April 26, 2004 12:00 PM

Before Arthur Agatston became a weight-loss wizard, he was a low-fat chocolate-cookie addict. For years the Miami Beach cardiologist wondered why, if he was being so “good” by choosing low-fat snacks, he was still carrying 15 unwanted pounds around his middle. By the early ’90s, Agatston had won accolades for identifying a major predictor of heart disease, but he couldn’t, for the life of him, solve the equation between all those cookies and his snug pants. “If it was low-fat, [we thought] you could eat with impunity, and I did, as did the country in general,” says Agatston, 57. “Since then, the rate of obesity has just skyrocketed.”

In the past year Agatston’s famed book The South Beach Diet has done the same. It is now in its 24th printing, with 7.75 million copies circulating, and the diet, which limits certain carbohydrates and fats, has become a phenomenon. (When fans read that he liked Laughing Cow Light minicheeses, the snack’s manufacturer was forced into overtime production.) The book, which topped The New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks, was just the beginning. This month Agatston released The South Beach Diet Cookbook, which hit Amazon’s Top 5 even before its on-sale date, and a range of South Beach Diet prepared foods is in the works. “When I go to the golf club now,” says Agatston, the son and grandson of ophthalmologists, “everybody comes up to me and says either they are on the diet or a family member is.”

For those who aren’t, the diet entails three phases: Two weeks of no starches or fruits, followed by the reintroduction of carbohydrates like whole grains, and finally, a maintenance program. Phase one prohibits some foods (like orange juice, chicken wings and beer) but green-lights others (lobster, Canadian bacon and peanut butter). Agatston—who grew up in Roslyn, N.Y., “being told to clean my plate” but was never overweight until his 40s—lost 8 lbs. in a week when he first tried it.

But his goal was not just weight loss or to become a guru to such high-profile carb lovers as Bette Midler and Bill Clinton, who has called South Beach “the best thing ever.” Instead, he was aiming, he says, to “prevent heart attacks and strokes.” Back at NYU medical school, Agatston had been taught that sugar’s only downside was tooth decay. But in the mid-’90s, he began reading about how blood sugar spikes and drops after eating carbs such as white potatoes and sweets. He drew a conclusion similar to the one the late Dr. Robert Atkins had come to some 20 years earlier: Those swings actually made people more hungry, even though they had just eaten. But while he appreciated his rival’s courage in contradicting the low-fat majority, he worried about Atkins’s invitation to eat unlimited artery-clogging saturated fats like bacon and butter.

In his practice at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Agatston, working with registered dietician Marie Almon, came up with the blueprint for the South Beach Diet in 1996 and tested it on many of his heart patients. Within months, inches came off their bellies, and their blood chemistries improved. What’s more, they did it without exercise. “We wanted to test only the diet,” says Agatston, a lifelong athlete who jogs daily. “I tell everybody to exercise.”

In 1999 a Miami TV news show put scores of people on his plan and broadcast the results, making him a sensation in body-conscious South Florida. A book deal made it national—and Agatston a wealthy man. (Though he insists that “my wife takes care of the money—I don’t know what is in the bank account,” the millions of books sold indicate that he’s a multimillionaire.) But neither Agatston’s fame nor his diet impresses all his peers. “He is respected in cardiology,” says Dr. Robert Eckel, spokesman for the American Heart Association. “But he’s playing into the carbohydrate message, and I’m concerned about that. Obesity is calories—there is nothing magic about carbs versus fat.”

Agatston takes both his critics and his success in stride. He remains confident his methods work: After putting on some pounds over the holidays last year, he slimmed down when wife Sari gave him a gentle nudge, pointing out “I was the only person in the country not on the diet.” He and Sari, 48, a lawyer, are remodeling the Miami Beach home they share with their two teenage sons. But he rarely splurges—except on golf gadgets. As for fame, he admits that might come in handy. “I have this fantasy that if I lose my driver’s license, I can point to the book and say, ‘That’s me!’ ” Agatston says. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Allison Adato. Linda Trischitta in Miami Beach

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