Dateline NBC
NBC News
updated 2/25/2004 7:11:40 PM ET 2004-02-26T00:11:40

How heathy was Dr. Robert Atkins in the final months of his life? Just six weeks before he died, the doctor granted Dateline extraordinary access by opening up his home to John Hockenberry. In his final U.S. television interview, the doctor offered some last words about his diet and his life.

Wouldn't you know, in our day with Dr. Robert Atkins he wanted us to know that he once dreamed of being a stand-up comic. As a pre-med college student performer, Atkins told us he was actually tempted to take the leap and become a comedian -- until a nameless comedy club audience member changed the course of diet history with a single question.

Dr. Robert Atkins: “Let me ask you what are you going to be doing next year. And I said I'm going to medical school. He said go to medical school. And that's what convinced me right there.”

He would become a doctor and the world hasn't been the same since. As a young internist, his life became a lot less funny and he became a lot bigger.

Dr. Atkins: “I was gaining weight very rapidly. Like two pounds a month for several years.”

John Hockenberry: “So you see yourself just inflating like a balloon.”

Dr. Atkins: “Well everybody saw me doing that. I had three chins.”

Hockenberry: “Yeah, three chins? And now I count --

Dr. Atkins: “Count what you want. [laughter]”

In 1963, Atkins found this article in a medical journal, about a low carbohydrate diet. It was the solution to his problem.

Dr. Atkins: “I said this I can do. And I did it. And sure enough it turned my life around.”

Hockenberry: “Did it surprise you that this diet worked?”

Dr. Atkins: “Yeah, a little bit it. It surprised me how easy it was. And how enjoyable it was. I ate a lot of meat, a lot of shrimp, a lot of eggs.”

Hockenberry: “And that's pretty much when the cookies went out the window for Dr. Atkins?”

Dr. Atkins: “Oh they sure did. Right then and there.”

That was 40 years ago. And last February, we spent an evening and a day with Dr. Atkins and his wife Veronica. He was still on his low-carb diet. We observed them at dinner, where the appetizers were escargot bathed in butter, and fish soup garnished with cheese. No bread on this table, and no, he didn't want to look at the dessert menu. 

The next day we invited ourselves into their east side Manhattan home where they prepared us a lunch, let us hang around a diet power couple's kitchen. We learned a lot about how Atkins the doctor did Atkins the diet.

On the menu for our lunch was fresh salad and Chilean sea bass, coated in what looks like flour, but of course isn't.

Hockenberry: “Atkins bake mix.”

Veronica Atkins: “Yes, it's a flour substitute.”

“Soy protein, soy flour.”

Veronica Atkins: “Yes it works very well.”

Call me a boorish houseguest or an investigative reporter, but I raided the fridge. If there were forbidden carbs in here I would find them.

Hockenberry: “Now I'm not going to find a lot of carbohydrates in here right?”

Veronica Atkins: “No you're not. You're not going to find any.”

We did find bacon, eggs, and clarified butter. There was also a ketchup-like something or other. But it was still early.

Hockenberry: “Now, that's flour.”

Dr. Atkins: “What's flour? Okay, well I don't know what that's doing here.”

Hockenberry: “Somebody planted some carbs in the doctor's fridge.”

Dr. Atkins: “What's this? Why do we have this? [laughter] We never use it.”

To be fair, the flour did look a little dated, like it came from the Smithsonian, and it was the only carb we found. The rest of the refrigerator was full of fresh green produce. Lunch was finally served and it was terrific.

What looked like mashed potatoes were actually pureed cauliflower mixed with parmesan cheese. The sea bass was sautéed in herb butter, topped with chopped nuts gently sautéed in more butter. It was delicious and all Atkins.

We wondered what lunch would have been like if Dr. Atkins did the cooking. We discovered, like a lot of Atkins meals, we would have seen more red meat and cheese.

Dr. Atkins: “I know how to make internalized cheeseburgers.”

Hockenberry: “Internalized cheeseburgers? That sounds a little scary. What's that?”

Dr. Atkins: “I put all the meat on the outside, divide them in half, put the cheese on the inside, put them together and flip them over and the cheese melts on the inside and never gets out.”

You might call that an Atkins cruise missile: red meat and cheese in a breadless ball. And red meat high fat bombshell was how the Atkins diet was received by traditional medicine almost from the beginning.

Hockenberry: “The AMA in responding to your book called ‘The Atkin's Diet’ a bizarre regimen.”

Dr. Atkins: “Well that was one of the mistakes they made.”

Hockenberry: “’Unscientific and potentially dangerous to health.’”

Dr. Atkins: “And without a scintilla of evidence to allow them to make that statement.”

Hockenberry: “Other doctors, in reviewing your book said "the Atkins diet is potentially so dangerous that the surgeon general should probably put a warning on every book Dr. robert Atkins sells."

Dr. Atkins: “Well it shows there's not a scintilla of evidence to justify that statement either.”

Hockenberry: “Did the Surgeon General ever contact you about that?”

Dr. Atkins: “No.”

Hockenberry: “No. What would you of told him?”

Dr. Atkins: “I [would have] told him please read the medical journals and find out what the truth is.”

This debate over Atkins’s diet is now part of his legacy. Settling that debate will take years, but our visit with Dr. Atkins and his wife helped to settle some of the current questions about his health. Was he fat, was his diet killing him, was his heart about to give out? He answered every question with no hint of the controversy to come.

Hockenberry: “How's your health?”

Dr. Atkins: “I feel pretty good.”

Hockenberry: “Very good?”

Dr. Atkins: “Yup.

Hockenberry: “What's your cholesterol?”

Dr. Atkins: “Well generally it's quite normal. It's 200. But my good cholesterol is very high.”

Atkins seemed quite active for a man of 72, playing tennis, working a full schedule. He seemed quite comfortable with his own weight. Six weeks before his death, he looked big but normal, not slim but hardly obese. And he was very forthcoming about his cardiac arrest in 2002.

Dr. Atkins: “I didn't have a heart attack, but I had a heart disease from an infection. And all the lab test clearly showed that. And all the lab tests clearly showed that i didn't have blockages.”

Hockenberry: “So you're in good shape heart wise?”

Dr. Atkins: “I would say so.”

Which we now know was underplaying a serious heart weakness that his doctors say was linked to an infection not his diet. Sadly, we hadn't the slightest hint that this lunch would turn out to be a poignant postscript, a last televised meal for a man who told us he was still looking forward to his golden years.

Hockenberry: “Yeah. Longevity in your family?”

Dr. Atkins: “My father lived to be 84. My mother is 93 right now, still alive.”

Hockenberry: “That's pretty good.”

Dr. Atkins: “Okay, good.”

Hockenberry: “So you expect to be here for another 10 or 20?”

Dr. Atkins: “I have no idea how long God's going to keep me around.”

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