What's Atkins without the meat?
It could be the key to a healthy low-carb diet -- and a healthier planet -- according to a new study released Monday.
The study was a small one; it looked at a mere 44 people who adhered to either a low-carb, vegetarian "Eco-Atkins" diet or a low-fat vegetarian diet. Both of these diets restricted caloric intake -- and both led to an average loss of around eight or nine pounds over the four-week study period.
But those who subscribed to the "Eco-Atkins" diet both reduced their levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and improved their blood pressure, according to the study published in the June 8 Archives of Internal Medicine.
Considering the research that has pitted diet against diet in recent years, the finding that dieters can improve their health by cutting out meat and adding more vegetables -- all while keeping refined carbohydrates to a minimum -- is not the most controversial point ever to emerge from a diet study.
"I don't think that it does anything that overturns the apple cart, so to speak," said lead study author Dr. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto in Canada. "It's what you would have expected due to the data emerging in the literature."
But the question as to whether this type of low-carb diet can accurately be referred to as an Atkins diet of any kind -- considering Atkins' meat-heavy stereotype -- is a far more controversial proposition for some.
"To call this a vegetarian Atkins diet is, to paraphrase, like putting lipstick on a pork rind," said Dean Ornish, founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. "It's a little hard for me to understand why people are going out of their way to make an Atkins diet something that it isn't."
He said the diet is somewhat similar to a version of his own Ornish diet, with the primary difference being a higher level of vegetable fat than his regimen, which he has advocated for the past 30 years.
"People so badly want to believe that Atkins is good for them that they stretch things beyond credibility," Ornish said. "What it's going to be is confusing to people, and that's why I have a problem with it."
Still, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifying more than 30 percent of Americans as obese, any diet that cuts calories by 40 percent may be considered a welcome development.
Such was the case with both of the diets examined in this study. And the fact that both diets relied on plant proteins rather than meat made it an interesting proof of principle, some nutrition experts noted.
One such expert is Christopher Gardner, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. Gardner was also principal investigator of a 2007 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that pitted the Atkins, Zone, Ornish and LEARN diets head-to-head to determine which yielded the greatest weight loss benefits.
"I believe the highlight of this study was simply to show that it was feasible to create a very low carbohydrate diet that was high in plant fats and plant proteins rather than animal fats and animal proteins, and the investigators were able to get most of 25 individuals to adhere to this for one month," Gardner said. "So, it can be done."