Reality bites for Pierre Dukan, diet doctor to the stars, as he loses libel battle

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Pierre Dukan, French diet doctor to the stars, has lost a libel action against a nutritionist who described the so-called Dukan Diet as dangerous.

The dietician, whose followers include Jennifer Lopez, Johnny Hallyday, Gisele Bündchen and the Middleton family, took exception to an interview given to a French magazine last year in which Dr Jean-Michel Cohen described the protein-heavy diet as a dangerous reheating of old ideas, which can cause heart problems and breast cancer. The plan is followed by millions of people around the world,

Asked who benefited from the Dukan Diet, Dr Cohen said: "The slimming industry, doctors, pill salesmen, publishers, newspapers ... Everyone who has climbed on to the bandwagon of this fantasy."

Dr Dukan's lawyers argued at a hearing in Paris in May that such comments went beyond the normal squabbles between medical rivals. They amounted to a character assassination.

No, they did not, the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris decided yesterday. Dr Cohen was entitled to express his views under the French constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The court even ordered Dr Dukan to pay €3,000 (£2,700) to his rival for bringing an "abusive" legal action.

The hearing did not judge the rival claims on scientific or health grounds. Yesterday's judgment is, therefore, not a repudiation of the Dukan Diet per se, but a declaration of the rights of other people to criticise it.

After many years in which his ideas were ignored, Dr Dukan's sales exploded three years ago. His diet – similar to the Atkins Diet – starts with an "attack" phase in which the slimmer loses weight rapidly by eating large quantities of low-fat proteins (from veal to fish to no-fat yoghurts). There are three other phases, which gradually reintroduce vegetable and carbohydrates, but the slimmer has to return to the protein-only diet one day a week for the rest of his or her life.

After the ruling Dr Dukan insisted that his methods were safe and healthy and criticised Dr Cohen for ignoring "medical ethics which forbade public criticism of a colleague". He accused Dr Cohen of being jealous. Cohen's rival diet, he said, based on calorie-counting, was part of an approach that had failed to prevent the overweight and obese population of France from rising to 22,000,000.

Dr Cohen's lawyer, Richard Malka, responded: "This was a total defeat for Pierre Dukan."