Man in kitchen

Atkins dieters, it’s time to make an eco-friendly diet makeover. The Eco-Atkins diet is a high protein diet alternative, rich in plant derived proteins, like nuts, beans and soy. High protein diets may help you lose weight, but the bacon, burgers, and eggs may be hard on your heart. A new study found people following low-carb diets containing the most animal-based proteins and fats had a 23 percent higher risk of death compared to those who loaded up on the vegetable-based proteins and fats instead.

The well-designed and lengthy study followed two cohorts — 85,168 women aged 34 to 59 over the course of 26 years and 44,548 men aged 40 to 75 over 20 years. The researchers used questionnaires to collect medical, lifestyle, and other pertinent health information, as well as extensive food frequency questionnaires over two decades to track the subjects’ food intake and lifestyle activity. This study specifically looked at total risk of death, risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD), and risk of dying from cancer.

The results showed that low-carb dieters who ate the most animal protein and fat had a 23 percent increased risk of death in general. Furthermore, they had a 14 and 28 percent increased risk, respectively, of death from CVD or cancer in particular. When these results were analyzed further, the increased risk of death from cancer was limited to colorectal cancer alone; a finding consistent with the results of previous research. While some previous studies have shown low carbohydrate diets to be effective in weight loss, only recently has research investigated the health effects of different versions of the low-carb diet.

The outcomes of this study strongly suggest that excess consumption of animal protein can negatively impact overall health in a variety of ways. This discovery is not surprising given that meats, particularly red meats, are a major source of artery clogging saturated fat–the kind that has been linked to increased risk of heart disease.  Another interesting finding is that the subjects who had a greater intake of animal protein also had a higher BMI, were more likely to be smokers, and had lower intakes of fruits and vegetables. Not only were their lifestyle and food choices less than ideal, their diets were devoid of the beneficial antioxidants and fiber that fruits and vegetables provide, which may be protective against certain types of cancer.

So what’s the take home message for those who thought that the weight loss seen on typical Atkins-style low-carb diets justifies a diet loaded with fatty meats and cheese? It means shifting attention towards healthy vegetable-based protein choices, unsaturated fats, and protein-rich whole grains. Instead of the usual lettuce wrap cheeseburger, choose a three-bean chili or quinoa with tofu and veggie stir-fry. And rather than cheese omelets with sausage for breakfast, try peanut butter on an apple with a few scrambled egg whites on the side instead. This study certainly gives us reason to heed the old adage “you are what you eat.”

About Rachel Engelhart, RD, CDN

Rachel is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and New York State Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist (CDN) working in New York city as a clinical dietitian at Mount Sinai Medical Center while also practicing privately as the 92nd Street YMHA May Center dietitian. Rachel is a member of the American Dietetic Association and the New York State Dietetic Association. For more information or to schedule an appointment please email Rachel at rachel.engelhart@mountsinai.org or call 212-241-7469.

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