which Palmore terms "not too kid friendly."

In addition to eating meals conforming to the South Beach approach, students at the four schools are also encouraged to become more physically active. Each was given a pedometer at the beginning of the program to track the number of steps they take each day.

The four schools—Mill Creek Elementary, Partin Settlement Elementary, P.M. Wells Charter Elementary and Kissimmee Charter Elementary—have a combined enrollment of about 2,700. The study is scheduled to end in May.