Atkins: A Steady Diet of Skepticism
April 18, 2003 Ellis Henican
link to New York Newsday article
When I heard the news yesterday about Robert Atkins, I marched promptly around the corner to Jimmy's Coffee Shop. I plopped down at the counter between a heavyset woman and a very fat man. I ordered a Swiss-cheese omelet with no potato, no toast, no roll, no bagel, no muffin, no nothing with the slightest hint of wheat inside.
And a plate of bacon.
"I'll have a side of sausage too," I told the waitress, who did not seem to consider my choices one bit odd.
"Atkins," she muttered as she wrote the order down.
I don't normally eat like this, and I have to say my stomach is feeling a little queasy right now as I type. But Dr. Robert C. Atkins had just gone off to the Great Protein Pig-Out in the Sky, and I figured this midday meat-fest was the least I could do.
I'm still not sure, to tell you the truth, if the man is the greatest nutritionist of the last half-century or simply the greatest medical promoter of modern times. I have friends who swear he's a genius. I have tended more toward the huckster view. Either way, this Manhattan diet doc was a giant.
Spock? Kinsey? Pauling? Salk? Who even remembers them anymore?
Atkins had a busy practice on East 55th Street. He'd spent decades on radio and TV. He had the most famous diet in the world named for him. Barely a week had gone by since 1972 that he didn't have a book on somebody's best-seller list, including this week, when he had titles on both the hardcover and paperback lists.
So I tip my hat to the late anti-carb crusader. I pat my belly too. And I say, "Have a cheeseburger for me, doc."
Without the bun.
I'm like a lot of people who never went on Atkins. I'm pretty sure it can't possibly be good for you, taking no vegetables or breads or other carbohydrates. If my stomach gets a vote, that makes two of us.
Just a moment ago, I swear I could hear it growling, "Self-promoting diet doc."
No wonder the man is dead at 72.
But right then, the telephone rang. It was my friend Ron Mitchell, who said he had been expecting the news. Atkins, after all, had been in a coma since April 8, when he fell on his way to work.
"The man slipped on ice," Ron said. "You can't blame the diet for killing him."
Not that his long-time critics weren't whispering such things already. Maybe the doctor's balance was shaky, right? Ron was having none of it.
"The medical establishment never accepted Atkins," he said. "If he had been hit by a bus 20 years ago, some of those people would have said, 'See. We warned you about that.'"
But didn't Atkins have a heart attack last year? Didn't some critics worry about cardiac stress and kidney damage from the diet?
"He's an old man from a family with a history of heart conditions," Ron said. "Something was going to kill him eventually. I'm telling you if he lived to be 130 and a satellite crashed through the roof of his house, they'd all be saying the same thing. 'We knew it was going to happen.'"
Ron isn't my only friend who was standing up for Atkins yesterday. Ilene Merdinger, who used to order salads for lunch - "dressing on the side, please" - is now making lunch dates at steak joints. We have editors at this very newspaper - serious people, serious eaters - who claim they haven't tasted a vegetable in months.
"The problem is, no one has ever been able to find evidence that the diet is no good," Ron Mitchell said. "Believe me, they've been trying."
In fact, in recent months, the tide of medical opinion was actually flowing Atkins' way. Without explicitly backing the low-carb approach, a couple of major research labs did grudgingly agree the Atkins diet could produce safe weight loss.
But Atkins faithful needed no convincing yesterday.
"Every January," my friend Ron said, "I go on Atkins for maybe three weeks. I eat like crazy. I'm never hungry. I'm eating stuff that the rest of the year I would never eat. I would never have a giant omelet for breakfast. I do in those three weeks. And I lose 15 pounds."
The weight does creep back on, Ron said. And there are certain cravings too.
"Sometimes, I'll wake up in the middle of night," he said. "I'd kill for a bowl of cereal. For one slice of plain, white bread. For one ravioli. Anything.
"But that passes, and every year I lose the weight," Ron said.
I told him he and I should meet for a salad sometime.