More MS news articles for November 2000

The Protein Pioneer

Eat, eat and be merry because you're so slim

Sunday 26 November 2000

Robert Atkins, looking far more youthful than his 70 years, peers mischievously up from behind an absentminded professor's desk cluttered with books, papers - and a startling jumble of bottles of pills. "I popped 30 tablets before my tennis game yesterday and you should have seen me," he bragged. "I was playing with people in their 40s and 50s and they couldn't touch me."

So, what is his secret? Miracle drugs, perhaps? Banned substances? Well, not exactly. The man famous for trying to persuade the world to lose weight by eating fried eggs, bacon, cheese, lashings of butter and all that other delicious fat and protein others say is bad for you is on a new crusade.

Dr Atkins is creating and selling pills of "vita-nutrients", his name for a range of substances found in nature - mainly vitamins and minerals, but other things too. He believes they give optimal health and prevent or cure a range of diseases including diabetes and heart disease, even sometimes cancer. And, he claims, they dramatically slow the age clock. They should, though, be combined with that high-protein diet that took the world by storm 30 years ago, fell into a decade of disrepute, then made a recent comeback in developed countries from America to Australia.

Dr Atkins, though, is an unhappy man. Why? Because he feels the medical establishment and pharmaceutical giants are actively against him and his "dangerous" ideas and vita-nutrients that could eat into their profits. However, he is convinced his diet and medical approach could save the world - or at least millions of people.

"I pray that I could convince them," he shrugs resignedly. Not that one should feel completely sorry for him. Most people would envy this man. The diet book alone has made him wealthy and famous beyond most people's dreams. Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution is one of the 50 best-selling books ever and continues to top charts. He has other other big-selling books including diet cookbooks and the recent Dr Atkins Vita-Nutrient Solution. Due out soon is a guide to slowing the ageing process. Money is pouring in, too, from sales of the vita-nutrient pills and from such things as his Dr Atkins Advantage high-protein bars, high-protein milkshake powders and high-protein baking mixes that sell in some supermarkets.

His personal trappings of wealth include a swank New York apartment, a house in the Hamptons on Long Island and an impressive collection of original art.

His real passion - and the source of his discontent - is his Atkins Centre for Complementary Medicine, a gleaming white six-storey building in the heart of Manhattan, where he and a team of 12 doctors and nutritionists administer their revolutionary brand of diet-plus-vita-nutrients healing. They also administer other non-standard medical treatments such as homoeopathy and acupuncture.

Dr Atkins' followers include many of the millions who have bought his books. The diet is so popular that restaurants serve high-protein "Atkins" fare and there are even high-protein dinner parties. Dramatic celebrity weight losses, too - from Hollywood star Jennifer Aniston to American Vice-President Al Gore - have been attributed to the Atkins plan.

But Dr Atkins says he feels persecuted. He knows he is right. He knows that his diet and vita-nutrients could reverse the tide of obesity and related diseases in the modern world. But instead he is fighting a battle with "them" - who he defines variously as "the mainstream", members of the Clinton administration, dietitians, conventional doctors, the food industry and pharmaceutical companies. "They", he says, are so set against him they regularly sabotage him.

A vast conspiracy is ranged against him. He says the United States Department of Agriculture, for example, is planning to study his diet, "but it was pretty clear when we visited them that they wanted to do a study that the diet was dangerous. They didn't want to do our diet the right way".

His paranoia is not completely without foundation. Most critics, and even some friends of his diet caution, among other things, that the severe restriction of carbohydrates he advocates can cause strain on the kidneys; that most of the rapid initial weight loss is from water; and that, even if cholesterol goes down, it is because all weight loss causes that.

"Prove it!" he always says. But no significant, long-term studies have been done. He says he cannot afford the massive amounts of money available to the pharmaceutical industry for such studies and that he does not buy into a system where some patients are given placebos, as would be required. Still, some small university studies are pending as well as at least one by the United States Government.

Dr Atkins says he is praying to be proved right. That the Western world will see it has been slipped a giant "low-fat fraud", and that the evidence is overwhelming. The root cause of the alarming increase in obesity and related diseases, he firmly believes, is due to one thing: the increased consumption of refined carbohydrates - primarily flour and sugar contained in an explosion of sweet, high-carbohydrate junk food.

Dr Atkins specialised in cardiology, graduating from prestigious Cornell University in New York. He loved treating patients. "When I got to medical school, I knew I was in the right place," he says. "... when I finished my residency at the end of June, 1969, I saw patients at 2am on July 1st."

The path to his clash with conventional medicine began when he started gaining weight in the early 1960s and decided to diet. His method of weight loss was hardly revolutionary, he says - he saw papers on low-carbohydrate diets in such respected journals as The Lancet in Britain and the Journal of the American Medical Association. They advocated an old-fashioned method of cutting out puddings and potatoes that had long held sway.

Indeed, the low-carbohydrate way of losing weight was first promulgated in a best-selling 19th-century book by William Banting, an English casket-maker, in his Letter on Corpulence.

But low-fat diet plans were gaining ground. The American Medical Association in 1973 decided to review Dr Atkins' diet book, which had become such a runaway bestseller. The review was devastating, slamming the diet as dangerous, as a recipe for clogged arteries and heart disease. Dr Atkins decided to fight.

"The result of the AMA attack turned out to be a huge blessing," he said. "I didn't think so at the time - but in trying to get even I made a resolution that I would show the world that I could practise medicine better than the AMA could. And that was how I got interested in the entire field of complementary medicine. So I began to take on things that they couldn't handle like cancer, multiple sclerosis ... and we were getting spectacular results."

His mission now, he says, is to look at all alternatives to conventional medications and surgery. He married late and has no children so intends to leave his money to form a foundation to study what works to cure people, to take off the blinkers that often accompany traditional medicine.

And, of course, to get people off McDonald's and Coke and chocolate bars and on to roast chicken, steak, cheese, butter and green vegetables.