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Plant-Based Atkins Diet

Harvard study found that men and women eating low carb diets live significantly shorter lives, but what about the “eco-Atkins diet,” a plant-based low carbohydrate diet?

February 2, 2012 |
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Acknowledgements

Image thanks to Stacy Spensley

Transcript

This was a pretty dramatic case report, but it was just one person. Recently, researchers at Harvard decided to look at 100,000 people: "Low-carb diets and all-cause and cause-specific mortality". They found that low-carb diets were associated with higher all-cause mortality, higher cardiovascular disease mortality, and higher cancer mortality. The final nail in Atkins' coffin. Men and women on low-carb diets lead significantly shorter lives: more cancer deaths, more heart attacks.

Sure, you may lose some weight, but the only way we may be able to enjoy it is with a skinnier casket. But wait! In 2009, some enterprising researchers came up with a plant-based low-carb diet; the so-called "Eco-Atkins diet". They figured that, maybe the problem with the Atkins diet wasn't that it was high-fat high-protein, but that it was high animal fat, animal protein. So they constructed a vegan version of the Atkins diet. How is that possible? Well, lots of mock meats, seitan, soy burgers, veggie bacon, veggie cold cuts, veggie sausage, tofu, lot of nuts, avocado, etc.

How did they do? Pretty good, actually. Instead of their bad cholesterol going up, like it does on a meat-based Atkins, after just two weeks on the plant-based, low-carb diet, their LDL was down more than 20%. Now the whole study only lasted a month, though, so you couldn't really make any generalizations, but it was intriguing enough that when the data was run at Harvard, they picked out the people eating plant-based low-carb diets to see if they suffered the same low-carb fate.  That's the nice thing about doing dietary studies on 100,000 people at a time: you can find people eating just about anything.

What do you think they found? This line represents the mortality rate of the typical diet. And this is what they found for people following more of an Atkins-style low-carb diet: significantly higher risk of death.

But what do you think they found for those following a plant-based low-carb diet? Do they suffer the same crazy mortality as the Atkins people? Or maybe they didn't do that bad, but still had more mortality than those eating regular diets. Or did they have the same, or lower mortality? They had lower mortality.

They concluded: "A low-carbohydrate diet based on animal sources was associated with higher all-cause mortality in both men and women, whereas a vegetable-based low-carbohydrate diet was associated with lower all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality rates." So it appears, what matters really isn't the ratio of fat to carbs to protein, but rather, the source: whether they're coming from plants or animals.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is transcript contributed by Bruce A. Hamilton.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

For more context, check out my associated blog posts: Atkins Diet and Erectile DysfunctionEating To Extend Our Lifespan, and The Real Paleo Diet

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/paul3917/ paul3917

    So, a diet based on what we’d identify as overly processed, vegan junk food is healthier than a meat-based diet. At least the vegans got some phyto-nutrients from nuts and avocados- but the diet may have been high in sodium also. But is there a more optimal diet than that, or are we to conclude that carbs are bad for us? Do they negatively impact our blood sugar? What would happen if this vegan junk food diet went head-to-head with an all-natural low fat, high carb whole vegan food diet consisting of no processed food and only vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and a few nuts and seeds, say just one serving a day? What is the real difference between animal and plant protein and fat? Plant protein is probably the same in amino acid composition when a variety of sources are eaten, but it adds phyto-nutrients. Fats on the other hand may have a lower degree of saturation than in animal products, and I think, more vitamin E to preserve them from rancidity. Could this account for the differences observed in this clinical trial?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      Low carb vegan is not equivalent to junk food. Eating a salad is a low carbohydrate meal. don’t expect to stay full for long though if you eat this way!

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

        Satiety depends on the size and ingredients of the salad.

        • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

          Well, no. If you choose to eat a large salad as your main meal. It may fill you up, but you will get hungry rather quickly afterwards. Salads are very low carb low calorie meals and your body will burn through it quickly, Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, beans, potato, etc on the other hand, are more calorie dense and take a longer time to digest, keeping you satiated longer.

          • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

            Actually, the salad I had in mind is serving bowl size and includes 1 cup of beans, not just lettuce and veggies.

        • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

          Ah! Well the beans no longer make it low carb my good man. nonetheless, I am not advocating a low carb diet. Beans are healthy!

          • Geoffrey Levens

            Better late than never… If the beans are first sprouted then it might be low carb, depending on how far they are grown. Of course that would take us back to low calorie as well so would have to toss in a nice, ripe avocado, and/or maybe some nuts/seeds, perhaps blended w/ garilc, smoked chipolte powder, and sweet red peppers. MMmmmmmmm….

