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The “Eco-Atkins” Diet

Recently, a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine received a flurry of media attention.

The study authors started by admitting that low-carbohydrate dieting was indeed effective, not only for weight loss, but for reducing insulin resistance, lowering triglyceride concentrations and for raising HDL (so-called “good" cholesterol). The researchers wanted to see if they could design a low-carbohydrate diet that retained the proven weight-loss benefits of low-carb plans like Atkins and also help people improve their cholesterol while following a vegetarian, vegan approach.

They think they found such a diet in the program now labeled “Eco-Atkins".

The researchers put one group of participants on a vegan diet (which contains not a single animal product or by-product, including eggs) which met their definition of low-carb and high-protein. Protein (31% of total calories) came mainly from gluten, soy, and nuts, with typical foods being soy burgers, veggie bacon and breakfast links. Most of the fat (43% of total calories) came from nuts, vegetable oils, soy products and avocado. The rest of the calories on this vegan low-carb diet were carbohydrates (26% of total calories which translates to 130 grams of carbohydrates and is pretty high based on Atkins), mostly from fruits and vegetables and some cereals—but common starchy items like bread, rice, potatoes and baked goods were eliminated.

The researchers tested the “Eco-Atkins" diet against a standard low-fat lacto-vegetarian diet which contained 58% of calories from carbs, 16% from protein and 25% from fat and was designed to have both low-saturated fat and low-cholesterol; most of the protein in the low-fat vegetarian diet came from low-fat or skim milk dairy products and liquid egg whites. Both diets were calorie reduced (60% of estimated caloric requirement, with allowance for exercise). All subjects in both groups were overweight at the start of the study, which lasted one month.

Both groups lost weight, not surprising given the reduction in calories on both diets. But there were some important differences between the two groups when it came to cholesterol.

The “Eco-Atkins" group saw their LDL-cholesterol (the so-called “bad" cholesterol) drop significantly more than the group on the low-fat vegetarian diet. As an added benefit, ApoB- a component of LDL that is related to heart disease fell significantly more for the low-carb dieters than it did for the high-carbers. Imagine how much better this group would have done if they followed Atkins protocols for carb consumption.

It's been a long, uphill and sometimes discouraging battle to get the conventional medical community to accept low carb in any form. So here's a study in a conservative journal that demonstrates that lower-carb can be adapted to even the rigorous vegan eating pattern, producing not only weight loss, lowered insulin resistance and lowered triglycerides, but lowered cholesterol as well.

Though it's not widely known, the truth is that it's entirely possible to follow all four phases of Atkins and be a vegan or lacto-ovo vegetarian as well. Tofu, eggs and cheese are the main source of protein for vegetarians and supply all essential amino acids. In addition, fiber, and a variety of nutrients are provided by the vegetables, avocado, and olives which accompany the meals. After the induction phase, other proteins can be added for variety including cottage cheese, yogurt, nuts and seeds. As with non-vegetarians, we recommend a daily multivitamin and fish oil supplement-- vegans can substitute flax oil for fish oil.

Please note that vegans, because of limited protein sources, will have difficulty following the induction phase of Atkins but may start the program in one of the other three phases: OWL, pre-maintenance or maintenance. The “Eco-Atkins" diet was essentially a maintenance phase diet for vegans. Presumably even more weight loss might have occurred if carbs had been lowered to OWL or pre-maintenance levels.

A myriad of derivative low-carbohydrate programs have sprung up over the past few years, all claiming to be a new and improved version of Atkins. Eco Atkins is the most recent example. But the truth is that Atkins has always been the leader in low-carb nutrition with its scientifically validated approach to low-carb weight loss and weight control. Obesity, and obesity related health problems, are at epidemic levels and Atkins has made all the significant contributions to weight loss through low-carb nutrition and science. The imitators are just that – imitators, and free riding on Atkins reputation for success and science.

The bottom line is that the public needs a healthy approach to eating based on peer-reviewed science. A successful low-carbohydrate nutritional approach is not about subtle differences in fat grams, or an imposed number of carb consumption ; it is about controlling carbohydrates to the point that does not stress the metabolism, and keeping that amount below what the body dictates it can handle. And when it comes to that, Atkins is the only time-tested and scientifically validated program in existence.

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