High-Protein Vegan Eating: The New Atkins?

You know that veganism has put down mainstream roots when the likes of barbecue-loving Bill "Bubba" Clinton touts the health and waist-whittling benefits of a diet free of dairy, eggs, and meat. Using this approach helped him drop around 20 pounds in time for Chelsea's wedding last summer. But more important was that the diet, as overseen by healthy-living guru Dean Ornish, M.D., helps reverse the artery-clogging heart disease that has dogged the former president's health in recent years.

Of course, Clinton is a man known for his voracious appetites. Can a plant-based diet really help someone like him lose weight and feel full? One diet that's been shown to do just that is the so-called Eco-Atkins, an entirely plant-based take on the decades-old high-protein regimen that hews strictly to a caloric breakdown of 26 percent carbs, 31 percent protein, and 43 percent fat. The original Atkins became famous for its stunning results -- and the way followers could drop weight eating eggs, burgers, and cheese. But meat-based low-carb diets also got a reputation for rebound weight and cholesterol increases. Eating a protein-packed vegetarian diet doesn't increase the likelihood of cancer, heart disease, or early death the way scarfing burgers, bacon, and steaks can. What's more, those who indulge in plant-based protein can drop pounds with a raised conscience: Most agree, vegan eating is better for the planet.

Low-Carb for a New Millennium

The Atkins-like herbivore diet could, in fact, be dubbed the Jenkins, after David J.A. Jenkins, M.D., Ph.D., the Canada Research chair in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto and the lead author of a study of a diet that sources proteins exclusively from plants and limits refined carbohydrates such as white rice and pasta. (Jenkins also developed the Glycemic Index, a measure of how quickly foods cause blood sugar to spike.) Observing the weight-loss success of meat-munching low-carbers but disturbed by the subsequent rise in their LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, Jenkins and his team sought to replicate the Atkins ratio -- around plants. The fact that a vegan diet is gentler on the planet was just icing on the cake (albeit cake made without eggs, milk, or butter). Jenkins, a devout vegan, had ecology in mind when formulating the study, noting that "we need to look at the expanding environmental catastrophe we're creating," referring to all the resources it takes to raise livestock and the greenhouse gases produced in the process.

The study was brief -- just four weeks -- and the participants following a high-protein vegan plan lost about the same amount (around nine pounds) as people on a high-carb diet of the same number of calories based on low-fat dairy and whole grains. The major difference between the two: The high-protein group had greater drops in LDL cholesterol -- by an average of 20 percent -- and a 2 percent reduction in blood pressure. What's more, they didn't feel deprived, despite consuming about 40 percent fewer calories per day than usual.

"Since protein takes a bit longer than refined carbs to digest, it does seem to be better at curbing appetite," says Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., of the Vegetarian Resource Group. Carb lovers, take special notice: Mangels points out that when you stick to a diet dominated by plant proteins, you're less apt to just ... keep ... stuffing it in. It's easy to mindlessly woodchip your way through a crusty ficelle. A bowl of chickpeas? Not so much.

What's the Catch?

Okay, so a high-protein vegan diet can reduce weight and cholesterol. How does the rest of your body fare? One of the largest concerns with high-protein diets is that metabolizing so much of the nutrient can take a toll on the kidneys. As Mangels sees it, "If you already have failing kidneys, yes, it would be an issue. But if someone has normal kidney function, it's debatable whether it's a problem." To be safe, experts recommend that anyone taking medication for a chronic medical condition or who has diabetes, liver, or kidney disease talk to their doctors before starting any type of high-protein diet.

What is certain: Veggie protein can provide all the amino acids (aka protein building blocks) the body needs, contrary to charges that vegan diets are nutritionally deficient. Although a pound of beans doesn't deliver the equivalent number of amino acids as a pound of beef, when you eat a variety of plant-based protein sources, they add up throughout the day to make a complete protein.

Designing Your Own Protein Plan

There is ample evidence to suggest that you can lose weight and improve your health simply by adding plant foods to your diet. "As you reduce your intake of animal protein and refined carbs, there is a corresponding health benefit," says Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, whose work has shown the advantages of a very low-fat diet. But if you want to eat in an impeccably environmentally conscious way -- and like the idea of losing weight without starving (and, really, who doesn't?) -- the plan offers a good road map.

Based primarily on protein from wheat gluten (seitan), soy, and nuts such as almonds, pistachios, and macadamias, the diet also counts on vegetables relatively high in protein, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. Like the traditional Atkins diet, the green version minimizes carb-heavy foods such as bread, potatoes, and rice, although some unrefined starches are allowed: Moderate amounts of the fibrous grains barley and oat bran are okay because they don't cause blood sugar levels to spike.

The recipes that follow hit the high-protein mark and will lay out the basics of eco-friendly healthy eating. Keep in mind that there are plenty of vegetarian protein sources on the shelves, too. Veggie burgers made with whole soy beans are available in many stores. Canned beans, precooked lentils, and marinated tofu are other high-protein convenience foods to look for.

The key is to change your thinking about what it means to have protein on your plate. In the spot once reserved for chicken and fish, think teriyaki tofu, chickpea stew, and seitan kabobs. Your body (and the planet) will thank you for it.

Buh-Bye, Bacon. Hello, Quinoa.

You don't need to eat animal products (or tons of saturated fat) to hit your daily protein quota. Wholesome and satisfying, these good-for-you plant foods deliver low-cal, low-carb nutrition.

Plant-Based FoodPortionProtein
Seitan (Wheat Gluten)3 oz cooked31 g
Lentils1 cup cooked18 g
Tofu1 cup17 g
Black Beans1 cup cooked15 g
Quinoa1 cup cooked8 g
Pistachios1 oz6 g
Vanilla Soy Yogurt6 oz5 g
Brussels Sprouts1 cup cooked4 g

High-Protein Vegan Recipes

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