      • Doug Spoonwood

         Low carb vegan isn’t necessarily equivalent to junk food, because not all “junk” foods are the same.  Potato chips and a veggie “meat” aren’t the same in quite a few respects.  However, low carb vegan, such as the Eco-Atkins diet referenced in the video, almost surely will have a fair amount of sodium in it.  Given that you don’t want too much sodium in your diet, it follows that low carb vegan probably ends up as a less healthy diet in general than a whole foods vegan diet.   This isn’t to say that a low carb vegan diet is as bad as a potato chip diet, or that one needs to avoid high sodium processed foods like veggie “meats” entirely to eat healthy.

    • Sharon Larsen, PhD

      remember it was compared to a regular diet, so a regular diet isn’t that healthy. thus even a diet that contained “junk” vegan food was better than a regular diet. but you are right to ask how it would stack up against a whole-foods, plant based diet. probably not as well. Interesting that we talk about faux meats as being “junk processed foods, but no one ever says that meat is a processed food. But why not? it certainly meets the definition, no fiber, low water, low nutrient and full of chemicals.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

    Did the good doc change his YouTube settings again?

    For weeks I’ve has no problem accessing your videos on YouTube with my old Palm. Today we’re back to missing videos on your YT home page. Can’t find the video by searching the title either.

    Can someone please post the direct link please???

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      Here is the link
      http://youtu.be/bmDUnFd6UX4

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

        Thanks for the link. It’s showing on the doc’s YT homepage now, too.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

    *had

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/ramonanewman1979/ ramonanewman1979

    when you say regular diet that means like the kind where you might have corn flakes and milk for breakfast and meat loaf and mashed potatoes for dinner or a regular vegan/vegetarian diet? also how would a low carb vegan diet compare to a regular vegan diet? aaaand what do you think about maybe making a blog (or special area)dedicated to your recipes? i really like your recipes i have found so far on here and would like to see more :) thanks!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/elfy/ Elfy

    So why are salads considered low carbohydrate? Romaine lettuce, for example, gets 67 percent of its calories from carbs — two-thirds of the calories are from carbs.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      Although romaine lettuce is primarily carbohydrates in composition, an entire head has only 21 grams of carbohydrates (RDA 7%). the whole idea behind low carb meals is to restrict overall carbohydrate intake, so greens and vegetables are typically low carb.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/thea/ Thea

    I too would love to know what line we would see on the graph if we looked at people who ate what this site has defined as a particularly healthy vegan diet, i.e., one primarily based on a wide variety of high antioxidant whole plant foods (not the faux meats and processed foods so much) with B12 and D supplementation. I don’t know if such data is available or not.

    The information in this video as-is is certainly important because it is one more brush stroke in the big picture. But unfortunately, people take information like this and start to say things like, “carbs are bad”. I don’t think we can make that claim just from the information in this video without having the comparison to people who eat whole plant foods, carbs and all.

    Just a thought.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/jaxon/ jaxon

    This “observational study ” only indicates that a high protein low carb vegetarian diet appears to lead to lower all- cause mortality rates versus either a high protein low carb Atkins type diet or a regular diet. I assume that a regular diet is a standard American diet (SAD)

    It gives no indication of whether such a diet would be more healthful than a high carb low protein whole food vegetarian diet.That would be of more interest to me and shed a little more light on the proper balance between protein, fat and carbs in the diet.

    • Geofffey Levens

      I don’t think it said anything about “high protein”, more likely very moderate protein and high fat!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/hcdr/ hcdr

    There are many other studies that provide some lower-level explanations to the correlation. For instance, high animal protein is known to increase cholesterol. High cholesterol is known to increase risk of heart disease. Anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients are known to have protective effects on human cells, retard or reverse growth of cancer cells, and prolong healthy life. Atkins is condemned by nutritionists everywhere, veg*n or meat eating, for many reasons, not the least being that it’s nutritionally deficient and high-cholesterol. That makes a vegan version of ‘high protein, low carb’ diet a very interesting edge case to consider how it differs, and what the implications are.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

    I just cleared the former thread here. I’m all in favor of vigorous debate, but even if folks can’t keep things respectful, could we at least please keep things civil? i.e. no ad hominem attacks, profanity, etc. Thanks!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/nevadasmith/ NevadaSmith

    I’d be willing to bet that the meat-based diet was not a healthy meat-based diet that recommended no bad vegetable oils, no trans fats, no nitites or nitrates, no meat with hormones or antibiotics, etc.

    Any healthy food in moderation is good whether animal-based or plant-based. This has been shown by various diets of primitive people throughout the world of years gone by.

