Like Atkins, Only Healthier

Daryn Eller
Photograph: Dan Page

The high protein, low-carb Atkins diet—which gave many people an excuse to load up on bacon and burgers—and similar weight loss plans have a good track record for helping dieters cut calories and slim down fast without feeling deprived. But studies say the large amounts of meat and saturated fat that can keep hunger at bay also tend to increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Now a researcher has redesigned Atkins-style diets to eliminate animal foods, thereby eliminating troubling side effects as well.

The eating strategy devised by David J. A. Jenkins, MD, PhD, the nutrition researcher who developed the glyce­mic index, and his colleagues at the University of Toronto is an un-meaty way to go low-carb. Their so-called Eco-Atkins diet mimics the original plan’s high protein, low-carbohydrate makeup, but suggests protein-rich plant-based foods instead of animal ones. Because it’s totally animal free, this is a vegan meal plan.

In Jenkins’s recent study, participants following the plan lost about nine pounds after four weeks—and they found the plant protein diet just as satiating as one based on animal protein. What’s more, the diet produced other healthy changes besides weight loss, reducing the average LDL cholesterol levels by 20 percent and blood pressure by approximately two percent. “It also may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes,” says Jenkins, whose glycemic index was originally developed to help people with diabetesestimate the impact of carbohydrates on their blood sugar. For women with environmental concerns, this “no meat, no milk, no eggs” plan has another bonus: Greenhouse gases are produced by livestock, but if this diet became popular, fewer cattle might be raised and less gas would be produced. And because making animal products consumes more energy than raising plant-based foods, the diet the­oretically helps reduce global warming.

Um, Did You Say “Vegan”?
In line with what Dr. Atkins once ordered for the maintenance phase of his plan, study participants ate meals consisting of 26 percent carbohydrates, 31 percent protein and 43 percent fat. They eliminated common starches such as bread, potatoes and rice, and added in fibrous grains like barley that are digested slowly and don’t spike the blood sugar level. The rest of the diet was distinctly different from most people’s idea of low-carb. Protein came primarily from wheat gluten (also called seitan), soy and nuts, with a little more contributed by fruits, vegetables and grains.

But what if you have no intention of trolling health food stores and filling your shopping cart with seitan? Or you don’t want to forgo products such as yogurt and egg whites? Turns out that even if you’re not willing to give up all animal foods, you can still improve your overall health by cutting back, rather than totally eliminating, your intake of animal protein.

In Jenkins’s study, a control group who followed a higher carbohydrate vegetarian diet that included some eggs and low-fat dairy lost weight and slightly lowered their LDL cholesterol (by about 10 percent). The key, it seems, is eating less meat. “Any time you substitute vegetable protein for animal protein, there are health advantages,” says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, RD, of the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. And Jenkins believes that plant-based diets are especially effective at lowering LDL when the mix of protein comes from soy and nuts, so eating less meat and more of those foods is beneficial.

Going Greener
The carbs-protein-fat ratio in the study is hard to reproduce, so if you’re serious about getting it right, talk to your doctor and consider consulting a dietitian. (You won’t find help in a diet book; the study authors don’t plan to publish one.) But if you simply want to drop pounds and boost your health, just follow the general concepts the study tested. Eat a limited amount of whole grains such as oat bran and barley. Emphasize soy, nuts and other plant-based protein, and opt for the veggies highest in protein, such as broccoli, bok choy and Brussels sprouts. Also choose those low in starch, like okra, Jenkins suggests.

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