The Atkins diet appears to allow dieters to have their cake and eat it too. It has demonstrated that a low-carbohydrate diet, with an emphasis on animal proteins from cheese, eggs and meat, can deliver dramatic weight loss results. The diet even permits ‘naughty’ foods like bacon, cheese and eggs to be consumed without guilt.

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But while high-protein diets might deliver results on the bathroom scales, there is growing concern that they may lead to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. Besides this, for many women a meat-rich diet is incompatible with their ethical or religious outlook.
In environmental terms, meat production requires many more acres of cleared land and is more energy and water intensive to produce than the foods that constitute the average vegetarian diet. So eliminating meat from your diet – or making an effort to eat less – automatically reduces your carbon footprint.

Introducing Eco-Atkins

The Eco-Atkins diet was developed by nutritional scientist Professor David Jenkins and his team at the University of Toronto. It enables those who cannot eat meat for conscience, health or allergy reasons to enjoy the benefits of Atkins-style weight loss. It may be the answer for those of us who are just as concerned about where the food on our plates has come from as where it’s going to end up – and the health benefits are clear.
Professor Jenkins was responsible for the Glycaemic Index (GI), which enables people to choose foods that make them feel fuller for longer, controlling their insulin levels and reducing their risk of diabetes – or limiting the severity of the disease.


In developing the Eco-Atkins diet, the Toronto team maintained the carbohydrate-protein ratio of the Atkins diet, but substituted animal proteins with plant-based proteins. They studied the effects of the diet not only on weight loss but on health, and concluded that their diet resulted in similar weight loss to other high-protein diets, but, in addition, reduced blood pressure and LDL levels (bad cholesterol) and increased insulin sensitivity, lowering the risk of diabetes.

What do the experts think?

“The quality of proteins and fats in the diet is very important,” says director of the Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic and Australian accredited practising dietitian Sue Radd.


“We used to think it was just the quantity that was important, hence the low-fat diet era and more recently the high-protein and low-carbohydrate era, but through recent research it has become clear that, especially at the high levels, the quality of protein and fat is critical in terms of outcome.


“While the fullness factor from protein and fat in the typical high-protein diet helps you to lose weight, there is great concern about what it does to your health in general – to your risk of heart disease, kidney impairment and (particularly bowel) cancer.


“In the case of the Eco-Atkins, the researchers matched the high levels of protein and fat, but swapped the quality of the protein and the fat to plant foods, which act very differently in the body. So while it helps you lose the weight, it also addresses those risk factors for the chronic and killer diseases we face in Australia.”


The Eco-Atkins diet is vegan – so no dairy is allowed – and requires 150g of plant-derived protein daily. The regime also emphasises soluble fibre from oats, barley, cereals, fresh fruit and vegetables, and good fats from macadamias, almonds, avocado and olive oil.


As yet there are no published meal plans available for the diet, but the guiding principles are to restrict your total calories to 60 per cent of your previous intake and ensure that plant proteins dominate your daily food intake. And you’ll need to cut the dairy and go vegan. (Interestingly, other studies have shown that even without limiting any calories, adopting a vegan style diet results in excellent weight loss and improves blood sugar and fat levels.)


This may seem like a difficult adjustment to make, but it’s getting easier with the increased variety of plant-based protein foods on the market. There are also a number of long-ignored staples around to consider.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts are an excellent source of plant fat and plant protein – you get both in the one package. They have the added benefit of being rich in anti-oxidants.


“Anti-oxidants protect the fats that we eat, which can otherwise become oxidised (mixed with oxygen) and harmful,” Radd says. “Blended vegetable oil, although polyunsaturated, has a very different effect on the body than, say, a nut or a seed, which is intact in its little package and the fats there come with
anti-oxidants.


“Whole plant foods not only give you the right types of fats, but fats that are not going to be harmful to your health. Nuts are a really good example.


“Significant studies have shown that eating nuts, seeds or nut paste five times a week or more lowers the risk of heart attack by 50 per cent, which should be a big motivating factor to include them in your diet.”

Avocado

Another really good example of a whole food fat is avocado. “We’ve known about the benefits of avocado for a long time,” Radd says. “Use it on bread as a spread instead of margarine or butter – it’s a great plant-based fat source.”

Olive oil

Olive oil is known for its ‘good fat’ properties. But you need to buy extra virgin olive oil to reap the full benefits.
“Refined or light olive oil has had the anti-oxidants stripped out of it, meaning you get the fatty acids without the anti-oxidants,” Radd says.


“So even within what is normally considered a good fat, like olive oil, the level of processing will determine how healthy that fat is, so the closer you can get to having the fat intact within its natural package, the better.”

Legumes

There is a huge variety of legumes – for example, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and soybeans – to choose from, and they can be added to increase the variety and depth of main meals. Use the cuisines of the Mediterranean and the Middle East for inspiration to include these proteins in salads, soups, tagines, curries and stews. They protect against bowel cancer, lower the GI of your entire meal and are a powerful source of protein.

Soy products

Soybean products such as tofu and tempeh are used across the cuisines of Asia and can be added to stir fries, salads and a range of main courses. Soy milk and yoghurt will also provide dietary benefits.

Gluten

The word itself elicits fear because of coeliac disease, and it’s not for everybody. But for those of us who can eat it, it is a versatile product sourced from a variety of grains and it helps lower blood cholesterol.


“You can buy gluten flour and make ‘gluten steak’, which is commonly used in many vegetarian diets. Asian cuisine also uses gluten to make mock meats such as mock duck and chicken,” Radd says.

Food for thought

The Eco-Atkins diet does not take as severe an approach to carbohydrate restriction as its animal protein equivalent. The traditional Atkins diet advises a limit of just 20g on daily consumption of carbohydrates (the average intake is 250g), whereas the Eco-Atkins diet allows around 130g.


This ensures the brain gets all the carbohydrates it needs (its preferred energy source), allows you to include lots of legumes and fruit, and may make the diet more appealing to those who don’t think they can exist on tofu burgers and soy sausages alone.


If the Eco-Atkins doesn’t seem feasible over the long term – and for many it won’t be – its principles can certainly be incorporated into a healthy diet. Some people go ‘meat-free’ one day per week, or halve the amount of meat in dishes like chilli con carne or spaghetti bolognese by introducing legumes like kidney beans and lentils.


Professor Jenkins himself has acknowledged that there will be those who are unable to stick to a strict form of the diet, but he hopes that it will literally provide food for thought.


“Even if meat-rich diets were healthy and health professionals didn’t have concerns about a potentially increased risk of bowel cancer, it would not be possible to feed a large proportion of our planet on such a diet,” he says.
So whether it’s ‘meatless Mondays’ or a fully-fledged adoption of the Eco-Atkins principles, good health, weight loss and environmental sustainability may be more closely related than first thought.