The Atkins Empire Strikes Back

By Michael Fumento

Scripps Howard News Service, February 19, 2004
Copyright 2004 Scripps Howard News Service

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The Atkins Empire is spooked. Their annual $100 million-plus revenue from books, low-carb foods and food licenses has been threatened by a medical examiner’s report stating that founder Dr. Robert Atkins was an obese 6 feet tall, 258 pounds. Now they’re firing back with everything from statistics to smears.

But all they’ve shot is their own foot.

In smear mode, the Atkins people repeatedly inform us that the paper that broke the news, the Wall Street Journal, got the M.E. report from a group of commie pinko vegetarians (the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), delivered to them by an Atkins-hating cardiologist. But in no way does any of this affect the report itself.

Ah, but the report itself was misleading say the Atkins acolytes. Dr. Stuart Trager, a hand surgeon who’s top doc at Atkins Nutritionals, claimed on the Atkins Web site that when hospitalized, "Dr. Atkins’ weight was recorded as195 pounds, 63 pounds less than reported at his death." The excess weight was "from water bloating while the doctor was comatose" he insisted.

But pathologists say Trager is all wet. "I don’t think the 60-pound difference can be explained by treatment in a hospital," former chief New York pathologist Dr. Michael Baden told Fox News. "Loading up somebody with a lot of fluid would be very harmful to somebody with the kind of blunt trauma that Dr. Atkins had."

On "Larry King Live," King asked Trager incredulously, "You can have that much fluid retention, like, gaining 50, 60 pounds?" Trager faltered. "I know people don’t gain that much weight in nine days," he said, whereupon he switched the topic to once again bashing the Physicians Committee.

I tried to clear up the contradiction in a phone interview, to no avail. Trager simply said bloating must have played a factor, even as he admitted he never saw Atkins in the hospital and his information was hearsay.

Interestingly, neither Trager nor King’s other guest, Atkins’ widow, mentioned what should have been their trump card. There’s a reason.

Days earlier USA Today declared that "records obtained" from Mrs. Atkins "contradict a Wall Street Journal report that Robert Atkins weighed 258 pounds at the time of his death." The Journal and Newsweek repeated the assertion, while major outlets like Time simply cited USA Today without getting the source material. I did.

The "records" were merely part of a page from an echocardiogram report, not admittance documents as one might expect. Conspicuously, the blood pressure numbers were covered. Trager lamely insisted it was to protect Atkins’ privacy. Yet much of the media fuss over the M.E. report was its having said Atkins suffered hypertension. Atkins Nutritionals had squealed this was false, but then literally covered it up.

Atkins was no weight-loss wizard, just one more fat American.

The echocardiogram report did show Atkins’ weight at 195, but the head of the echocardiography laboratory told me they don’t even have a scale. "Sometimes we get the weight from ER, and sometimes we don’t and don’t put anything down," he said. "Do you ever just estimate?" I asked. "Yup," he replied.

Yet even at 195, Atkins still would have been fat. Trager had claimed, "Based on the body mass index (a weight-to-height calculation), a desirable range for people over the age of 65 is 24 to 29," and "Dr. Atkins’ BMI was 26.4, putting him squarely in the normal range for his age." Total fabrication. The National Institutes of Health says anything above a 25 BMI is overweight but that the BMI table "may underestimate body fat in older persons and others who have lost muscle mass." (Emphasis original.)

Trager told me BMIs don’t apply to extremely athletic people (true, but Atkins wasn’t) and repeated that older people ought to be allowed some leeway with their weight, as if those with mounting health problems should magnify them. But then he essentially threw in the towel.

"He was a large man," he said, "who’s statistically in the overweight category and was doing his best to manage his weight." Even the late doctor’s personal cardiologist and former chief of medicine for the Atkins organization, Dr. Joseph Fratellone, acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal, "He was a little overweight."

Trager also claimed Atkins was "genetically not a thin person," but when I asked if Atkins had a gene or metabolism test he admitted he hadn’t. Now in full used-car salesman mode he explained Atkins "always had trouble keeping his weight off even as a kid." Which proves nothing.

Call Atkins "large" or "horizontally challenged" if you prefer. But Toto pulled aside the curtain and revealed that the great and powerful Wizard of Low Carbs suffered the same weight problem that plagues most of us. But while he at least became fabulously wealthy, the low-carb craze he started will just make us fabulously fat.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on obesity and on the FDA.