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What is the “Eco-Atkins” Diet?

Can you do a low-carb diet like Atkins while following a vegetarian or vegan diet? A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine says it is possible. 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 or 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?

This study demonstrates that lower-carb can be adapted to even the rigorous vegan eating pattern, resulting not only in weight loss but lowered insulin resistance and lowered triglycerides, as well as lowered cholesterol.

Vegans and Vegetarians Can "Do" Atkins

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 Phase 1, 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 Phase 1 of Atkins but may start the program in one of the other three phases or follow Atkins 40™. 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 Phase 2 or Phase 3 levels.