- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

NEW YORK, April 15 (UPI) — Dr. Robert Atkins, the diet guru of low-carb, high-protein fame, died Thursday at Cornell University Medical Center from injuries received earlier this month when he fell.

Atkins, 72, was on his daily walk to work when he fell on an icy sidewalk outside his New York City office and suffered injuries to his head. A spring snowstorm coupled with icy temperatures had left city streets and sidewalks slippery.

Dr. Keith Berkowitz, a colleague at The Atkins Center, rushed Atkins to Cornell where he underwent surgery. However, Atkins remained in a coma and on life support while family and friends waited at his bedside. His physicians gave him little chance to recover.

On the Atkins Center Web site, his family kept his fans up-to-date on his condition.

"It makes me proud that my husband has touched so many lives and having this reaffirmed at this time is very much helping me through this terrible ordeal," said his wife, Veronica.

The founder of the Atkins Diet had been a controversial figure in the world of nutrition and dieting. But in the last few years, he had begun to see many in medicine and some in research come around to the theory he had been advocating for the last 30 years.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and Cornell University Medical College, he dropped his cardiology practice to open a obesity clinic after he tried what he described as an effortless diet cutting carbohydrates and increasing protein and fat.

Atkins turned the diet industry on its head when he released his first of eight diet books in 1972. "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution" called for a diet high in meat, fat, eggs and cheese while cutting out bread, rice and fruit.

The American Medical Association called the diet "naive" and "potentially dangerous."

Atkins was advocating a diet high in protein and fat, even saturated fat, at the same time the medical community was calling for less meat, less saturated fat and fewer eggs to prevent heart disease and stroke.

At a time when people started knowing their cholesterol number as well as their phone number and counting the fat grams in their food, the diet went against everything nutritionists advocated — cutting meat to cut cholesterol and therefore reduce the chance of heart disease.

Nonetheless, the Atkins book was a best-seller and sold in the millions.

Meanwhile, a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet was officially advocated by the U.S. government after it released its Food Pyramid that called for using fats, oils and sweets sparingly while consuming 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta.

Through the years, Atkins brought more recipes and foods into the maintenance diet that were carbohydrates, but used less sugar and white flour.

However, despite the initial panning of his diet from the medical community, Atkins continued to refine his diet and became the founder and director of the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in New York City.

In 1992 Marilyn Rosenthal, in a blurb on Atkin's latest book, wrote in Publishers Weekly that: "Atkins repeats his controversial, questionably valid premise that the elimination of carbohydrates from the diet will result in weight loss, good health, and euphoria. Contrary to current thinking, Atkins promotes a diet of protein and fat in four stages: induction, ongoing weight loss, premaintenance, and maintenance."

The diet targets insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. According to Atkins, the bodies of most overeaters are continually in a state of hyperinsulinism; their bodies are so adept at releasing insulin to help convert excess carbohydrates to fat that there's always too much of the hormone circulating through the body.

"This puts the body into a bind; it always wants to store fat. Even when people with hyperinsulinism try to lose weight — especially when they cut fat but increase carbohydrate consumption — their efforts will fail," Atkins said.

Atkins maintained that a high-protein, high-fat diet was healthful as long as it was not coupled with high carbohydrates.

In the first phase of the diet, two weeks or longer, carbohydrates are almost entirely eliminated from the diet.

Once the dieter is within eight pounds of the target weight, "healthy" carbohydrates and starches, such as fruit and nuts, are slowly added until the daily consumption of carbohydrates causes the person to neither lose nor gain weight.

However, in the last 20 years as Americans adopted a more carbohydrate-heavy diet — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture annual grain consumption increased almost 60 pounds per person — so did their weight.

Despite more and more dieting, 60 percent of Americans were classified as overweight and obese at the turn of the 21st century. Meanwhile Atkins and the people who claimed to lose "a ton" on his diet did not go away.

Researchers that had spurned the Atkins diet in the 1970s started doing studies on his diet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some to finally disprove Atkins, and some funded by his foundation. Many of the results were surprising.

In five studies, cholesterol levels improved, but triglyceride levels were considerably lower with the Atkins diet, suggesting that heart-disease risk could actually be reduced when fat is added back into the diet and starches and refined carbohydrates are removed, The New York Times reported in July 2002.

However, none of the studies was financed by the National Institutes of Health, and none had been published.

The Times quoted Linda Stern, an internist at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Hospital: "As a trained physician, I was trained to mock anything like the Atkins diet, but I put myself on the diet. I did great. And I thought maybe this is something I can offer my patients."

Despite the growing evidence, many are still worried that eating a lot of bacon and eggs will clog their arteries.

However, after years of refusing to research comparative popular diets, the National Institutes of Health has funded a five-year study trial of the Atkins diet with 360 obese individuals.

In a few years, there may be some more answers in the debate between the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet and the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.

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