Dr Robert Atkins

Astute creator of the Atkins diet

Robert Coleman Atkins, cardiologist and diet promoter: born Columbus, Ohio 17 October 1930; married 1988 Veronica Luckey; died New York 17 April 2003.

Robert Atkins was the author of some of the world's best-selling slimming and diet books, beginning in 1972 with Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution, subtitled "The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever".

Originally a cardiologist, he gained fame and fortune with his dietary advice, which proscribed bread, rice, pasta, but advocated meat, eggs and cheese, and wasn't against fat. This advice is music to the ears of many fatties though, in reality, it is as hard to stick to as any other diet.

Born in 1930 in Columbus, Ohio, Atkins did his pre-medical degree at the University of Michigan, qualifying on 1951, and his MD degree at Cornell University Medical. He then spent four years training as a cardiologist at Rochester and Columbia University Hospitals and St Luke's Hospital in New York, qualifying as a specialist in 1959. The following year he started in private cardiology practice in New York.

Three years later he began to formalise his low-carbohydrate diet, based, he said, on a series of articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, the basis of his diet has been known for far longer, viz. that it is impossible to metabolise fat properly without some carbohydrate in the diet.

Thus, a diet high in fat but with little or no carbohydrate will not release all its calories. Instead, the fat is partly metabolised, forming ketones, which are excreted in the urine. Ketones contain calories, and so the slimmer is, in effect, losing calories down the lavatory pan. The disadvantage of this is that the dieter often develops worse breath than a meths addict, and high concentrations of ketones for long periods can damage the kidneys.

The recent BBC series Diet Trials compared the Atkins diet with three others: Slimfast, WeightWatchers, and the Rosemary Conley Diet. They were equally effective, except that the Atkins dieters had the highest cholesterol levels at the end of the experiment. Nevertheless, many celebrities are said to swear by the Atkins diet: they include Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Geri Halliwell.

In 1977 Atkins jumped on the hypoglycaemia bandwagon, publishing Dr Atkins' Superenergy Diet: the diet revolution answer to fatigue and depression, about the effects of unstable blood sugar, a disease of fashion, and in 1981 Dr Atkins' Nutritional Breakthrough: how to treat your medical condition without drugs, about nutritional treatments for a wide range of diseases, including, it is said, some that doctors hadn't heard of. Three years later he renamed his practice the Atkins Center for Nutritional Medicine.

Thereafter he went further down the road of alternative nutrition, founding Complementary Formulations Inc, later renamed Atkins Nutritionals, and appearing on numerous American talk shows including the Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live. He became a respected figure in the world of quackery.

Popular diets are a matter of fashion, and, three years after Atkins first launched his diet in 1972, it was all but forgotten. In between, the populace have embraced and later rejected the the Mayo Clinic Diet (disowned by the Mayo Clinic), the Scarsdale Diet (which dropped out of use from after its protagonist was shot dead by his mistress), Rosemary Conley's Hip and Thigh Diet, the F-Plan Diet, the Beverley Hills Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, and a good few others. Once a diet goes out of fashion it is looked on with aversion and even disgust. Atkins was lucky, or astute, to have been in fashion twice, 20 years apart.

He was to publish several more books: in addition to Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution (1992, revised and relaunched in 1999) there was, of course, Dr Atkins' Quick and Easy New Diet Revolution Cookbook (1997), Dr Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution: nature's answer to drugs (1998) and The Age-Defying Diet Revolution (2000). This prevented ageing but, unfortunately, did not work retrospectively.

Twelve months ago, Atkins suffered a cardiac arrest. He issued a statement averring that this was due to cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease from which he had suffered for seven years, and that this was not due to diet or blocked arteries but an infection, exacerbated by the high temperatures in New York at the time.

He died after slipping on a pavement and suffering severe head injuries. Doctors operated to remove a blood clot from his brain, but he never regained consciousness.

Later this year, his last book, Atkins for Life, will be published in the UK. It is an unfortunate title for a posthumous publication.

Caroline Richmond

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