Diet raises concerns

By Neal D. Barnard (KRT)

The Atkins diet phenomenon has spread like a virus across North America, Europe and elsewhere. With tens of millions of people following Dr. Robert Atkins’ lead into low-carb, high-fat, high-cholesterol diets, recent revelations about the diet doctor’s own health have been an important wake-up call. But where does that leave dieters? Angry? Betrayed? Most are simply confused.

From a public-health standpoint, the stakes are enormous. After eight weeks on the Atkins diet, a 16-year-old Missouri girl died of a cardiac arrhythmia, as reported in the Southern Medical Journal. Jody Gorran of Delray Beach, Fla., went on the diet, only to find that his cholesterol level skyrocketed. He developed chest pain and needed urgent heart surgery.

Hundreds of other problems, both major and minor, have been reported. In 2001, the American Heart Association issued a warning that low-carbohydrate diets are likely to contribute to heart and kidney disease.

The diet’s principal spokesman was Atkins himself, the controversial doctor whose 1972 book described how carbohydrate avoidance cured his own weight problem. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Throughout his life, Dr. Atkins was the public face of the eating plan he espoused and often spoke publicly about his own eating habits and health.”

Dr. Atkins discussed his medical history in media interviews, and after Dr. Atkins’ death, the Atkins organization used details of his health condition as a key part of its marketing strategy. Atkins Nutritionals even posted details of Dr. Atkins’ cardiac history on its Web site. It described his cardiomyopathy – a diseased heart muscle that he attributed to a viral infection – as well as a cardiac arrest that apparently occurred as a result. The Atkins site also described tests of Dr. Atkins’ coronary arteries, saying he had an angiogram in April 2001 that showed “normal” coronary arteries.

In a statement on April 25, 2002, Dr. Atkins’ personal physician said this about Dr. Atkins: “Clearly, his own nutritional protocols have left him, at the age of 71, with an extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system.” In other words, not only was Dr. Atkins in great health, but his diet could take the credit for it.

Why was the Atkins company providing so much personal detail about Dr. Atkins’ medical status? Because health organizations have cautioned Atkins dieters that high-fat, high-cholesterol foods can block their arteries. Atkins and his company have tried to persuade consumers to set those concerns aside.

Recently, a Nebraska physician obtained a copy of some medical examiner’s notes related to Dr. Atkins’ death. These notes were not a hospital chart or an autopsy. The medical examiner simply weighed Atkins, inspected his external surfaces, and jotted down a few aspects of his history. However, some notes suggested that Dr. Atkins had heart problems beyond the viral cardiomyopathy to which he had admitted.

Then, on Feb. 10, Veronica Atkins confirmed that, in fact, her husband did have artery blockages. She said that Dr. Atkins “did have some progression of his coronary artery disease in the last three years of his life including some new blockage of a secondary artery that was remedied during this admission.”

It is always a matter of concern when elements of an individual’s medical history become a matter for public discussion.

In this case, Atkins and his company made a major issue of his health and exploited his seemingly robust cardiac status to spread a dangerous health message.

If the new revelations about Dr. Atkins’ cardiac problems end the charade that fatty, high-cholesterol foods can give us an “extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system” – and if that prevents further deaths and illnesses – then public health may have been served at last.