Robert Atkins, best-selling author of diet books, dies of injuries in fall

Diet guru changed way many people went about trying to lose weight

April 18, 2003|By Jane E. Allen | Jane E. Allen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who bucked dietary dogma with best-selling books that helped millions of Americans shed pounds by shunning carbohydrates while indulging in beef, bacon, eggs and butter, died yesterday of injuries suffered in a fall on an icy New York City sidewalk. He was 72.

On April 8, a day after a snowstorm, Dr. Atkins hit his head in a fall a few yards from his Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in midtown Manhattan. He was taken to New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, where doctors removed a blood clot from his brain. But he remained in critical condition, slipped into a coma and was placed on life support.

Dr. Atkins' name became synonymous with dieting in 1972, when he published Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution. About 10 million copies of the book were sold worldwide. It brought pointed criticism from his colleagues, who dismissed his alimentary advice as faddish. But two decades later, he was back with Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution,again a top seller, and in 1999, he released another revision that has remained atop The New York Times paperback best-seller list. Earlier this year, in a new book, Atkins for Life, he advised readers about how to maintain a healthy weight after taking off excess pounds.

With his books and the surrounding buzz, Dr. Atkins changed the way many Americans went about trying to lose weight. Because of him, supermarkets did a brisk business in pork rinds, a permitted substitute for potato chips, pretzels and other off-limits starchy snacks.

According to Dr. Atkins, the body burns carbohydrates before burning fat. By drastically limiting carbohydrates, his diet forces the body into a state of "ketosis," burning fat for fuel and causing pounds to drop off. Dietary fat, he said, helps satiate hunger, helping dieters to eat less.

Critics, who over the years included the American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association, say that by limiting fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the plan limits important sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, while permitting consumption of the saturated fats considered major artery-cloggers.

Some of the decades-long opposition to Dr. Atkins' diet began to weaken in the past few years. In 2001, the American Heart Association invited Dr. Atkins to present research about the effects of his dietary approach on heart disease. Last fall, Duke University researchers presented data to the American Heart Association showing that overweight people on the high-fat, low-carb Atkins plan lost more weight and had lower cholesterol and triglycerides - two blood fats associated with heart disease - than those on a low-fat diet.

But there have been no long-term studies about how well Atkins diet followers maintain their lower weights, and researchers have not established what happens to cholesterol and blood pressure once Atkins dieters reach their goal weight.

Dr. Atkins moderated his views in recent years. He collaborated with noted dietitians and nutritionists to help his followers maintain their hard-fought weight-loss successes in a nutritionally wise way, said Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of the nutrition division at Harvard Medical School, who knew Dr. Atkins for 30 years.

"I think his final book on maintenance might have been his finest. It showed he was not fixed in ideas that he developed 30 years ago; that he was ready to change," he said. For example, it advocated eating nutrient-rich vegetables and "meats other than those that are red and saturated with fat."

Dr. Atkins was born Oct. 17, 1930, in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1951 and four years later received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical School. After completing a cardiology residency at St. Luke's Hospital in New York, he opened a private practice in 1960. In 1984, he expanded that practice into complementary medicine, stressing lifestyle and longevity.

He is survived by his wife of 15 years, Veronica, and his mother, Norma. He had no children.

Jane E. Allen writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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