What Does The Death of Robert Atkins Tell Us About the Atkins Diet?

In the spring of 2003 at the age of 72 years, Robert Atkins, the cardiologist and  controversial promoter of high fat diets for weight loss, fell  on the sidewalk in front of his Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in Manhattan.  He lost his footing on a patch of ice, slipped and banged his head on the pavement.  At the time of his fall his book ”Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution” lead the NY times paper-back best seller list.
He was taken to nearby Cornell Medical Center where a clot was evacuated from his brain. Thereafter he lapsed into a coma and he spent 9 days in the ICU, expiring on April 17, 2003.
The cause of death was determined by the New York Medical Examiner to be “blunt injury of head with epidural hematoma.”
An epidural hematoma is a collection of blood between the skull and the tough outer lining of the brain (the dura) which can occur with blunt trauma to the head which results in laceration of the arteries in this area. It is a not  uncommon cause of death in trauma . Actress Natasha Richardson (skiing, see below)  died from this. Nothing about the manner in which Robert Atkins died would suggest that he was a victim of his own diet any more than  Natasha Richardson was.
However, within the year a campaign of misinformation and deception spear-headed by  evangelistic vegans would try to paint the picture that Atkins died as a direct result of what they perceived as a horribly dangerous diet.
Michael Bloomberg, then New York major,  was quoted as saying
“I don’t believe that bullshit that [Atkins] dropped dead slipping on the sidewalk.”
According to the Smoking Gun:

“The 61-year-old billionaire added that Atkins was “fat” and served “inedible” food at his Hamptons home when Bloomberg visited. The mayor’s inference, of course, was that Atkins was actually felled by his meat-heavy diet, that his arteries were clogged with beef drippings. “

Enter The Vegans

Richard Fleming, a physician promoting prevention of cardiovascular disease through vegetarianism and with close ties to an organization  called Physicians Committe for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sent a letter to the NY Medical Examiner requesting a copy of the full medical examination of Atkins. The NYME office  should have only issued copies of this report to physicians involved in the care of Atkins or next of kin but mistakenly complied with this request.  Fleming, who would subsequently publish his own low fat diet book, conveniently gave the report to PCRM which is directed by animal rights and vegan physicians.

From the front page of pcrm.org. The two major concerns of the group are converting everyone to veganism and animal rights.

Neal Barnard, the President of PCRM, in an incredibly unethical move sent the letter to the Wall Street Journal with the hope that the information would destroy the popularity of the Atkins diet, a diet he clearly despises..  Barnard said the group decided to publicize the report because Atkins’ “health history was used to promote his terribly unhealthy eating plan..” The WSJ subsequently published an article summarizing the findings.
To this day, advocates of vegetarianism and low fat diets, distort the findings of Atkins’ Medical Examination in order to depict high fat diets like his as dangerous and portray Atkins as a victim of his own diet.
To scientists and thoughtful, unbiased physicians it is manifestly apparent that you cannot base decisions on what diet plan is healthy or effective for weight loss on the outcome of one patient. It doesn’t matter how famous that one person is or whether he/she originated and meticulously followed the diet. It is a ludicrous concept.
Would you base your decision to engage in running  based on the death of Jim Fixx?  Fixx  did much to popularize the sport of running and the concept of jogging as a source of health benefit and weight loss. He died while jogging, in fact. An autopsy concluded that he died of a massive heart attack and found advanced atherosclerosis (blockage) of the arteries to his heart.
Fixx inherited his predisposition to heart disease and couldn’t run himself out of it. Multiple studies over the years have documented the benefit of regular aerobic exercise like running on longevity and cardiovascular risk.
Would you based your decision to engage in  a very low fat diet based on how Nathan Pritikin died?  Pritikin authored an extremely popular book emphasizing eliminating fat from the diet but developed leukemia and slashed his wrists,  committing suicide at the age of 69 years. Would vegetarians accept the premise that their preferred diet results in leukemia or suicidal depression based on Pritikin’s death?

