Dr. Robert C. Atkins, 72, Author of Controversial Diet Books, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN link to NY Times article
Dr. Robert C. Atkins, a cardiologist who devised a hotly debated weight-loss plan favoring steak and eggs over spaghetti and spinach that more than 30 million Americans have tried, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 72.
Dr. Atkins fell and suffered head injuries on April 8 on the sidewalk in front of his Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in Manhattan, where he also lived. The center offered an eclectic mix of traditional and alternative treatments for many illnesses and conditions, including obesity.
In April 2002, he was hospitalized for cardiac arrest, which doctors said was caused by an infection unrelated to his diet.
In 1972, Dr. Atkins published one of the most influential weight-loss plans of the 20th century, "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution." Its various editions sold more than 15 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books ever. Dr. Atkins said he had helped people lose 200 million pounds, and his book has occupied the best-seller list for years at a time.
His newest book, "Atkins for Life" (St. Martin's, 2003), tops the hardcover advice book best-seller list in The New York Times, while the paperback edition of "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" (M. Evans, 1999) has led the paperback list for more than 300 weeks.
His weight-loss theory has nonetheless struck some experts on health and diet as dangerously wrongheaded: he told patients and readers to eat all the fat they wanted — as much as two-thirds of their diet — but to cut back significantly on carbohydrates, the food group most dietitians have come to advocate over the last quarter-century. He said the human body would burn its own fat if it had no carbohydrates to burn first.
Accordingly, Dr. Atkins advised dieters to choose bacon and eggs over fruit salad, to throw away the bun and eat the burger. He promised that lobster dripping with butter was better for weight loss than a bran muffin.
Indeed, part of the surge in the popularity of pork rinds in the 1990's was Dr. Atkins's endorsement.
The dietary villains, he said, are refined sugar — per capita consumption in the United States increased by 30 pounds a year between 1960 and 1980 — and white flour, which rose by 64 pounds during the same time. Fat intake, meanwhile, had sunk.
Dr. Atkins liked to point out that 100 years ago, when there were few recorded heart attacks, lard was the No. 1 fat.
His numerous critics countered that the Atkins diet would not work beyond a few months, and that it could cause heart problems, constipation, fatigue and bad breath. Dr. Dean Ornish, an advocate of low-fat eating and a fervent foe of Dr. Atkins, said that the fact that some people could lose weight by smoking cigarettes did not mean that smoking was good for them.
Dr. Atkins acknowledged that there had been no long-range studies to test his diet, although the National Institutes of Health have begun a large study. A team of doctors from Stanford and Yale Universities published a report on April 9 in The Journal of the American Medical Association that did not discount the Atkins diet, although it suggested that people on it lost weight because they consumed fewer calories — not fewer carbohydrates, as Dr. Atkins maintained.
Citing recent small-scale studies, the current issue of The Harvard Health Letter said the Atkins approach, which it called "the bad boy of diets," was becoming harder to dismiss out of hand. The letter called the diet "an antidote to the dumbed-down antifat message."
Fighting fat is an indisputably growing market. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported last October that the proportion of overweight Americans had increased to 64.5 percent, from 55.9 percent in 1994. The market for weight-loss plans and products is $35 billion a year, and Dr. Atkins tapped it with scores of products, including cookbooks, energy bars and diet-oriented ocean cruises.
Robert Coleman Atkins was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17, 1930. His family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his father owned restaurants, when he was in the seventh grade. At 14, he got a job selling shoes. At 16, he appeared on a local radio show with other youths and had thoughts of becoming a comedian.
He graduated from the University of Michigan and spent a summer as a waiter and entertainer at resorts in the Adirondacks.
He graduated from the Cornell University Medical School and did residencies in internal medicine and cardiology at hospitals affiliated with the University of Rochester and Columbia University.
He opened his own office on the Upper East Side in 1959. In his 1975 book, "The Super-Doctors," Roger Rapoport wrote that early on, Dr. Atkins had trouble getting patients and became depressed. The 33-year-old man looked in the mirror. It was 1963.
"I appeared to be 45," Dr. Atkins was quoted as saying in the book. "I weighed 193 pounds and had three chins. I couldn't get up before 9 a.m. and never saw patients before 10. I decided to go on a diet."
Not just any diet. He did prodigious research and settled on a no-carbohydrate plan pioneered by Dr. Alfred W. Pennington, who had done ground-breaking work during World War II at DuPont. In slightly more than 100 days, Dr. Pennington's 20 test subjects lost an average of 22 pounds by eliminating sugar and starch.
Dr. Atkins found a specific adaptation of this dietary approach in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He started off hoping to lose three pounds in the first month and ended up dropping 20.
The young doctor was then hired as a medical consultant by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Of 65 patients he treated, he got 64 down to their ideal weights. The 65th made it halfway.
Word abut his diet spread and he appeared on the "Tonight" show with Buddy Hackett in 1965. Various magazines reported on his diet: it became known as the Vogue diet after the magazine published it in 1970.
He accepted an offer from Bantam Books to write a paperback with Ruth West, a writer. The publisher told him to forget footnotes and bibliography and aim beyond medical experts. As a result, the book translated scientific arguments into chatty layman's language.
He sold hardcover rights to the publisher David McKay, which brought the book out in September 1972. By Christmas it had sold 200,000 copies; by April 1973, 900,000.
Dr. Atkins was sued several times by dissatisfied clients, and in 1993 his medical license was briefly suspended. The suspension occurred after another doctor complained that Dr. Atkins was treating a woman with ozone, which he had said would kill cancer cells in her blood. The other doctor treated the patient for an embolism, an air bubble that had blocked a blood vessel in her brain.
A judge ruled that the suspension was not warranted. But Dr. Atkins's heightened involvement in alternative medical techniques, including herbal medicine and acupuncture, provoked further controversy. His clinic is named "complementary" because he tries to combine traditional and new approaches.
For about 20 years, he fell out of the public eye and pursued alternative healing. Then the publication of "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" in 1992 thrust him back into the spotlight, with many commentators at first calling it an artifact of the 1970's. It is the revised edition of this book that now leads the paperback best-seller list.
Dr. Atkins is survived by his wife, Veronica, with whom he wrote the best-selling "Dr. Atkins' Quick and Easy New Diet Cookbook" (Fireside, 1997), and his mother, Norma Atkins of Palm Beach, Fla.
His mother exasperated her son by not following his famous diet, he said in an interview with The Detroit Free Press in 2001.
"She cheats," he said.