The 'Eco Atkins' Diet

5 min read

The high-protein, low-carbAtkins Diet has been around for decades, even though many experts believe that a diet so high in animal fats is at odds with good health. Now, there's a vegetarian Atkins Diet alternative, sometimes called the "Eco-Atkins diet."

Studies have shown that the original Atkins Diet could reduce insulin resistance (the body's inability to respond properly to insulin) and raise "good" (HDL) cholesterol, but had little impact on "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.

The Eco Atkins diet came about after researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto decided to see whether a high-protein vegetarian diet could promote weight loss along with a reduction in "bad" cholesterol. They devised the Eco Atkins diet, keeping the same ratio of protein and carbs as the original Atkins diet but replacing the high-fat animal protein with vegetable protein (primarily from soy and gluten).

For their study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the researchers put 47 overweight men and women on either the Eco-Atkins diet or a lacto-ovo (including dairy and eggs) vegetarian diet with more carbs and less fat. Both diets were low in calories, providing 60% of the study participants' calorie requirements.

Over four weeks, both groups lost an average of 8.8 pounds, and improved their blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. But those following the Eco Atkins diet saw a greater reduction (0.6%) in "bad" cholesterol.

Instead of the steaks and bacon found in the original Atkins diet, dieters in the study were given prepared foods that consisted mostly of healthy fats, soy foods, beans, nuts, seeds, no-starch gluten products, fruits, and vegetables. Some 31% of the calories in the diet came from plant proteins, 43% from vegetable oils, and 26% from carbs.

Protein came primarily from gluten, soy beverages; tofu; soy burgers; veggie products such as bacon, breakfast links, and deli slices; nuts; vegetables; and cereals. The diet emphasized viscous vegetables like okra and eggplant, along with other low-starch vegetables.

The diet included "good fats" from canola oil, olive oil, avocado, and nuts. The dieters got carbs from fruits, vegetables, and cereals, with a limited amount of oats and barley. But they ate no starchy foods like enriched white bread, rice, potatoes, or baked goods.

Although the Eco Atkins diet improved some health measures, these improvements were not significantly more than those seen other diet plans, experts say.

In the Eco Atkins study, "participants lowered calorie intake by 40%, which is most likely the reason for the weight loss, more than the type of diet," says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She adds that the satisfying nature of a diet rich in high-fiber plant proteins probably made it easier for participants to stick to the low-calorie plan for four weeks.

A strict vegan diet like the Eco Atkins diet is one of many strategies to lower cholesterol, although the high fiber level of the diet may have enhanced its cholesterol-lowering effect, experts say.

"Substituting healthy fats for saturated or trans fats, eating fewer fried and high-fat foods, increasing soluble fiber, and getting regular physical activity are all effective means to lowering cholesterol," Mooloo says.

Robert Eckel, MD, a University of Denver professor who is past president of the American Heart Association, says the Eco-Atkins diet is definitely better than the original Atkins Diet -- but both are too restrictive for most people to stick with in the long run. He adds that the Eco Atkins Diet study was too short to provide any data on long-term compliance.

Because both study groups lost the same amount of weight, regardless of whether they were on the lower- or higher-carb diet, Eckel suggests eating more healthy carbs. The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends that people get 45% to 65% of daily calories from carbohydrates to provide enough energy and fuel for physical activity and good health.

Simply substituting plant proteins for some of the animal proteins in your diet can be just as effective as the Eco-Atkins diet to help lower blood cholesterol levels, Eckel says.

Mooloo notes that you can lower your cholesterol levels just by losing weight, exercising more, and choosing healthier fats. She believes that a less restrictive approach would work better for most people.

"It concerns me when whole food groups like dairy are eliminated because essential nutrients could be missing from the diet, like calcium and vitamin D, says Mooloo.

Eckel says he recommends the No Fad Diet by the American Heart Association for his patients who are overweight and need to lower cholesterol levels. Mooloo suggests the South Beach Diet or South Beach Supercharged as healthy, sustainable diets for losing weight and lowering cholesterol.

A strict low-carb, plant-based diet can help you lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease -- but can you adopt it as a lifestyle?

The challenge for most people will be giving up all animal products, limiting carbs, and eating a totally plant-based diet.

If you're interested in following the Eco Atkins diet plan, consult a registered dietitian first, to ensure the plan meets all of your nutritional needs.

If the Eco-Atkins diet is too strict for you, try a modified version by increasing the plant proteins, good carbs, and healthy fats in your diet. Stick to lean or low-fat animal foods, and limit high-fat animal products. Add a dose of regular physical activity for heart health and weight control.