Tag Archives: Atkins

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.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-8-44-55-amThe 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.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-7-50-24-am
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.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-8-42-59-amscreen-shot-2016-11-27-at-8-42-39-am

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

-ACP

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.

 

Which Popular Diets Are Supported By Science?

Which of the currently popular and highly marketed diets are best for weight loss and cardiovascular health? Can science answer this question?
questI just took a 90 minute online “course” taught by Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health; I think he does a good job of summarizing the scientific evidence on this topic and presenting it in a way that the average layperson can understand.

You can sign up for free here. If you’re not interested in spending your time watching him, here are my take-home points:

1. When evaluating the efficacy of a diet to control weight, the best evidence comes from observational studies that involve tens of thousands patients over decades and/or (preferably) randomized control trials that last at least two years.

2. The Paleo, Wheat-belly, gluten-free, Atkins, South Beach, and Zone diets do not have good evidence supporting sustained weight loss or health benefits. In general, people who follow these diets will be consuming lots of fresh vegetables, nuts and “healthy” fats and avoiding processed food, which is good, and this likely explains any  benefits achieved.

3. Of all the diets, the low-fat diet (Ornish/Pritikin/China Study are the extreme examples of this) is the only one which has strong evidence showing an absence of benefit.

Yes, the diet that was recommended to Americans for 30 years does not help with weight loss in the long run for the vast majority of individuals.

As Rimm says “We need to eliminate the dogma that low fat is needed for weight loss.”

Dr. Rimm spends a good amount of time on this, highlighting findings from a study of 50 thousand women (the Women’s Health Initiative), which lasted for 9 years. In the first year, women on the low-fat diet (counseled to consume <20% of calories in the form of fat), lost more weight than those on the usual diet, however, in subsequent years they gained back the weight and did not differ from the higher fat consuming group.

There was also no difference in the rates of dying or contracting any disease between the two groups.

The problem with the low fat diet was adherence. Although a very small percentage of individuals can remain on a  vegan or really low-fat diet and successfully lose weight and be healthy, the majority of us can’t.

By the end of the study the low fat group had increased their fat consumption to 28% which was not much less than what the usual group was consuming (32%)

Over time, the low fat group gradually added fats because they taste better and they are more satiating.

4. The DASH diet has evidence showing improvement in blood pressure, and cholesterol. The heart of the DASH diet is an eating plan rich in fruits and vegetables, low-fat and nonfat dairy, along with nuts, beans, and seeds.

Unfortunately, it was developed in an era when all fats were considered bad and proof of cardiovascular benefit is lacking.

5. Mediterranean diet. Gets a strong pass from Rimm with multiple studies showing benefits in both weight reduction and reduction of cardiovascular mortality.

The Med diet also demonstrates good long term adherence because of its diversity and inclusion of fat (for taste and satiety).

Improved adherence has been shown to be the major determinant of diet success. When you add regular counseling and support to any diet it works better and can be sustained.

This is the Mediterranean diet I recommend:

1. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. These contain fiber, phytochemicals, minerals.

2. Two servings of fish per week.

3. Plenty of nuts (and drupes!), legumes, and seeds.

4. Grains are allowed, preferably all whole grains.

5. Moderate alcohol consumption (1 drink/day for women, 2 drinks/day for men).

6. Olive oil.

7. Meat is allowed.

8. Eggs and dairy are allowed.

Dr. Rimm is still clinging to the idea that all saturated fats should be limited and preferfat replacementably replaced by PUFAs or MUFAs. He presented this graphic (courtesy of Dr. Willet at Harvard), which illustrates the most prevalent concepts about saturated fat replacement.

Risk of heart disease is on the y axis. According to this graph, If you replace saturated fat with trans fat or sugar/refined starch, risk goes up.

If you replaced saturated fat with unsaturated vegetable fats or whole grains, risks go down.

Most nutritional experts now can agree on the importance of the key components of the Med diet and the lack of efficacy of low fat diets.

The disagreement comes in whether moving that arrow down from saturated fat to unsaturated fat is truly beneficial for weight management or cardiovascular health.

Good Fats and Bad Fats?

My own take on the good fat/bad fat controversy is as follows:

There are multiple types of saturated fats and multiple types of unsaturated fats and the scientific evidence is not currently robust enough to make the claim that replacing any saturated fat  with any unsaturated fat is a healthy change.

There is no evidence that low-fat or no fat dairy is healthier than full fat dairy (see here and here). Eating no, or low, fat yogurt with the natural fat replaced by sugar and other additives likely moves the arrow up, raising your risk. This kind of processed food gets a pass from mainstream nutritionists for some reason.

Saturated fat from pasture-raised pigs and cows consumed in moderation is not unhealthy or weight gain promoting.

In the end, Dr. Rimm and I agree on about 95% of the science and recommendations in his course.

Take a look and you can tell your friends that you just passed a Harvard course with flying colors!