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Defenders Attack Report on Atkins' Death

Say he wasn't obese and his diet was not connected to his health woes

TUESDAY, Feb. 10, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The release of a medical examiner's report on the death of the creator of the Atkins diet has brought the great American diet debate to a boil again.

The report showed that Dr. Robert Atkins had a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure and hypertension, and that he was obese when he died, according to details published Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper received a copy of the medical examiner's report from a physicians group that promotes a vegetarian diet.

Atkins, who was 72, died of a head injury he received after slipping on ice last spring in New York City, where he lived.

His supporters strongly criticized the report of his obesity, and they and other experts said his health problems had no connection to the diet that he followed himself.

Moreover, the experts contended that an entire diet can't be judged by what happens to one person, even if the person is its founder.

The Atkins diet, which advocates forsaking carbohydrates in favor of proteins and fats, has become wildly popular again even as it has come under fire from the American Heart Association (AHA) and others.

"There are many weight-loss techniques that work, but some, such as Dr. Atkins' approach, leave many important questions about long-term health risks unanswered," Robert H. Eckel, chairman of the AHA's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism Council, said in a statement.

"His book advocates eating foods that are very high in saturated fat and cholesterol. These foods increase the risk of heart disease," added Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "It's not that protein is bad. It's how it's packaged; when it's packaged with butter and cheese and fatty cuts of meat, you're going to get into trouble."

The Journal reported that Atkins, who stood 6 feet tall, weighed 258 pounds at the time of his death. The newspaper received its copy of the medical examiner's report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

But Dr. Stuart Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physicians Council, released a statement saying the story "grossly distorted and inaccurately reported information that Dr. Atkins was obese at the time of his death. In fact, up until the time he became comatose and lay in the hospital for two weeks, Dr. Atkins' average weight was actually 60 pounds less than reported in the Journal."

"The newspaper article was based on incomplete personal medical records that were illegally delivered to the newspaper in violation of federal law, coming from a known group of vegan and animal rights extremists," Trager added.

Trager also told the Associated Press that Atkins weighed 195 pounds when he was admitted to hospital after his fall, which would make him only slightly overweight for his height. The doctor gained more than 60 pounds in the hospital because he retained fluids, Trager told the wire service.

"He was grossly swollen, so much so that his family and associates barely recognized him," the AP quotes Trager as saying.

Atkins' widow, Veronica Atkins, also issued a statement, saying there are "unscrupulous individuals" who "will continue to twist and pervert the truth in an attempt to destroy the reputation and great work of my late husband."

She went on to say that Atkins "developed a condition called cardiomyopathy approximately three years prior to his death." In his case, the condition was caused by a virus and was responsible for his deteriorating condition, she added.

Atkins himself was apparently a religious devotee of his own plan. "Dr. Atkins followed the Atkins Nutritional Approach for over 40 years up to the day he accidentally slipped on an icy city sidewalk," said Richard Rothstein, a spokesman for Atkins Nutritionals Inc.

But Atkins' own dietary habits are irrelevant when it comes to assessing the Atkins plan, health experts stressed.

"The way you evaluate safety and efficacy is not through some popular figure -- including Dr. Atkins -- on a diet. It's the worst form of getting public health information across to the public," said Gary Foster, clinical director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "You don't evaluate diets based on one person."

In fact, a grand total of only three studies involving about 200 people on the Atkins diet have been completed. Foster was the lead author of the longest of these studies, which followed participants for one year.

These early findings have been encouraging, Foster said.

"Across these studies at six months, Atkins has about twice the weight loss. At one year, there was no difference," he said. "There don't seem to be any adverse effects on cholesterol, and there are some good effects, namely an increase in good cholesterol and decreases in triglyceride."

Still, this is just not enough information from which to draw firm conclusions, he added.

"The current results are surprising and encouraging, but they are short-term," Foster said. "What's missing is long-term data and other measures such as bone and kidney and how does it do with more sophisticated measure of artery health."

Foster is currently in the process of following 360 people over five years.

"The good news about this is we have more data now than we've ever had on the Atkins diet," Foster said. "The cautionary news is that it doesn't mean we should change public health recommendations."

More information

To learn more about the Atkins and similar high-protein, low-carb diets, try the Mayo Clinic. The American Heart Association has more on diet and heart health.

SOURCES: Samantha Heller, M.D., R.D., senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; Gary Foster, Ph.D., clinical director, weight and eating disorders program, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia; statement by Stuart Trager, M.D., chairman, Atkins Physicians Council, and professor, medicine, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver; Richard Rothstein, spokesman, Atkins Nutritionals Inc.; Veronica Atkins; American Heart Association statements; Feb. 10, 2004, Wall Street Journal; Associated Press
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