MONDAY, June 8, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A modified Atkins diet, one that substitutes plant-based proteins for animal-based ones, helps people lose weight and lowers their cholesterol, new research shows.
"In just two weeks on the so-called 'Eco-Atkins' diet, everything starts to look much better metabolically ... I think this becomes an alternative for the heart disease reduction diet, which is obviously appropriate for diabetes," said Dr. David J.A. Jenkins, lead author of a study on the new diet appearing in the June 8 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"Dr. Atkins challenged nutritional wisdom by suggesting high-fat, high-protein diets would be better than more frugal low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol diets on which we've normally based therapeutic models for the treatment of cardiovascular disease," explained Jenkins, who is Canada research chair in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "This seemed like a terrible thing to do, but he did it and showed that, providing they got the weight loss, all seemed to be well. But one thing we didn't notice or didn't pay much attention to was the fact that cholesterol levels didn't actually go down, even though there was spectacular weight loss on the diet."
Jenkins and his team sought to maintain the basic high-protein, low-carb ratio of the Atkins diet, but in a way that might promote lowering of cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease.
Forty-four men and women who were overweight and had high cholesterol were assigned to a four-week regimen of either a low-fat, low-carb, high-vegetable, plant-based protein diet including vegetable oil, gluten, soy, nuts, fruits, vegetables and cereals, or a high-carb, lacto-ovo (dairy and eggs only) vegetarian diet.
Couriers delivered all meals to the participants. "They basically had room service, or its equivalent, in their homes," Jenkins said.
Participants in both groups lost the same amount of weight -- 8.8 pounds.
The real triumph, however, was seen in the 0.6 percent greater reduction in LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels in the group eating more plant-based proteins. Improvements in total cholesterol, ratios of proteins that adhere to fats, and blood pressure were also seen.
Several questions remain, including whether reductions in risk factors will translate into less disease, whether cholesterol-lowering will also help with additional risk factors like insulin resistance, and, the big question, how well people not participating in a strictly controlled trial will actually be able to follow the diet.
"It seems like a limited study in the number of people, the time frame... and what's advertised as low carb is still the minimum recommendation of 130 grams per day," said Marianne Grant, a registered dietitian and health educator with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center in Corpus Christi. "This diet is not as low carb as some other diets are."
Also, she added, "both diets were 60 percent reduced in calories, so the weight loss may be coming from the deficient calories and probably the cholesterol benefits are coming from high fiber. It's not a bad diet, but it requires more research. It's much better than other low-carb diet because it encourages eating nuts, fruits and vegetables and portion control. I think that's the most important thing with weight loss."
Another expert had a similar reaction to the findings.
"The study is very short-term and, in my opinion, pretty much anyone can lose weight in four weeks with this approach or other approaches," said Renee Simon, nutritional consultant to Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. "However, I don't really see any downside to the approach, although I might prefer a few other sources of protein because, long-term, I don't think you could sustain this with the major sources of protein being gluten and soy."
On the other hand, Molly Kimball, a sports dietitian at Ochsner Health Foundation in New Orleans, pointed out that many mainstream products can fit the bill. "It wouldn't be hard to put in things like veggie burgers or Special K protein that every store carries. A lot of low-carb breads have higher protein," she said. "Those are easy changes you can build into your day."
Kimball added that the regimen "has no real drawbacks" and has the advantage of not having higher carbs. "With plant diets, people can still turn to high carbs. You can have a vegan diet full of white stuff," she explained.
This study was supported by the Canadian government, Canadian food distributor Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and the Solae Company of St. Louis, Mo., which manufactures soy foods.
Visit the American Dietetic Association for more on healthy eating.