Robert Atkins was a cardiologist who wrote The Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution books, promoting his weight-loss program that severely restricts carbohydrates and recommends fats and protein as the primary sources of calories. First published in 1972, his diet became one of the most popular fad diets in the United States, and in 2002, Time magazine named him one of the ten most influential people of the year. That same year, studies questioned the health benefits of his diet (Clev Clin J of Med, Sept, 2001;68(9):761), and the high meat, high-saturated-fat component of the diet has been discredited for its association with increased risk for colon cancer (Int J Mol Sci, Jun 2020;21(11):4114) and heart disease (Healthcare (Basel), Jun 21, 2017;5(2):29).
In April, 2003, 72-year-old Atkins died from head injuries received when he fell on ice outside his New York City clinic. Reports on his death speculated that possibly his fall was caused by a heart attack. One year prior to his death, he had suffered from a “cardiac arrest” event, but he claimed that it was caused by an infection and was not related to his diet. Today, many obesity researchers agree that Atkins was correct in restricting refined carbohydrates found in foods made from flour and with added sugar, but the debate goes on over the possible risk from too much fat and other components of a diet with unlimited meat, processed meat, dairy and eggs.
Atkins was born in 1930 in Columbus, Ohio, and later moved to Dayton, where his family owned several restaurants. In high school, he sold shoes and appeared on a local radio show, and at age 17, he finished second among 8,500 seniors on a statewide general scholarship test. He was graduated from University of Michigan in 1951 and from Cornell Medical College in 1955. He trained as a heart specialist at Columbia University, and at age 29, he opened his own medical practice in New York City. During that time he put on a lot of weight, and began to experiment with weight loss diets. He successfully lost weight by following the 1940s low-carbohydrate diet developed by Alfred W. Pennington at DuPont. At age 42, Atkins published the first edition of Dr. Atkin’s Diet Revolution. Following the great success of his book, he opened a complementary medicine center.
Questions About His Death
In 2002, at age 72, Atkins suffered a heart attack, and many of his critics blamed his high-meat, high-saturated-fat diet. However, he claimed that his heart stopped beating temporarily because he had a heart infection called myocarditis. The next year, he fell on ice and suffered a brain hemorrhage from hitting his head on the sidewalk. During surgery, doctors removed a clot from his brain and he died nine days later.
A year after he died, a report from the New York City medical examiner was inadvertently provided to a Nebraska doctor, and it was made public. The report contained a handwritten note that Atkins had had a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure. Even to this time, that report is very controversial because the medical examiner’s office says that Atkins died of a head injury from the fall, but that the medical examiner examined only the outer body surface and checked the medical records because Atkins’ wife refused to permit an autopsy. We don’t know whether financial incentives had anything to do with this. At the time of his death, he was 6 feet tall and weighed 258 pounds. Since he did not exercise and did not have huge muscles, that would classify him as obese, which markedly increases risk for a heart attack. However, his widow and the spokesperson for Atkins Physicians Council claimed that he weighed less than 200 pounds when he went to the hospital and after one week in a coma, he died in heart failure after filling up with 58 pounds of fluid.
Two years after his death, Atkins Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy. Four years after his death, his company was purchased by North Castle Partners and they switched to marketing low-carbohydrate snacks. Dr. Atkins’ books are still popular today and have inspired a wide array of other low-carb diets.
I think that any diet that restricts unrefined carbohydrates is unhealthful and that people should eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole (unground) grains, nuts and other seeds. To lose excess weight and maintain a healthful weight, I believe that everyone should follow the same healthful lifestyle habits that help to prevent heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, cancers and many other causes of premature death:
• Follow a diet that contains a wide variety of unrefined plants and plant parts (leaves, stalks, fruits, seeds and roots).
• Limit or avoid mammal meat and processed meats, which are associated with increased risk for heart attacks and certain cancers, particularly colon cancer.
• Limit or avoid sugar-added foods and all sweetened drinks
• People who are overweight should severely restrict refined carbohydrates, found in bakery products, pastas, most cold breakfast cereals, and so forth
• Exercise. Your doctor may recommend a guided or supervised exercise program.
• Resistance exercise can help to control body fat by increasing muscle size.
October 17, 1930 – April 17, 2003