The Controversy Over Dr. Atkins' Health
By Neal Barnard, M.D.
The Atkins diet phenomenon has spread
like a virus across North America, Europe, and elsewhere. It has
convinced millions of people to buy into two dangerous notions: that
avoiding carbohydrates is the key to weight loss, and that high-fat,
high-cholesterol foods pose essentially no risk.
Serious health problems and deaths
have occurred in individuals following the diet. For example, the
Southern Medical Journal reported the case of a sixteen-year-old
Missouri girl who died while following a low-carbohydrate diet. In the
report, her physicians described the ways the diet may have contributed
to the disordered cardiac rhythm that killed her. Jody Gorran of Delray
Beach, Florida, went on the diet, only to find that his cholesterol
level skyrocketed. He developed chest pain and needed urgent heart
surgery. And in 2001, the American Heart Association issued a warning
that low-carbohydrate diets are likely to contribute to heart and kidney
The principal spokesperson for the
diet was Robert C. Atkins himself, the controversial doctor whose 1972
book described how carbohydrate avoidance cured his own weight problem.
In subsequent years and even after his death, the Atkins organization
has used details of Dr. Atkins’ health condition as a key part of its
marketing strategy. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Throughout his
life, Dr. Atkins was the public face of the eating plan he espoused and
often spoke publicly about his own eating habits and health.”
Dr. Atkins discussed his medical
history in media interviews, and Atkins Nutritionals posted details of
his cardiac history on its Web site. In particular, it described his
cardiomyopathy—a diseased heart muscle that he attributed to a viral
infection—as well as a cardiac arrest that apparently occurred as a
The Atkins site also described tests
of Dr. Atkins’ coronary arteries, saying he had an angiogram at Columbia
Presbyterian Hospital in April 2001 that showed normal coronary
Why was the Atkins company providing
so much personal detail about Dr. Atkins’ medical status? Because
doctors and health organizations have cautioned Atkins dieters that
high-fat, high-cholesterol foods can lead to heart disease. In the
intense marketing of commercial diet products, Atkins and his company
have tried to convince dieters to set those concerns aside.
In a statement on April 25, 2002, Dr.
Atkins’ personal physician said this about Dr. Atkins: “Clearly, his own
nutritional protocols have left him, at the age of 71, with an
extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system.” In other words, not only
was Dr. Atkins in great health, dieters were told, but his diet—which he
had followed for decades—could take the credit for it.
Recently, a physician sent PCRM a copy
of some medical examiner’s notes related to Dr. Atkins’ death. This
physician, who is not a member of PCRM, obtained the notes from the New
York City Medical Examiner’s Office. The notes were not a hospital chart
nor an autopsy—Mrs. Atkins had apparently declined to have an autopsy
done. The medical examiner had simply noted Atkins’ weight at the time
of his death, inspected his external surfaces, and noted a few aspects
of his history. However, some notes suggested that Dr. Atkins had heart
problems that went beyond the viral cardiomyopathy to which he had
Reporters picked up on the story; they
wondered whether the Atkins organization had distorted Atkins’ health
profile in order to make the diet appear safe. Although PCRM had not
requested or received the report from the medical examiner, we became
the principal media contact about it.
Then, on Tuesday, February 10, 2004,
Mrs. Atkins released a statement clarifying details about her husband’s
health. She confirmed that, in fact, he did have coronary artery
disease. In particular, she said that Dr. Atkins “…did have some
progression of his coronary artery disease in the last three years of
his life including some new blockage of a secondary artery that was
remedied during this admission….” Artery blockages of this type are
typically caused by high-fat, high-cholesterol diets, smoking, and other
It must be emphasized that it is
always a matter of concern when elements of an individual’s medical
history become a matter for public discussion. In this case, the Atkins
company—and Dr. Atkins himself—made a major issue of his health and
exploited his seemingly robust cardiac status as a means of allaying
fears about the fatty diet he espoused.
Many health authorities have been
shocked and greatly troubled by the spread of the Atkins phenomenon.
People around the world have been lulled into complacency about
cardiovascular health. Disregarding cautions about saturated fat and
cholesterol, they are digging into steaks, pork chops, and cheese and
shying away from fruits, legumes, and whole grains, with little regard
for their long-term health. It is disturbing that Dr. Atkins may have
been less than honest with the public in such a way as to spread a
message that many doctors and health organizations say is dangerous.
In the public discussion of this
issue, we wish to underscore that no hospital or clinical medical
records were obtained, discussed, or publicized and that no autopsy was
performed on Dr. Atkins. The new revelations consist only of brief notes
from an external inspection of Atkins’ body by the medical examiner,
followed by new revelations by his widow. Our only goal in discussing
these issues is to curtail a major public health threat.
If the new revelations about Dr.
Atkins’ cardiac problems end the charade that fatty, high-cholesterol
foods can give us an “extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system” and
have no health consequences—and if the emergence of the truth can
prevent further deaths and illnesses—then the public health may have
been served at last.
© 2004 Physicians
Committee for Responsible Medicine; all rights reserved. Reprinted by