Did the Atkins Diet Kill Robert Atkins?

Published March 1, 2004

Dr. Robert Atkins, the famous diet guru who amassed a fortune promoting the evils of carbohydrate calories and the benefits of high protein and fat intake, slipped on a patch of ice on April 8, 2003. He died from the injury and related complications a week later.

It is quite likely that Dr. Atkins’ slip was not a freak accident, but rather a misstep made at a time of stress and even depression brought about by the publication of an extremely damaging study by the Journal of the American Medical Association on the previous day.

For most of Atkins’ career he promoted a diet of fat and protein to the near exclusion of carbohydrates, insisting it would cause one’s body to lose weight without the need for obsessive calorie counting. Most scientists disagreed, pointing to the obvious and well-known fact that one’s weight is primarily dependent on the number of calories one burns in a normal day plus any extra exercise performed, and the number of calories consumed in the form of digested food. The vast majority of nutritionists recognize a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, regardless of whether it comes in the form of protein, fat, or carbohydrate.

But counting calories and exercising are too difficult for the average person, so they seek a magic bullet in the form of a diet guaranteed to produce relatively rapid weight loss. They almost all do lose weight because, one way or another, diets force you into a low-calorie regimen. The problem is that 98 percent of all dieters eventually get tired of their regimen and go back to their old eating patterns and regain all their weight loss, often with a small dividend of extra weight for good measure.

Regardless of these accepted health principles, Atkins advocated his high protein, low carbohydrate diet year after year, with little scientific evidence to support his claim but growing wealth to support his business acumen.

The day before his accident, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a joint study by seven scientists titled “Efficacy and Safety of Low-carbohydrate Diets.” The authors looked at 2,609 potentially relevant articles on low-carbohydrate diets, focusing most heavily on 107 articles whose research protocols were beyond question. Their extremely firm conclusion at the completion of this intensive review was: “There is insufficient evidence to make recommendations for or against the use of carbohydrate diets, participant weight loss using low-carbohydrate diets was principally associated with decreased caloric intake and increased duration but not reduced carbohydrate content.”

Strangely, the public never took notice of the Journal of the American Medical Association study, but we can be sure Dr. Atkins did. It is not difficult to envision a 72-year-old man, just informed that his life’s work was strongly repudiated by a leading medical journal, walking in an unfocused daze, losing his balance on an icy surface, falling and striking his head on the hard surface.

The plausibility of this scenario could be tested by interviewing people who spoke to Atkins in the hours before his fall. Unfortunately, none of his business associates or family members is likely to admit that Atkins’ mental state may have contributed to his fall. This writer, though, is quite convinced this is precisely what happened.

The Atkins Diet and foods marketed to people following that diet have probably never been more popular. I dare you to walk the aisle of any supermarket without finding the Atkins name attached to any number of foodstuffs. Low-carbs and the fast-gaining “net-carbs” scam (total carbs minus fibrous carbs equals “net carbs,” allowing more foods to be labeled “low carb”) are everywhere.

Even after the death of its inventor, the Atkins Diet continues to frustrate the hopes of millions of Americans battling obesity.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., author of Fit, Firm & 50 and 14 other books, is science director of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. His email address is [email protected].