    When my wife and I switched from a vegan diet to a low-carb high fat healthy diet which includes animal foods and saturated fat our lipids improved. Especially our triglycerides and HDL. I’ll be happy to post the numbers if you wish. If you continue to eat the polyunsaturated vegetable oils as part of your animal-based Atkins diet then you won’t be eating a healthy animal-based diet.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/paul3917/ paul3917

      Personally, I have my doubts that there is such a thing as a healthy Animal-based diet, Nevada. However, short-term gains can be made in a person’s lipid profile simply by eating fewer calories while on an Atkins diet, and eating too many simple carbohydrates on a plant-based diet can play havoc with your lipid profile. The real question isn’t what the short-term gain is in terms of lipids or weight loss,instead, I think we’d agree that it should center on the mortality and morbidity of its adherents. And, from the information given in this segment, it looks like these are negatively impacted by an animal-based diet. Some indigenous peoples do in fact, do well on diets that include meat, however often it includes small portions or omega-3 rich fish as the main meat source, giving them a measure of protection. Even so, their life expectancy isn’t particularly impressive and their rate of infectious diseases is quite high. Other groups of indigenous peoples, for example, ones the paleo advocates like to use as examples such as the Inuit or the Masai, have spectacularly short lives. Their lower lipid numbers seem to be due to omege-3′s in the case of the Inuit (also resulting in a high rate of hemorrhaging), and due to a diet high in vegetable saponins for the Masai who on their native diet, have the shortest life expectancy in the world.

    • Doug Spoonwood

      “Any healthy food in moderation is good whether animal-based or
      plant-based. This has been shown by various diets of primitive people
      throughout the world of years gone by.”

      No.  Since, so many of those “primitive people” have lived in isolated environments from “civilized” humans for so long, they likely have evolved differently (genetic drift).  Thus what works for them won’t necessarily work for us.

    • Gary Loewenthal

      The meat-based diet may not have been ideal, but the same could be said for the plant-based diets.

      The healthiest, longest-lived native peoples, such as the Hunzas and Okinawan elders, seem to eat a diet in which most of their calories come from plants.

    • Gremmin

      Agreed. All whole and natural foods are OK. High carb fruit and veggies are OK. High carb foods that are a concentration of sugars or starches separated from whole food raise blood sugar far too high. The body reacts by producing cholesterol. The kind that clogs the arteries. Remove the high carb, reduce the cholesterol. Fat is irrelevant. Low fat makes your body feel starved and store fat, and you are never satisfied. Processed foods that are touted as low-fat are almost always high sugar. It will not reduce your cholesterol. Has a low fat diet worked in the 30 years doctors have told us to remove it from our diets? We are fatter than ever, more heart disease and Diabetes than ever. Low carb works. I’ve done it. It works just as Atkins says. I didn’t buy a single Atkins branded product. Just eliminated (until weight and cholesterol was normal) simple sugars and high carb starches like white bread and pasta. I added back, as the diet dictates, whole grains in moderation and even potato chips, which is a whole food, when normal weight/cholesterol is attained. Not trans fat chips of course. How can a diet of natural food as nature provides be unsafe? You only need to cut the foods that make large food companies money. There’s where you get resistance and studies funded by the companies that “disprove” the Atkins or other low-carb diet results.

      I’m not an expert, but I have lived it. And then did some research to find out why it worked. Doctors are taught what is the accepted treatment for conditions at the time that they learn. Sometimes the science is wrong. History has proved that. Why can’t it be changed in this case? Is it political pressure on government or medical organizations by these VERY large companies who stand to lose profits by eliminating their products from our diets? I think it is so. If it didn’t work exactly as Atkins said it would, I wouldn’t be so sceptical of our medical leaders. They are just people who were told what’s what. And as they should, they adhere to what they were taught. What if it was wrong? 

      If this post disappears, I’ll assume that a food company is behind its disappearance. Follow the money. It leads to truth.

      • wideEyedPupil

        More of these same old unscientific arguments that get repeated ad-nausium by people justifying there preference for meat based diets (pasture feed free range no hormone meat of course it’s sooo much healthier for you and the planet, not)

        “Has a low fat diet worked in the 30 years doctors have told us to remove it from our diets? We are fatter than ever, more heart disease and Diabetes than ever”

        You are assuming that the low-fat diet advocated is actually followed by the majority of western populations: newsflash Gremmin, it never has been. Most people are eating increasing levels of processed and denatured carbs, fats and animal based proteins than ever before in history in English speaking (as first language) nations. But you seem to know better than the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted. Losing weight via ketosis is not the same thing as living longer from a healthy diet, just ask Atkins — oh no you can’t he died of HD, too bad.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/galianoandometepe/ galianoandometepe

    I would like to add my voice to those asking for any results of studies comparing standard vegetarian diets to lower-carb vegetarian diet.

