Fact Check

Dr. Robert Atkins' Death

Did Dr. Robert Atkins, proponent of the low-carbohydrate diet, die of a heart attack?

Published Feb 10, 2004


Claim:   Dr. Robert Atkins, proponent of the low-carbohydrate diet, died of a heart attack.

Status:   Undetermined.

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, 2004]

I've been seeing a lot of stuff about the death of Dr Atkins who developed the Atkins low carb diet. A lot of it is about his autopsy report supposedly showing that the fall that killed him was actually
caused by a heart attack. Some of the messages and email even say that the person who did the autopsy released it on CNN.

i'm not an atkins dieter (obviously), and i recently heard a rumor(?) saying that the inventor of the Atkins diet (Charles Atkins, maybe?) died at the age of 49 of a heart attack (the heart attack resulting from a life of unhealthy eating).

Any truth to the rumor that Robert Atkins had a heart attack that caused him to slip and fall on the ice?

Origins:   Our sense of the quirky appears to thirst for the irony of life, those strange outcomes that run contrary to what we conclude should happen. It is thus pleasing to envision the doctor who led so many to a permissive diet regimen as having been felled by the very health advice he touted to millions (and which made him millions in return).

Famed nutritionist and author Dr. Robert Atkins died on 17 April 2003 at the age of 72 after sustaining head injuries in a fall outside his New York clinic. But did more underlie his demise than merely a slippery walkway?

Robert Atkins has been termed "the apostle of protein gluttony as a passport to health, wholesomeness and the perfect figure." He came to

public notice in 1972 with his claims for a revolutionary diet that guaranteed weight loss. What became known as the "Atkins Diet" was first published in his book Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution and swiftly became popular with those looking to shed pounds. Whereas advocates of other diets entreat the weight-enhanced to eschew fats even as they feast on rice and yogurt, those on the Atkins diet are enjoined to carry on with their eating of steaks, roasts, fried eggs and bacon, but to control their intake of carbohydrates.

The hungry flocked to the Atkins Diet standard as soon as it was raised. It is estimated Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution has been read by more than 30 million people, many of them now intent on chewing their way to weight loss through flouting the conventional diet wisdom of "fat = bad." As popular as the diet has proved to be with the masses, critics claim it raises the risk of heart disease and kidney stones. It is for this reason speculation about the cause of Dr. Atkins' death is such a hot topic.

It is known Robert Atkins did indeed weather a heart attack during his lifetime. In April 2002, the diet guru issued a statement saying he was recovering from cardiac arrest related to a heart infection he had suffered from "for a few years." He said it was "in no way related to diet."

However, revelations in February 2004 from the city medical examiner's report let slip the information that Atkins had suffered a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension, before his death. The report was given to the Journal by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates vegetarianism. Because the medical examiner's office is claiming this information was circulated in error, it may not be possible at this time to determine if what was in that report referred to events that immediately preceded (and therefore might have caused) the doctor's death, or if they were in reference to damage done over the course of a lifetime. (The report had been sent to a doctor in Nebraska who requested it. It was later discovered the person it was sent to was not "the treating physician" and so should not have had access to the report.) At present, the medical examiner's office will only say Atkins died of a head injury from the fall. "I can't comment on people's previous conditions. It's against the law," said spokeswoman Ellen Borakove.

It needs be kept in mind that even if the medical examiner's office does become more forthcoming, it still may not be able to answer the question of whether a heart attack brought about the demise of Dr. Atkins. An autopsy was not performed on him because of family objections to the procedure. Consequently, the medical examiner conducted only an external exam and a review of Atkins' hospital records.

The state of Robert Atkins' health is open to debate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's body-mass index calculator, at 258 pounds, the 6-foot-tall Atkins would have qualified as obese. (The CDC's calculator offers a classification system of four benchmarks: underweight, normal, overweight, and obese, so an "obese" determination should be viewed as extending far beyond the carrying of a little additional poundage.) While it is true the data of the extremely well muscled (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger) would likewise show them to be obese, more physically typical people will find these determinations relevant to themselves.

However, Atkins' widow and Dr. Stuart Trager, the spokesperson for Atkins Physicians Council, both contend Robert Atkins weighed less than 200 pounds at the time of his accident, claiming "During his coma, as he deteriorated and his major organs failed, fluid retention and bloating dramatically distorted his body and left him at 258 pounds at the time of his death, a documented weight gain of over 60 pounds."

Thanks to his death certificate, we know Atkins was 258 pounds at the time of his death. Yet according to a copy of his medical records, as turned over to USA Today by the diet guru's widow, Atkins weighed 195 pounds upon admission to the hospital 8 April 2003 following his fall. He died on 17 April 2003 after having been in a coma for more than a week.

Barbara "weighty matters" Mikkelson

Last updated:   11 February 2004

  Sources Sources:

    Hellmich, Nanci and Steve Sternberg.   "Atkins Wasn't Obese, Hospital File Shows."

    USA Today.   11 February 2004.

    Leith, William.   "Obituary: Robert Atkins."

    The Guardian.   19 April 2003   (p. 21).

    McLaughlin, Katy and Ron Winslow.   "Report Details Dr. Atkins's Health Problems."

    The Wall Street Journal.   10 February 2004   (p. D1).

    Associated Press.   "Diet Doctor Atkins was Obese, Suffered Heart Disease, Medical Examiner Report Says."

    10 February 2004.

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