Controversial Diet Doctor Dead at 72

Physician's Money Digest, May 15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 9

Robert C. Atkins, MD, creator of the popular but oft-malignedAtkins Diet, which stresses consumptionof low-carbohydrate, high-protein foods, died onApril 17 following a fall on an icy Manhattan street.

Journal of the American Medical Association

Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution

A 1955 graduate of Cornell University Medical School,Dr. Atkins read about a low-carbohydrate diet in the in 1963 andfirst tried it on himself. "I weighed 193 pounds and had3 chins," Dr. Atkins said. "I couldn't get up before 9 AMand never saw patients before 10. I decided to go on adiet." He lost weight so easily that he quickly turned hisbudding Manhattan cardiology practice into an obesityclinic. His work with dieters led to the 1972 publication ofhis blockbuster book, , inwhich the Atkins Diet was unveiled.


Most medical experts almost immediately dismissedthe diet as a dangerous fad. It ran counter to conventionalnutrition wisdom, which emphasized just theopposite—a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that promotedbread, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, andminimized intake of protein-rich foods like butter,eggs, meat, and cheese. Critics also pointed out thatthe Atkins Diet was high in cholesterol and might affectkidney function. Dr. Atkins never gave in to his detractors,arguing, among other things, that no studies hadshown that people with normal kidney function hadever developed problems while on his diet.

At the heart of the controversy (and the Atkins Diet)is fat. People on the diet can consume up to almost70% of their total caloric intake from fat, indulging inwhat are usually dietary no-no's, such as bacon andeggs, cheeseburgers (without the bun), and heavycream. Fats, according to Dr. Atkins, satisfy theappetite, while carbohydrates boost production ofinsulin, which not only makes dieters hungry, but alsostimulates their bodies to produce fat.

The nation's soaring obesity rates in the face of 20years of supposedly healthier eating and more activelifestyles have triggered some experts to questionwhether low-fat diets are really the best way to getthin. Recent articles in the popular press have questionedthe established wisdom, now almost 2 decadesold, that low-protein, low-fat diets are healthier andare less likely to lead to obesity than high-proteindiets. At issue is the government's recommended foodpyramid, built on a broad base of fruits, vegetables,and grains, with oils and fats occupying the minimalposition at the top.


All of this conjecture has led to some scientific reappraisalof the Atkins Diet. Several recent studies haveshown that people on the Atkins Diet have lost weightwithout compromising their health. In fact, the studiesshow that those on the diet not only shed pounds butalso improve their cardiovascular risk factors and overallcholesterol profiles. The National Institutes of Healthare currently funding a 5-year study on controlled-carbohydratevs low-fat nutritional protocols.

Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution

Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution

New York Times

Ironically, the American Medical Association, whereDr. Atkins first learned about low-carbohydrate diets, wasone of the most vociferous critics of the Atkins Diet,labeling it nutritionally unsound. The public, however,flocked to the doctor's diet, buying up 15 million copiesof , and, a decade later, 10 millioncopies of , whichstayed on the bestseller list for 7 years.


NewYork Times Magazine

Dr. Atkins parlayed his diet into a business empire thatincludes Atkins Nutritionals, which markets food productslike low-carbohydrate ice cream, chocolate, nutritionbars, and even bread. The company'sgrowth expectations havegrown exponentially, primarilybecause of a boost it enjoyedafter a cover story in the last July,suggesting that the Atkins Dietdidn't deserve much of the carpingaimed at it and might actually be healthy. AtkinsNutritionals booked $100 million in revenue in 2002, andsales are expected to be almost double that this year.

In 1999, Dr. Atkins established the Robert C. AtkinsFoundation to finance diet research. The Columbus,Ohio, native is survived by his wife, Veronica, and hismother, Norma.