    I have been vegetarian (not vegan – although there were periods of that) since 1990, but have cut out most sources of simple carbohydrates (grains, sugars, potatoes and many fruits) since January & have lost the 30 lbs that have been creeping on as I’ve aged. Mostly, I have done it by increasing my vegetable, legume & nut intake (to replace the pasta or rice or potato), not by increasing fake meats. It seems sustainable to me at this point, and the increased vegetable intake can only be good, right? But with so much contradictory information out there (especially on those sites that espouse a lower-carb diet, but also insist that one must eat a lot of animal protein vs. those veg sites that assume that lower-carb=meat-eating), I would like to know if this is something I should continue with or should I re-introduce grains?

    Could a lower-sugar, lower-starch, whole-food vegetarian diet (sort of paleo-veg) be optimal for health? It seems to make sense to me.

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Also, please check out my associated blog post for some context: http://nutritionfacts.org/blog/2012/02/02/atkins-diet-and-erectile-dysfunction/!

  • http://www.danaseilhan.com Dana Seilhan

    In order for us to have an intelligent discussion about this, we would first have to establish that this unnamed study you reference in your description actually showed that people following actual low-carb diets lived significantly shorter lives.  You don’t even share what the study *is* in your description; we are expected to watch the video, I guess, to learn that information.  But the preview picture on your video is not promising.  ”Self-reported adherence”?  So no one actually monitored everything this man was eating?  One man?  Really?  Nice science you got there.

    Two points for ya.  (1) How in the world did we survive either winter or the Ice Age with no agriculture–or plant foods available during cold months, actually?  (2) How is eating a plants-ONLY diet–which is what you’re REALLY after–”eco”-ANYTHING when we must clear land in order to grow most of our food crops?  Did they teach you nothing in earth science in school?  Did you not understand that clearcut land leads to greater erosion and severely reduces the number of trees that maximize the available moisture in a geographical area and improve the climate in a cooling rather than warming direction?

    Oh, you *didn’t* understand that?  My bad.  Maybe you’d better LEARN it.  Your kind of garbage pseudoscience is exactly why people keep up with the pro-agriculture apologetics in the face of all the damage agriculture has done over the course of civilized human history in the past 10,000 years.  (Iraq, for example, used to be cedar forest.  It is also the site of the West’s Fertile Crescent and corresponding agricultural revolution.  Whoops.)  But people will live in perpetual denial if they are addicted enough, I guess.  Your problem.  Too bad you’re making it my problem too–I have to share a planet with you.

    • Ghazeltine

      This is the oddest post. Why so hostel? Are you suggesting cows in feed lots are better for the planet?

      People have to eat and research suggests a plant based diet is best.

    • J.D. Mings

      You need to go get Weston Price’s book ‘Nutrition and Degenerative Diseases’,available ONLY from ; if you bother to read that you will stop asking stupid questions and making libelous statements.

      • ED

        ppnf…that’s what was formerly called or closely related to Weston A. Price Memorial Foundation right..just looked there, sure enough ppnf is not only ideologically strongly anti-veg but even promotes the work of anti-veg fanatics like Lierre Keith (who’s also apparently a mentally unstable bigot, search for ”
        Lierre Keith: A Case Study in Anti-Trans Hatred” on veganideal blog) promotes coffee enemas etc etc. J.D. Ming’s post is seems meant to reply to Ghazeitline but accidentally replies to seilhan’s rant (or else is a deliberate deception) but those who value science and logic over anti-veg anti-science can skip ppnf’s sad excuse of a website

      • GeoffreyLevens

        If you actually read Price’s book you will see that almost all of the peoples referenced, although they ate some meat, ate mostly plants.

    • EDpeak

      Putting aside your hostility let’s address your two points, even if (for lack of space) only partially. Your point (1) confuses two completely unrelated issues. The video is about health. Your point (1) is about what humans used to do. Is it not clear as daylight that the two are not the same? What people did to survive the Ice Age tells us nothing about what’s healthiest/healhtier. If you want to confuse the two you don’t even need Ice Ages, you can just say, “how do you think Americans survived in Alabama in the year 1925? On an all-vegan diet?? no!!” and you’d be factually correct, they did not eat an all vegan diet in 1925 in Alabama..what does this tell us about the subject of the video, namely what’s healthy to eat? Nothing. (2) Last I checked the Amazon was not being cut down to grow plant food for people. It’s cut down for “raising” cows and for growing plants to feed the cows.

