Atkins: The Crash Diet

Dr Robert Atkins' diet revolution swept the world. Then he died of heart failure and now his empire - run by his wife - has filed for bankruptcy. Andrew Buncombe examines why fat profits turned into such thin pickings
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The Independent US

It was pain-free, it was pleasurable and it promised to work. Millions around the world were lured by the controversial Atkins diet and its celebrity-endorsed pledge to shed the pounds without the need to forgo the fat. For a quick burst of years it was the most popular diet in the world.

But like countless diets before it, Atkins may have had its day. Untold numbers may remain committed to its high-fat/low-carb regime to trim the unwanted inches, but the breathless, out-of-control passion with Atkins appears to be over.

It was announced yesterday that the company founded by the late Robert Atkins had filed for bankruptcy in New York. The privately-owned company, Atkins Nutritionals Inc, said it had debts of $300m (£170m). Say a curse to the fickle world of food fads and fashions. It seems only hours since the Atkins regime - for some it was more a religion than a way of eating - was everywhere you turned.

There were, and still are, cookbooks and eating plans, meals and nutritional supplements. There were Atkins-style sandwiches at Subway, and the TGI Friday's chain of restaurants introduced new menu items such as Cajun Chicken Quesadillas and Grilled Buffalo Chicken Salad that followed the Atkins principles. The craze was even afforded responsibility for a new flurry of super-sized burgers that encouraged people to make even greater pigs of themselves.

Helping all of this, of course, were the celebrities and Hollywood names that were linked to the Atkins regime and its trademark logo of a capital A. Jennifer Aniston and her estranged husband Brad Pitt were apparently persuaded by the low-carb mantra, as were Gerri Halliwell and Minnie Driver. The Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones insisted she was not following the Atkins diet and humourlessly threatened to sue anyone who suggested otherwise.

But analysts and dietary experts say the signs are that Atkins has had its day and other equally faddish diets are already taking its place. Some have suggested the diet never overcame the perhaps unfair but undoubtedly damaging publicity surrounding the death of its founder two years ago.

"The low-carb had has gone," Michael Steib, a consumer goods analyst for Morgan Stanley, told the Bloomberg news agency. "Dieting habits are very short-lived. It came very quickly and disappeared very quickly."

Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution was published in 1972. Almost immediately it started to attract criticism from dietitians, who then were telling people to eat less meat. The American Medical Association said the ideas were " unscientific and potentially dangerous".

But Atkins kept at it. He had little time for the critics and on one occasion hit back, telling an audience of surgeons: "My English sheepdog will figure out nutrition before the dieticians do." His perseverance paid off. In 1992 a revised and renamed edition of his book was published and the New Diet Revolution captured the public imagination and 15 million copies were sold, making it one of the best-selling diet publications. At its core, the Atkins diet was based on a belief that carbohydrates raised the level of insulin in the bloodstream which in turn led to the creation and storing of fat.

Atkins suggested people obtain their calories from protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs and cheese and from eating fruit and vegetables. They should avoid processed foods as well as complex carbohydrates found in bread, potatoes and pasta.

He based his diet on personal experience. He grew up in Ohio where his father owned restaurants and went to university in Michigan then Cornell University Medical School where he trained to be a cardiologist. He did his residency at St Luke's hospital in New York.

But as Atkins completed his medical training, he also put on weight. He had weighed only 135lbs when he left high school; by the time he was a doctor he weighed 225lbs. He tried to lose it by following the advice of contemporary dieticians, replacing meat and cheese with pasta and grains. Rather than losing weight, he felt hungry and tired.

The breakthrough came in 1963 when Atkins read an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association that examined the fat-causing effects of carbohydrates in low-fat foods. Overnight his vision was transformed; carbohydrates and simple sugars were the new enemies, and protein and fat-filled foods were the new allies in the fight against fatness. He recommended that a person obtain up to two-thirds of their calories from fats and proteins.

What is more, Atkins claimed he saw the results in himself. He also tried it out on his patients and watched them get slimmer. His work and research resulted in the publication of his 1972 book.

Experts say the more recent Atkins popularity was because people focused on certain aspects of his diet. His book and his company stressed the need to eat fruit and vegetables, but many thought they could continue to eat all the things they liked, such as burgers, steaks, cheese and bacon. What they did not always do was supplement this with the fruits and vegetables Atkins said had to go with it.

Experts remain divided about the long-term utility of the Atkins diet. Many say it can work in the short-term but is more difficult to sustain. And the problem with all quick-fix diets is that after the initial weight-loss, the pounds return all quickly.

"The thing about Atkins was that it promised indulgence," said The Independent's food writer, Caroline Stacey. "You did not have to deny yourself. And it was inherently American. It seemed to sell the idea that you could continue to eat all the things Americans like to eat, expensive protein in meat and fatty burgers and cheese."

Many, if not most diets have appeared to offer the "easy solution" to weight control. But experts say a problem with the Atkins diet was the way its core concepts were misrepresented by the mainstream media. As a result, people were often attracted to Atkins as a quick fix, a pre-summer regime, for instance, to get in shape for the beach.

Ann Yelmokas McDermott, a nutritional researcher at the Boston-based Tuft's University School of Medicine, said: "If you look back over the past 20 years there has been a lot of cycling through of various diet types: we've had pretty much everything you can imagine from the cabbage soup diet to the fibre diet.

