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."
But despite the fact that it can be done, will Americans be willing to gravitate toward what is essentially a vegetarian diet? Gardner said this point could be a tougher sell.
"The contrived nature of the diet, and the fact that it was fed to participants, makes for good reductionist science that allows it to get published, but it is several leaps of faith or steps from practical, long-term advice for the average American," he said. "I don't believe the average person would be able to practice a daily diet that derived [about] 75 percent of its protein from gluten and soy."
Carla Wolper, a dietitian at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital, agreed.
"Americans, particularly overweight and obese Americans, are not likely to buy into vegetarianism, even a high-fat version," she said. "So in the end, I don't think the question is, 'Does it work?' but rather 'Will large numbers of those at risk learn to live with this plan?'
"I hate to be a pessimist, as it is not my nature to think negatively, but I think not," she said.
Other diet experts said it would be a stretch to apply the Atkins name to the refurbished version of the low-carb diet, considering the regimen's meaty past.
"To call a high-protein, plant-based diet 'Eco-Atkins' is like calling a lentil an 'Eco-Cow,'" said Dr. David Katz, director and co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn. "Atkins proponents are devoted to the high-meat diet Atkins actually advocated, and if this comes over the transom as support for the Atkins diet, I am sure details are apt to get lost in translation."
"While I will concede that the so-called 'Eco-Atkins' diet appears to be more planet-pleasing and may lead to weight loss, it's still not people-pleasing," added Jackie Newgent, author of "Big Green Cookbook" and instructor at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York. "Even when wrapped up in trendy, sustainably green packaging, the Atkins diet is still the Atkins diet."
But while it still may be the Atkins diet to some, even Jenkins acknowledges that the diet's meat-loving adherents are unlikely to adopt the largely vegetarian regimen.
"I suspect that those who reveled in the Atkins diet will pass this up," he said. "I think we have to have a mindset in which people think about the planet's resources as finite. That's a far cry from 'Where's the beef?'"
And therein may lie the real difference, diet experts said.
"I don't really see that 'Eco-Atkins,' apart from its catchiness, is a particularly appropriate or relevant [diet]," said Dr. Stephen Richardson, associate professor of medicine at New York University. "Although if it were adapted on a global scale basis, it would result in less cattle-produced methane and help reduce global warming."
"What we want to say is that we may really have to grow up a bit," Jenkins said. "Stop navel-gazing and look outwards. We may have to start thinking about being a bit more responsible -- responsible for ourselves and for our planet."