The Distortion of Atkins Death

The NYME report lists Atkins weight at autopsy as 258 pounds. Low-fat zealots seized on this fact as indicating that Atkins was screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-5-32-56-ammorbidly obese throughout his life.  For example, a  you-tube video of an audio interview of Atkinas online posted by “plant-based coach”  has this obviously photoshopped head of Atkins put on the body of a morbidly obese man. Atkins actually weight around 200 pounds through most of his life and a hospital note on admission showed him weighing 195 pounds. A substantial weight gain of 63 pounds occurred in the 9 days after his admission due to the accumulation of fluid volume and swelling which is not uncommon in the critically ill.

No autopsy was performed on Atkins but the NYME wrote on the document that he had “h/o of MI, CHF, HTN.”
MI is the acronym for a myocardial infarction or heart attack. As far as we can tell without access to full medical records, Atkins never had an MI. He did have a cardiac arrest in 2002. While most cardiac arrests are due to a cardiac arrhythmia secondary to an MI they can also occur in patients who have a cardiomyopathy or weakness in the heart muscle from causes other than MI. In fact, USA Today reported that Stuart Trager, MD,  chairman of the Atkins Physicians Council in New York, indicated that Atkins was diagnosed with a cardiomyopathy at the time of his cardiac arrest and that it was not felt to be due to blocked coronary arteries/MI. Cardiomyopathy can be caused by viral infections or nonspecific inflammation of the heart muscle and would have nothing to do with diet.
Trager also stated that Atkins, as a result of the cardiomyopathy, had developed heart failure (CHF) and the pumping ability of his heart (ejection fraction )had dropped to 15 to 20%. While CHF can be due to heart attacks causing heart weakness in Atkins case it appears it was unrelated to fatty blockage of the coronary arteries causing MI and therefore not related in any way to his diet.

What Does Atkins Death Tell Us About His Diet 

The information about Atkins death tells us nothing about the effectiveness or dangers of his diet.  In one individual it is entirely likely that a genetic predisposition to cancer or heart disease overwhelms whatever beneficial effects the individual’s lifestyle may have had. Thus, we should never rely on the appearance or the longevity of  the primary promoter of a diet for the diet’s effectiveness.

The evangelists of low-fat, vegan or vegetarian diets like PCRM have shamelessly promoted misinformation about Atkins death to dismiss high fat diets and promote their own agenda. If their diets are truly superior it should be possible to utilize facts and science to promote them rather than a sensationalistic, distorted focus on the body of one man who slipped on the ice and fell to his death.

Epidurally Yours


Addendum: Earlier versions of this post cited  MLB pitcher Brandon McCarthy as a victim of a fast ball to the head causing epicardial hematoma. I was corrected by astute reader Fred N who pointed out that McCarthy is still pitching for the Dodgers and was hit by a line drive (off the bat of Erick Aybar). McCarthy had emergency surgery for the epicardial hematoma in 2012. His diet had nothing to do with the epicardial hematoma.

N.B. Natasha Richardson fell while taking beginner ski lessons at a Canadian Ski resort. According to a release from the resort:

Natasha Richardson fell in a beginners trail while taking a ski lesson at Station Mont Tremblant,” the statement said. “She was accompanied by an experienced ski instructor who immediately called the ski patrol. She did not show any visible sign of injury but the ski patrol followed strict procedures and brought her back to the bottom of the slope and insisted she should see a doctor.
“As an additional precautionary measure, the ski instructor as well as the ski patrol accompanied Mrs. Richardson to her hotel,” the statement continued. “They again recommended she should be seen by a doctor. The ski instructor stayed with her at her hotel. Approximately an hour after the incident Mrs. Richardson was not feeling good. An ambulance was called and Mrs. Richardson was brought to the Centre Hospitalier Laurentien in Ste-Agathe and was later transferred to Hôpital du Sacre-Coeur.”
A spokesperson for the resort noted Richardson was not wearing a helmet while skiing and didn’t collide with anything when she fell. Thursday, in the wake of her death, Quebec officials said they are considering making helmets mandatory on ski slopes, according to The Associated Press.”
The last time I skied I found myself falling and banging my head an extraordinary amount. If I ever ski again (in contrast to my resistance to bike helmets) I plan to wear a helmet.


