The Dangerous Legacy of Dr. Atkins

By Michael Fumento

Scripps Howard News Service, April 24, 2003
Copyright 2003 Scripps Howard News Service

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It’s said we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but we all do. And for the sake of our nation’s health, the mythology behind the diet of the late Dr. Robert Atkins must be buried with him.

Atkins was never exactly a picture of health.

Three decades ago, Atkins began peddling his plan proclaiming that if you keep your carbohydrate intake drastically low you could eat literally an incredible 5,000 calories a day and still lose weight. The formula was a great success – for Atkins. He became the most successful diet guru ever, filling his coffers as his readers stuffed their faces and expanded their bellies.

Then his reputation and sales received an incredible boost last July when prominent science writer Gary Taubes penned an anaconda-length article for the New York Times Magazine, leading readers to believe there is scientific support for the low-carb claims. Atkins’ net worth zoomed to $100 million, while Taubes himself gobbled up a high-fat $700,000 book deal.

But nutritionists and doctors were horrified – including several whom Taubes presented as supporting Atkins’ regimen.

"I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins Diet," said one, Stanford University cardiologist Dr. John Farquhar. “I’m sorry I ever talked to him."

“I thought the article was outrageous," said Farquhar’s colleague at Stanford, Dr. Gerald Reaven. Seeing himself mentioned, he told me, made him “embarrassed as hell.”

Both will tell you what any good nutritionist or doctor will: There’s no magic in weight control. It’s just calories in and calories out, regardless of whether the composition is fat, carbohydrates, or protein.

Both Taubes and Atkins simply ignored hundreds of studies, some dating back to the 1950s, showing just that.

In April 2001, for example, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed “all studies identified” that looked at diet nutrient composition and weight loss, over 200 in all. Conclusion: “Weight loss is independent of diet composition.”

Most recently, a review in the April 9, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found “insufficient evidence to conclude that lower-carbohydrate content is independently associated with greater weight loss compared with higher-carbohydrate content."

The analysis of 107 articles published between 1966 and February 2003, involving 3268 participants, concluded that what worked were "diets that restricted calorie intake and were longer in duration.” Thus, “when lower-carbohydrate diets result in weight loss, it also is likely due to restriction of calorie intake and longer duration rather than carbohydrate intake."

Science-journalist-turned-Atkins-advertorial writer Gary Taubes.

As long as we can stick to it, low-carb eating can lead to eating fewer calories simply because most of what we normally eat is carbohydrates. But there’s no metabolic magic to low-carb eating; nor is fat more satiating than carbohydrates, as Atkins and Taubes have suggested.

“Ultimately our data do not support any such mechanism that Atkins and his proponents have made,” says the University of Cincinnati’s Randy Seeley, a co-researcher of a study of Atkins dieters.

But what about all those people who swear by the diet – often with the religious fervor of a Jim Jones acolyte?

With 15 million Atkins book purchasers, obviously there will be success stories. A 99 percent failure rate would yield 150,000. But does a good diet work merely one percent of the time?

Further, many people can lose weight on the diet for short periods until they can no longer resist their body’s need for carbohydrates. But go to an online low-carb shrine, such as http://www.atkinsfriends.com/faces/, and you’ll find many of the vociferous proponents aren’t evaluating what the diet has done for them, but rather what they hope it will do.

Of the hundreds of testimonials on that site, few even claim to have reached their weight-loss goal; instead they boast of having lost a few pounds towards it. Then – surprise! – they never appear on the site again.

When Atkins’ first hit the scene, he was a mere nuisance. But today two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third obese. Obesity will soon pass smoking as the leading cause of lifestyle-related death and illness.

There are many reasons for this explosion, and it’s probably coincidence that it began about when Atkins’ first book appeared. But certainly a major contributor has been the diet gurus who trick people into believing they can lose weight through some magic formula, rather than the only method that works: controlling caloric intake and output.

Atkins was the greatest calorie con-man, which made him the worst. Atkins Diet, Rest in Peace.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on obesity.