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.
"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."
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.
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."
Sub healthy fats for unhealthy fats. Saturated and trans fats—think butter, whole milk, fatty cuts of beef, and hydrogenated vegetable oils—can be harmful. Omega-3 fatty acids, nut butters, seeds, avocados, and olives are heart-healthier options. Vegetable oils such as canola oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil are also beneficial. They can be used for cooking, as salad dressings, or toppings. Canola oil, for instance, is mild and bland, so it works well as an all-purpose oil; it won't interfere with the flavors from any of your main ingredients.
Choose carbs wisely. There are good carbs and bad carbs. As Atkins preached, starchy foods like white bread, rice, potatoes, and baked goods top the Eco-Atkins "don't eat" list, while fruit, vegetables, low-sugar, whole-grain cereal, whole-wheat bread, and oats are recommended. When opting for carbs, veggies are best—try okra and eggplant, which are good bets because they're low in starch, unlike carrots, peas, and corn.
If you crave meat, create its flavor. New converts to plant-based diets often say they miss meat—but what they really miss is its flavor, aptly described by the Japanese term for savory, "umami," says Jackson Blatner. "That flavor comes in a lot of forms, like in mushrooms, soy sauce, soybeans, and even eggplant," she says. "The trick is creating vegetarian meat flavor, so you don't have to eat meat to get that flavor."
Reinvent your favorites. Try black-bean instead of steak burritos. Or if chicken stir-fry is your thing, sub garbanzo beans or edamame for the poultry. (Edamame, a green soybean, is found in the frozen section of most grocery stores.) And consider replacing turkey meatballs or the meat in spaghetti sauce with white beans. "I usually like white beans in Italian foods, pinto beans and black beans in Mexican, and garbanzo beans in Asian stir-fries and Mediterranean foods," says Jackson Blatner. "That's your first step—take the beans and do a direct swap."
Remember that it's not all or nothing. Willett is a fan of moderate dietary tweaks. "If you're choosing a snack, have a whole-grain cracker with peanut butter, as opposed to a chunk of cheese or a slice of bologna. It doesn't have to be real strict—nutrition has a lot to do with trade-offs," he says. Just a few days a week of swapping out meat in favor of plant protein can make a difference.