Fighting for a slice of the Atkins pie: the doctors who claim to be his successor

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Named after the seaside playground of America's east coast millionaires, it is the wallet-bashing, punishingly chic diet that claims to be the true heir to the multimillion-pound low-carb empire built by Dr Robert Atkins.

Named after the seaside playground of America's east coast millionaires, it is the wallet-bashing, punishingly chic diet that claims to be the true heir to the multimillion-pound low-carb empire built by Dr Robert Atkins.

The Hamptons diet has the perfect credentials for fashion-obsessed New Yorkers seeking to purge themselves of unwanted calories ­ it is expensive, hyper-trendy and based on ingredients that can be as hard to obtain as a Friday night reservation in Manhattan's restaurant of the moment.

It has another vital quality to provide a frisson for sophisticated urbanites ­ it is the subject of bitter infighting between the doctors who claim to be the successors to an industry worth at least $100m (£65m) a year.

Dr Fred Pescatore, the inventor of the Hamptons diet and a colleague of Dr Atkins who worked as director of his New York clinic from 1994 to 1999, is the first of the six medical experts who worked for the famous dietician to go public with his own recipe for a healthy lifestyle. But behind the gourmet calorie-counting and slimline cocktails that lie at the heart of Dr Pescatore's new book, which promises to reveal "the dieting secrets of the rich, famous ­ and thin", there lies some bitchy invective worthy of the front row of a New York fashion show.

Dr Pescatore, who claims to have been one of Dr Atkins's oldest friends, insists he is defending the legacy of his mentor, which he says is being "bastardised" by the company that runs the late doctor's empire. "If Robert could see what was happening to his company he would be turning in his grave," Dr Pescatore says.

When Dr Atkins died after slipping on ice last April, his Manhattan medical centre and the commercial arm of his empire, Atkins Nutritionals, were part of a privately owned company. Atkins Nutritionals was thought to have sales of $100m last year, while the medical centre had 4,000 patients, some of whom came from as far as Uzbekistan to learn the philosophy of low-carb dieting.

Six months after Dr Atkins's death, the board of the company, including his widow Veronica, decided to close the medical centre, and the investment firms Parthenon Capital and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners bought a controlling stake. A message was posted on the Atkins website informing patients that the centre was closing and recommending six doctors who "follow the Atkins nutritional approach".

The doctors were all acolytes of Atkins, including Dr Pescatore ­ and Mrs Atkins paid tribute to "the amazing team of medical ... experts who are committed not just to my husband's legacy but to his vision of helping people all over the world achieve a healthier life".

But within weeks, internecine warfare had broken out. One of the experts on the list, Dr Keith Berkowitz, was accused of poaching patients from the Atkins Medical Centre and claimed to be the intended heir of the empire. Dr Berkowitz, 34, had been working at the centre for only two months when Dr Atkins died, but claims he was taken on as a business director and being groomed to take over when the guru retired. His claim to be the heir-apparent was strengthened by the fact that he found Dr Atkins after he had slipped on the ice, and had gone in the ambulance with him to hospital. Dr Berkowitz set up his own practice, and says he has more than 200 former Atkins patients on his books.

Meanwhile, Dr Pescatore set up a rival practice, Partners in Integrative Medicine, on Manhattan's exclusive Madison Avenue, along with another former Atkins favourite, Dr Len Lipson. Dr Lipson accused Dr Berkowitz of contacting former Atkins patients to rally as much support as possible. "To have somebody carry [Atkins] banner within two months of training, that's a bad joke," Dr Lipson said.

Dr Berkowitz denies the charges. He claims he may have more patients because the favoured list of six doctors was published on the Atkins site alphabetically ­ meaning his name was first, while Dr Pescatore's was fourth.

Another two former employees have also opened practices, claiming they are fulfilling the Atkins dream.

All of this has done nothing to dissuade Dr Pescatore in marketing his own regimen. It is a blend of low-carbohydrate, Atkins-style science and the Mediterranean diet ­ with a dash of New York decadence. Central to the plan is the "secret ingredient" of macadamia nut oil, which, according to Dr Pescatore, is "the most monounsaturated oil on the planet."

The oil may be good for the heart and weight loss, but it could spell death for your bank balance ­ a litre costs at least £25 ­ and Dr Pescatore recommends its use in everything from cooking to salad dressings. It is also difficult to obtain.

The recipes, created by the doctor and his "celebrity chef friends" feature gourmet delights such as lemon, spinach and zucchini salad, scallops, and snapper stew. "I called it The Hamptons diet because that is how they eat there, and because I thought The Hamptons is the closest thing we have in America to Mediterranean culture," he said.

"Plus, it gives the book that idea of glamour. You may not be able to afford a house in The Hamptons, but now you can do the diet."

Whether the mixture of millionaire-style eating and Atkins-inspired calorie counting will produce a new dietary fad remains to be seen.

For his part, Dr Pescatore says: "I worked for Robert Atkins for four and a half years and remained friends with him after that. I was one of his oldest and longest friends, and I believe I am staying true to his legacy. But I suppose we would all say that, wouldn't we?"

Meanwhile, Mrs Atkins, who has recently had to deal with accusations that her husband was obese at the time of his death, and witness the squabbling over his life's work, commented in an interview with the New York Metro: "They all think they know best. Why won't they let him alone and let me grieve in peace?"

Diet vs Diet

Atkins Diet
Philosophy: Based around eliminating carbohydrate from your diet.
What's in: You can eat proteins such as, meat, eggs, and cheese.
What's out: Carbohydrates, such as bread, potatoes, and pasta.

Hampton diet
Philosophy: a combination of the Atkins diet and a traditional Mediterranean diet.
What's in: Essential component is macadamia nut oil, used in cooking and salads.
What's out: Sweets