19 thoughts on “What Does The Death of Robert Atkins Tell Us About the Atkins Diet?”

    • Gundry mentions the fall and that he was obese? I don’t think either one of those are a lie? He did die from a fall and unless he was a bodybuilder 258 is most likely obese? Did you read the above article?

      • Pat,
        Did you read my article?
        Because I very clearly state that the idea that Atkins was morbidly obese is a fabrication that multiple “plant-based” or vegan sites have propogated. Such propaganda includes photoshopping Atkins head on a morbidly obese body.
        Here’s the relevant paragraph
        The NYME report lists Atkins weight at autopsy as 258 pounds. Low-fat zealots seized on this fact as indicating that Atkins was morbidly obese throughout his life.  For example, a  you-tube video of an audio interview of Atkinas online posted by “plant-based coach”  has this obviously photoshopped head of Atkins put on the body of a morbidly obese man. Atkins actually weight around 200 pounds through most of his life and a hospital note on admission showed him weighing 195 pounds. A substantial weight gain of 63 pounds occurred in the 9 days after his admission due to the accumulation of fluid volume and swelling which is not uncommon in the critically ill.

      • This is where being informed is so important. Those who knew Atkins were aware that he did not have that excess weight before entering the hospital. It was from water retention because of his health condition. Maybe you should take your own suggestion and do some more careful reading. From the above piece:
        “Atkins actually weight around 200 pounds through most of his life and a hospital note on admission showed him weighing 195 pounds. A substantial weight gain of 63 pounds occurred in the 9 days after his admission due to the accumulation of fluid volume and swelling which is not uncommon in the critically ill.”

  1. You may be an MD, but you are no doctor. That requires a doctorate, which I have, and I can smell the bias from the other side of the Earth. Your “skepticism” is a front for your cynicism, and you yourself are the very thing you hate when denigrating people like Esselstyn as “evangelists”. Get a doctorate degree and learn science before attempting to analyse it.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this–thanks. I could never understand why Atkins (or the diet, which I found helpful in the 1970s when it was first published) was so vilified. As you often point out, the evidence that’s emerged since then still supports its basic conclusions, and I saw it primarily as advocating long-term dietary change that wouldn’t have been seen as radical before mid-20th century on a family farm, for example, where people appreciated the meat, eggs, butter, vegetables, enjoyed grains and fruit in moderation. Yes, he advised us to spare the sugar & flour concoctions–which people did when they used to make them from scratch.
    But Dr. Anthony, I fear you’re taking an awfully big risk in resisting bicycle helmets! Would your colleagues in the ER or neurology approve?

  3. If the vegans thought that Dr Atkin’s lifestyle contributed to anything bad that happened to him, and they’d actually read his books, there are other things they could blame beyond the high-fat diet.
    Dr Atkins was an enthusiastic promoter of supplements and chelation. Now, EDTA chelation therapy, which Atkins was heavily criticised for using, has since been vindicated for coronary prevention (which doesn’t make it any less expensive and inconvenient), but some of the supplement protocols look pretty dodgy today – that much B6 is going to cause some people serious nerve damage, and that much iron in particular – yikes!
    If I was seriously wanting to do a hatchet job on Atkins, that’s where I’d be looking. There was nothing wrong with his diet, and his conceptualisation of how such diets work was brilliant for his time.

