Long live the revolution

Around lunchtime on Thursday last week I was saddened to see the breaking news in my e-mail inbox: Dr. Robert C. Atkins had died that morning at Cornell University Medical Center in New York City. After I mentioned this briefly in last Thursday’s e-Alert, I received this e-mail from an HSI member named Jaime: “When did Atkins die, what did he die of, and how old was he?”

On Tuesday, April 8, Dr. Atkins slipped on an icy sidewalk outside his Manhattan office and suffered a head injury. After undergoing emergency brain surgery, he remained in a coma until his death on April 17. At age 72, Dr. Atkins still worked full time attending to patients and overseeing the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine.

As I said in last week’s e-Alert, HSI has worked closely with Dr. Atkins in the past, and so his death was both a great personal and professional loss. Most of the news stories I read described him as a diet “guru,” and in the sense that he was an influential, groundbreaking leader in the field of complementary medicine, he was indeed something of a guru – a trusted counselor who helped millions of people regain their physical health with his unconventional ideas about nutrition.

Coming on strong 

After many years of abuse by mainstream nutritionists, there was a sea change for Dr. Atkins and the Atkins diet last summer. In an e-Alert I sent you in July (“Taking a Brody” 7/10/02) I told you about a cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that showed how a steadily growing minority of establishment researchers were beginning to take seriously the low-carbohydrate diet made famous by the author of “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”

Over the course of 30 years, Dr. Atkins never wavered from his controversial dietary ideas. In a nutshell, the Atkins plan advises us to eat as much meat and other high protein and high fat foods as we care to, while avoiding starches and refined carbohydrates such as breads, pasta, rice, and sugars. This plan has won many millions of readers worldwide, but has drawn numerous, often passionate attacks from the nutrition and diet establishment.

The American Heart Association has long condemned the Atkins diet as an unhealthy regimen for the cardiovascular system. So it must have been thoroughly galling to many in the AHA “low-fat” camp when the results of a Duke University study were announced last November, as part of the 75th annual AHA meeting. In all of the heart health categories in that trial, the Atkins diet scored equal or higher marks than the AHA’s “Step 1” low-fat diet.

Step 1 stumbles 

In the Duke study 120 overweight subjects were put on two diets: one half of the group followed the AHA’s Step 1, low-fat diet, and the other half followed the Atkins diet, in which 60 percent of their daily calories came from fat, while carbohydrates were reduced to less than 20 grams per day. The Atkins subjects lost, on average 31 pounds each over 6 weeks, while the AHA group lost an average of 20 pounds each. That alone would be news. But the real news comes from three sets of data that are touted to measure heart health.

The levels of LDL cholesterol (commonly called “bad cholesterol”) for the two groups showed almost no statistical change. And while the numbers break even, I would guarantee that more than a few pro-low-fat nutritionists fully expected the Atkins diet to boost the LDL. Meanwhile, the Atkins group showed an 11 percent increase in HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). The AHA group recorded no rise in their HDL levels.

Finally, and more importantly, the AHA group had a 22 percent drop in triglycerides, while the Atkins group experienced a triglycerides drop of almost 50 percent – more than double the AHA dieters.

This was a major victory for Dr. Atkins – to be vindicated with prestigious research, and to have it announced in the camp of his most vocal detractors.

On to Pennsylvania! 

In response to the AHA announcement, those nutritionists who had long derided the Atkins plan were up in arms – but certainly not backing down. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Gail Woodward-Lopez, the associate director of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, compared the Atkins diet to a disease, saying, “Hepatitis C is effective at helping people lose weight too.” And Judith Levine, an AHA registered dietitian curtly dismissed the results, claiming, simply, “It’s such a scam.”

I can’t help but think that their comments would have praised the study if the results had shown the AHA diet to be superior. After all, that’s how it was SUPPOSED to turn out, right?

The critics pointed out that the Duke study was funded by the Robert C. Atkins Foundation – as if this automatically made the results corrupt. What they don’t mention is that three other studies presented at medical conferences last year all showed results similar to the Duke statistics. And their call for further research has already been answered. Currently underway is a one-year study at the University of Pennsylvania, following 360 subjects.

In light of how things have been going for the Atkins diet in the last few months, if you had to place a bet on the U. Penn study, which side would you lay your money on? As always – I’ll keep an eye on my sources and let you know about the Pennsylvania study results as soon as I hear.

In the meantime, in the wake of those successes, we mourn the passing of the man who made the successes possible while truly revolutionizing the world of nutritional medicine.


To Your Good Health,
Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences InstituteSources:

“Diet Dr. Robert Atkins Dies From Injuries” UPI, 4/17/03

“School Introduces National ‘Meatless Monday’ Health Campaign – Campaign Aims to Cut Americans’ Consumption of Saturated Fat by 15 Percent” Press Release, The Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 10/7/02

“Atkins Diet Beats Low-Fat Fare” Associated Press, 11/18/02

“Knives Drawn Over Atkins Diet Study” Kim Severson, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/19/02