      Let’s add(3) We can add that even if tomorrow all of that changed and they started cutting down the Amazon for growing direct to consumer vegan food, guess what? Most vegans, would be opposed to such corporate practices, and they are not necessary. Just as many if not most vegans are against the massive use of pesticides, but yes, many veggies in supermarket have pesticides..Do we rail against vegan (and even omnivore) eaters of these? Of course not. Given education, and if also given a choice, and if affordable, these vegans (and omnis) would 95%+ of them, would choose organic. It’s silly to blame them for pesticides existing in veggies, except for that small minotiry (probably more like 1% than 5%) who might insist “no I insist my veggies be grown iwth the most pesticides” Similarly you can grow veg food in other ways that are bad – that’s not veganism’s fault any more than “it’s your fault they pay low wages to the workers in the factory that makes veg food!” which is nonsense – great majority is against such abuse of workers too, and no, clear cutting is not even remotely a necessary part of growing plant based food for human consumption. (4)Calories per acre anyone? Grams of protein per acre? Gallons of water per pound? The list goes on and on, why a carnitarian advocacy is horrible for the environment while the lightest fotoprint as a goal points in the direction of plant-based diet very strongly.

      • EDpeak

        …Lightest *footprint*

      • wideEyedPupil

        Well said. Footprint of animal products is in order of 10-10^3 per calorie as plant foods on many metrics like GHG, water, embedded energy etc etc. Just for one stark example, the bumping and fart of livestock (enteric fermentation) and consequential land use changes (deforestation and savannah burning for pasture) in Australia accounts for over half the nations entire Green House Gas emissions.

    • RJSouth

      Twenty-six percent of the Planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production. As I understand it if we took the land we have today and used it to grow “human food” we would have enough to feed the world without cutting down any rain forests at all.

      • wideEyedPupil

        We could return some areas to reforestation to offset our agricultural GHG emissions too and still feed the entire globe. But as long as people have a blood lust for meat this will remain but a hope for saving the climate this decade before it’s pretty much game over.

  • Neil Sullivan

    “Eat To Live” is essentially a low(er) carb, plant based diet style. Dr Bill Harris (from VSH) suggests (I agree with him). that no matter where you get your calories (Fat, protein or CHO) it only matters if it’s from healthy whole plant foods and not processed foods or animal products..

  • http://www.facebook.com/michel.voss1 Michel Voss

    A Scheme for the Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus with High Carbohydrate-Low Fat Diets — N Engl J Med 1936; 215:955-59. nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM193611192152102

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.lundeen Dan Lundeen

    The paleotrolls and others new to Dr. Greger’s extensive writings frequently ask him to shoot down or rebut the latest broscience or truthy cholesterol confusionist rehash of the low carb/paleolithic diet/atkins diet or the new fad perfect health diet charlatans. He’s already done it a thousand times before this installment so it’s really a ridiculous request — please read Dr. Greger’s free e-book ‘Atkin’s Exposed’ with over 1,100 references.http://www.atkinsexposed.org/

  • HappyApple

    What about a high (good) carb plant based diet.

  • lovestobevegan

    Keep your heart healthy and live a longer, healthier life by eating complex carbohydrates (whole grains, root vegetables, legumes, and potatoes). Incorporating quality carbohydrates into your diet is made easy with this simple recipe which includes a delicious carbohydrate-rich food; sweet potatoes. Serve this dish over your favorite whole grain.

    You Make My Heart Skip a Beet

    – 1 red onion, chopped
    – 1 clove garlic, minced
    – 4 cups beets, cubed
    – 4 cups sweet potatoes, cubed
    – ½ tsp nutmeg
    – ½ tsp thyme
    – 2 tbsp basil
    – 1 lb organic* spinach
    – Black pepper

    In a large skillet, sauté onion and garlic with a splash of water until onion translucent, about 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, boil beets in a small amount of water until mostly tender. Strain and add to skillet. Boil sweet potatoes in the same water until tender. Strain and add to skillet. Add seasonings to skillet and enough of the beet water to create a rich sauce. Fold in the spinach and continue to cook until spinach wilts. Serve spooned over
    whole grains (red rice, millet, barley etc.)

    *Spinach ranks 8th in the “dirty dozen: 12 foods to eat organic” so choose organic. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/

    ~Complements of lovestobevegan

  • Alfred Boals

    What about research on ozone and hydrogen peroxide?

  • John Weissman

    This nonsense–literally–creates more questions than answers.