    • Atkins had heart failure but it was not related to atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease and not related to diet in any way. He had a cardiomyopathy. The cardiomyopathy led to his cardiac arrest (not heart attack) in 2002.
      The plant-based enthusiasts have tried to portray his cardiac issues as due to his diet but this is not supported by the evidence.

  4. Please read “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger. His book is a collection/distillation of carefully researched studies – not his opinion. Dr. Greger’s website is also very informative, and again, just facts, not opinion.

    • You’ll have to tell me why I need to read Dr. Greg. Do you believe that I am horribly misinformed on some topic and that by reading his book my lack of knowledge and understanding will be corrected? And what would his book have to do with the death of Dr. Atkins and the inappropriate acquisition and distortion of his medical history by vegans?

    • “Please read ‘How Not to Die’ by Michael Greger.”
      This book is absolutely not reliable, just as Dr. Greger isn’t. He’s vegan and his book is a collection of cherrypicked science, to push his vegan agenda.
      He’s a doctor who works for the Humane Society of the United States, and his job has been to spew vegan propaganda while attaching an “M.D.” to it. He has released a series of video lectures called “Latest in Clinical Nutrition” that serve as a sounding board for Greger to cherry pick studies and shill for veganism. HSUS allows its logo to be on the DVDs, so it wouldn’t surprise us if the organization paid for the production entirely.
      Greger’s moved from low-budget DVDs to starting a flashy website called “Nutrition Facts.” Despite the seemingly nonpartisan branding, “Nutrition Facts” until last year was called the “Vegan Research Institute,” so that should tell you what you need to know about the agenda of the site. Whatever Greger calls his project, debunking him simply requires going through the minutiae of the studies he cites. It’s a laborious task, but thankfully someone has done it for us.
      Over at Science Based Medicine, a website run by doctors with an eye towards promoting high standards in medicine and research, editor and former Air Force colonel Dr. Harriet Hall takes a hard look at a Greger video recommended to her by a vegan activist. You can read her full analysis, but she finds a number of examples of Greger ludicrously citing research. For example, one study Greger cites as showing that “plant-based” diets protect against kidney failure actually indicates that low-fat dairy products are also protective. The devil is in the details, but Greger is in the business of making overly broad statements that fit his narrative.
      Hall summarizes Greger’s formula rather well:
      These videos tend to fall into an easily recognizable pattern. They feature a charismatic scientist with an agenda who makes sweeping statements that go beyond the evidence, makes unwarranted assumptions about the meaning of studies, and omits any reference to contradictory evidence.
      And she also calls out Greger’s laughable rhetoric:
      [Greger] compares raw meat to hand grenades, because of bacterial contamination. If you don’t handle them safely, it’s like pulling the pin. Are we selling hand grenades in grocery stores? This is a ridiculous comparison, and it ignores the fact that plant-based foods can be a source of contamination too.
      Interesting point. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that leafy green vegetables are the number one source of food poisoning. About half of food poisonings are attributable to produce. Somehow, we can’t find this news on the “Nutrition Facts” blog. We’re shocked.
      Greger’s by no means the only wolf in sheep’s clothing we’ve seen, by the way. Just check out the so-called “Physicians Commitee” for “Responsible Medicine” for more.
      When Greger’s propaganda is filtered through calm, reasoned medical experts who are focused on impartially evaluating evidence, it falls apart. He’s a snake oil salesman for an ideology, and it seems he’ll twist research to push his agenda. In that way, he’s a perfect fit for HSUS.

      • Clarissa,
        Your analysis of Dr. Greger is spot on. I’ve been watching him for some time and totally agree with your points.
        Perhaps you’d like to provide a post for my blog on Dr. Greger.
        Dr. Pearson

    • And yet . . . and yet, that’s all each one of us is: anecdotal. No matter what the science on huge numbers of RCT subjects turns out to be, we are, each of us, the particular individuals we are and the best science might or might not apply.
      It’s a good thing to keep that in mind as you bring knowledge to bear on the problem of the patient (singular) in front of you.


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