The Best Low-Carbohydrate Diet? One That's Plant-Based

Not all low-carb diets are created equal—new research suggests that lots of meat raises death risk.

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Since its debut in the '80s, the Atkins diet and similar low-carb menus have swung back and forth, lauded and vilified, several times over. Some supporters say they're a fast track to weight loss with less hunger, while detractors say they're too restrictive and don't provide enough fuel—carbohydrates break down to glucose, which powers the body and brain. New research could tip the scales once again in favor of low carbs. According to a study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a low-carb diet may reduce the risk of death from all medical causes, especially heart disease—if it's heavy on proteins and fats from plants, not animals. A low-carb regimen heavy on meat raised the risk of dying from cancer and other medical causes, the researchers found after following more than 85,000 women for 26 years and 44,000 men for 20 years.

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"It's no big surprise, because the animal-protein diet will have lots of saturated fat and cholesterol, and the plant-based diet will have unsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes," says study coauthor Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Low-carb diets are neither good nor bad—it's what we're replacing those carbs with that's important. It's making choices among your protein and fat sources, and choosing to emphasize the plant sources."

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The study highlights the Eco-Atkins diet popularized in 2009 by David Jenkins, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who is credited with developing the eating plan. High in plant proteins and rich in fruits and vegetables, it is touted by the study authors as an ideal example of a healthy low-carb diet. While the study does not suggest such a diet will make you live longer, Eco-Atkins has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and promote weight loss, says Jenkins. Here's what you need to know to follow the program, adapt it to fit your needs, or—if you're a meat lover—cultivate your taste for green and leafy stuff.

Learn the structure. The Eco-Atkins diet typically calls for 31 percent of daily calories to come from plant proteins, 43 percent from fats, and 26 percent from carbs.

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Get acquainted with beans, the "glory child" of plant-based protein, says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet. A general rule of thumb when cooking: A quarter-cup of beans of any kind—white, black, pinto, garbanzo—has the same amount of protein as 1 ounce of meat, she says. Soybeans are especially versatile. Anything you can do with a chicken breast, you can do with a soy product, says Jackson Blatner. Fermented and shaped into blocks, loaves, or patties, soybeans are made into tofu and tempeh. Top tofu with barbecue or teriyaki sauce; bake it, grill it, or add it to a veggie stir-fry to add protein.

Explore the other sources of plant-based protein."There's a myth that it's hard to get enough protein on this kind of diet, and that's not true at all," says cardiologist Dean Ornish, author of Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish's Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly. Sources include nuts, high-protein vegetables like brussels sprouts, and grains like couscous, pearl barley, and lentils. A single ounce of almonds provides 6 grams of protein—more than 10 percent of a 150-pound person's daily protein needs. A small portion of cooked broccoli—half a cup—offers 2 grams, says registered dietitian Keri Gans, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Seitan, or wheat gluten, derived from wheat germ, has a meaty texture, can be flavored to taste like chicken, sausage, or any spice, and is a popular alternative to soy products.

Ditch dairy drinks. Plant-based beverages like soy milk, almond milk, or rice milk are healthful alternatives to cow's milk, and you don't have to give up the calcium. "What's nice about these milks is that most are fortified with calcium and vitamin D," says Jackson Blatner. "So for people trying to really hit the mark with good nutrition on a plant-based diet, these are great."