Dr Atkins must be turning over in his grave. Researchers from Canada and the United States have taken his diet and—yikes!—veganized it. Their findings were published in the June 8, 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Everyone knows about the infamous Atkins Diet, of course. It promised weight loss to anyone who severely restricted carbohydrate intake and filled her plate with fatty meats. For whatever reasons—and the possible explanations are hotly debated among nutritionists—the diet works for weight loss.

But there are some obvious problems with the Atkins approach. First of all, while weight loss almost always results in lower LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), that doesn’t happen on the Atkins plan. In fact, not surprisingly, cholesterol often goes up. High meat intake is also linked to digestive tract cancers. And then there is the matter of ethics and responsibility; who wants to be eating a diet that destroys the environment and promotes animal suffering?

But what if you replaced all the animal fat and protein in the diet with plant sources of those nutrients? Clearly it would produce a more healthful and responsible version of the Atkins Diet. But would it reap the same weight loss benefits without all the pitfalls? That’s what the researchers who developed the “Eco-Atkins” diet aimed to find out. They designed a 100% vegan diet that was high in protein (31% of calories) and fat (43% of calories).The protein was derived from gluten, soy, vegetables, nuts and cereals. Fat came mostly from nuts, vegetable oils and soy products.

Twenty-two subjects followed the diet for four weeks and had a weight loss that was similar to what people achieve on the Atkins Diet. But the advantage of the plant-based regimen was obvious since they also experienced a drop in LDL-cholesterol while maintaining levels of the good (HDL) cholesterol.

Another group in this study followed a carbohydrate-rich lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that was moderate in both protein and fat. They, too, lost weight and had lower LDL cholesterol levels at the end of the study period. But their ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol wasn’t quite as good as in the Eco-Atkins group. That may be due to the generous amounts of nuts, soyfoods and unsaturated fat in the higher protein diet; all three of those have been shown to have a beneficial effect on the ratio of good to bad cholesterol.

Those eating the Eco-Atkins diet also rated their diet as more satiating compared to the people eating the high-carb diet. But the higher protein diet was also higher in fiber, and both protein and fiber have satiating effects.

I have long been an advocate of boosting plant protein intake for weight loss and also of including higher fat foods in diets to reduce heart disease risk. There is lots of research to support both. The Eco-Atkins Diet is certainly a very extreme version of those recommendations and it’s not one I’m rushing to recommend. In any case, the study was just four weeks long and included only 44 subjects.

Even so, there are some interesting take home messages here. The findings support the fact that, for weight loss, it doesn’t matter where your calories come from. Second, it supports other earlier findings that replacing some carbohydrate with plant fat can be better for reducing heart disease risk. And finally, whatever advantages there may be to eating more protein, it is clearly better to get that protein from plant foods. Plant protein can do anything that animal protein can do. And, in this case, plant protein did it better.