"There are two questions that need to be asked when you consider a diet. One is, 'does it work?'. The other is, 'Is it sustainable?'.

"Atkins was written in one way but people have interpreted it in others. In Atkins' original book there were various phases to go through, some for just one or two weeks. There's supposed to be a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables but people did not want to hear that. They thought they could just eat all the meat and fat you wanted to."

Dr McDermott said pushing the Atkins diet was not just society's desire for a quick fix but the huge corporate machine that supported it. "As with other diets, you have lots of people researching their diets and looking for the next new 'thing'. And it's not just the books, there are shops and meal packages and everything else that goes with it."

The company Atkins founded in 1989 has said little in public about its bankruptcy request, though it did say it had received $25m to work through the proceedings and day-to-day operations would not be affected. In papers filed with the court, Atkins' chief restructuring officer, Rebecca Roof, suggested the company had been the victim not off a drop-off in interest in low-carb products but in competition from other companies offering similar diets.

Unilever and Kraft had introduced products, including the South Beach Diet meals, that had hurt Atkins. "Mainstream companies ... broke into the controlled-carbohydrate market in 2004 with well-funded, aggressive product launches," she wrote. "[As a result, Atkins' sales] were dramatically less than forecast."

What was not mentioned was the death in 2003 of Robert Atkins and the damaging publicity surrounding it. The 72-year-old Atkins died after a fall in which he hit his head. A coroner's report revealed he weighed 258lbs, a weight considered technically obese for a 6ft man such as Atkins. This was seized on by critics of his diet as proof that his eating regime did not work.

Atkins' company said he had put on more than 60lbs because of fluid retention during his eight days in a coma before he died. When he was admitted, they said, he was 195lbs. His wife, Veronica, threatened to sue the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he called her husband "fat".

The jury may still be out on the Atkins diet. Doubtless there will be those who swear by it and continue to follow it. Equally so, other people who once worshipped at the Temple of Atkins will be moving on to the next craze, the next regime, the next "thing" offering a quick and easy fix.

And those new "things" are already there. In what might be considered something of a backlash to the Atkins diet, Gillian McKeith is making a stir with her combination of common sense advice about a mixed diet and eating unprocessed food, as detailed in a Channel 4 series and a book, You Are What You Eat.

The chef Antony Worrall Thompson is making similar waves with a book promoting the GI or Glycaemic Index diet. It is, he writes on his website, the only diet recommended by nutritionists, because you get a balance of protein and carbohydrates. "Diets like the Atkins do work, but are not healthy except in the short term," he says. "The GI diet is a lifestyle diet rather than a big 'D' diet." Which is pretty much what Robert Atkins said more than 30 years ago.

Current fads

CABBAGE SOUP DIET

Cabbage soup is the only main dish on the menu for about a week. Other foods are allowed on different days, such as fruit on day one and vegetables on day two. Experts warn that as cabbage has no fat-burning powers, most practitioners just lose water. Celebrity endorsers: Joanna Lumley.

F-PLAN DIET

Popular in the 1980s. Creator Audrey Eyton believed in carbohydrates. The theory was that fibre fills the stomach and reduces the desire to overeat. The book was a bestseller in 1982. The diet maintains some popularity today.

GRAPEFRUIT DIET

Fell out of fashion due to its severity. Thought to have descended from the 1930s Hollywood diet, this regime allows grapefruit, black coffee, and small portions of egg, dry toast and sometimes meat or fish. Practitioners are restricted to less than 800 calories a day.

SOUTH BEACH DIET

A popular diet that promises not to cut out delicious foods. The focus initially is on cutting highly processed carbohydrates. Some of these " banned" foods are re-introduced later. To compensate for the reduction in carbohydrates, proteins like chicken, fish, milk and cheese are encouraged. Eating out is allowed, and there is no requirement for exercise. Celebrity fans: Bill and Hillary Clinton and Bette Midler.

RAW FOOD DIET

Based on the idea that humans should ingest only natural, uncooked foods. Emphasis is on products such as fruits, salads and nuts. All processed foods are out. Caffeine and sugar are also ruled out. The diet generally rewards followers with high energy, as the food is easily metabolised. Though this means they eat more often, they rarely gain weight because of the lack of fat in the food. Celebrity followers: Uma Thurman and Natalie Portman.

GI DIET

This diet arrived in a whirl of celebrity last year. The glycemic index measures how quickly carbohydrates are digested. The GI diet leaves simple carbohydrates (bread, pasta) behind for complex carbohydrates with lower GI ratings (porridge, fruits). Low GI diets reduce insulin - which stimulates fat production while inhibiting its breakdown. Celebrity followers: Kylie Minogue, Jodie Kidd, Kim Catrall.

ZONE DIET

The aim of the Zone diet is to consume 40 per cent carbohydrate, 30 per cent protein and 30 per cent fat. Its creator, Barry Sears, claims you lose weight and gain mental focus and physical performance - and it slows ageing. Nutritionists say it is energy intake, not the composition of the nutrients, that leads to weight loss or gain. Celebrity endorsers: Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Matt Le Blanc.

Robin Stringer

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