Video: Is Atkins to blame?

Dateline NBC
updated 6/6/2004 11:45:30 PM ET 2004-06-07T03:45:30

With low carb diets all the rage, it was big news last month whenaonce obscure Florida businessman filed a lawsuit against the estate of Dr. Robert Atkins, claiming the late doctor's popular diet nearly killed him. He says the high-protein, high-fat, weight-loss plan caused his heart disease. The lawsuit has once again turned up the heat on the Atkins diet, putting the long-simmering controversy back on the front burner. How healthy and how safe is it?

Jody Gorran, 53, has been saturating the airwaves, railing about how the diet espoused by the late Dr. Robert Atkins nearly cost him his life. Jody Gorran is playing David to the Goliath empire of books and products bearing the Atkins name.

Jody Gorran: “From my perspective, Dr. Atkins was a liar... I may have been a fool, but I believed him. I believed that the diet wasn't a danger to me.”

His lawsuit, for personal injury and negligence, is one the Atkins people are not taking lightly. And the fight, in the court of public opinion anyway, could be quite unsettling to the millions of Americans who've opted for Atkins to help them lose weight and stay healthy.

Gorran: “The worst thing I ever did was going on the Atkins diet.”

As angry as he sounds now, Gorran says he was equally passionate about the diet when he first started it three years ago, signing up for the Atkins strategy of limiting carbohydrates in favor of increased amounts of protein and fat.

Edie Magnus: “Why did you pick Atkins?”

Gorran: “Middle age spread. I started to gain about a pound a month. I didn't want to get fat.”

As many have attested, Gorran found the diet quite appealing.

Gorran: “It's pretty seductive when you're told you can eat cheesecake and all of the steak and all of the bacon.”

Magnus: “I read that you ate cheesecake and pastrami?”

Gorran: “Cheesecake, yeah, every three days.”

Cheesecake on the Atkins diet? He says it worked.

Gorran: “I put on muscle. I lost fat. Within two or three months I was down the 10 pounds that I was looking for and I kept telling people, this is really something -- all the way up until the point that I was diagnosed with heart disease.”

Gorran admits that there was a big warning sign.  Within two months of starting on the diet, Gorran says his cholesterol, which had always stayed comfortably in the safe zone, around 150, suddenly jumped dangerously high, to around 230. But Gorran did not go to see his doctors. He says he was using an 1999 edition of Atkins' best selling book, "The New Diet Revolution," which cautioned some dieters might notice a spike in their cholesterol. Atkins estimated the number at less than one in three, and advised if a spike happened they should cut back on high fat foods and try low fat ones.

Gorran: “But then he says, if you're not happy -- he uses the word happy -- on the diet, don't bother with it. Go back on the regular Atkins diet, you enjoy it more. So on the one hand he raises a red flag, and on the other he minimizes it.”

Magnus: "Doesn't common sense enter in here at all in terms of what you ought to be doing if you see your cholesterol shoot up?”

Gorran: “If a cardiologist with 30 years of experience and 25,000 patients says just keep checking your cholesterol and checking your cholesterol, they never tell you that maybe, after seeing your cholesterol is staying up, maybe you should get off the diet. They never say that.”

So although Gorran says his cholesterol stayed relatively high, he simply stayed on Atkins for two more years, until one day when Gorran was on vacation in the Big Apple.

Gorran: “I was at a very famous deli in Manhattan having a mile-high pastrami sandwich, without the bread and a big slice of New York-style cheesecake. And that might have been the straw that broke this camel's heart.”

Gorran says he suddenly felt sharp pains in his chest. This time he did go to a cardiologist, and tests showed he had a 99 percent blockage in one of the main arteries from his heart. He immediately underwent a procedure to open up the clogged artery. His doctor told him if the blockage had gone unchecked he might have died of a heart attack.

Gorran: “He said get off the diet.”

Gorran's cardiologist confirms he warned him to get off Atkins, but he told Dateline he's not positive the diet was to blame. There is some heart disease in Gorran's family; his sister had a heart attack at age 59. But Gorran says he's so certain because, as fate would have it, just months before going on the diet he had a heart scan and got a very good report. The results showed a score of zero, meaning very little risk.

Gorran: “In the next two to five years, I had a 95 percent probability of never getting heart disease.”

Magnus: “And then you went on Atkins.”

Gorran: “And then I went on Atkins.”

Jody Gorran's accusations against the late Dr. Robert Atkins and his company come ironically at a time when the Atkins diet is finally getting some respect from the medical community. Numerous scientific studies are showing that after a year, low-carb dieters lose slightly more weight than people on low-fat diets, and that on average, their risk of heart disease actually decreases. Longer term studies are currently under way.

Nevertheless, Jody Gorran is suing, demanding the Atkins books and products post clear warnings that, as he puts it, for some people the Atkins diet can be hazardous to your health. 

Magnus: “You're asking for $15,000.”

Gorran: “Less than $15,000. Because it's not an issue of money. I don't need the money. I'm only in it for the publicity.”

And he's certainly been getting a hefty portion of that. But the Atkins people say it's more like a publicity stunt, one that will leave the courts as clogged as poor Jody Gorran's arteries.

Dr. Stuart Trager: “Oh, this is a frivolous lawsuit if there ever was one. This is an individual who is doing this for all the wrong reasons.”

Atkins medical director Dr. Stuart Trager says as proof, you need look no further than the folks paying the bills. It turns out that Gorran's case has been championed -- and is being paid for -- by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an activist group that promotes a vegan diet with no meat, fish or dairy. An avowed Atkins enemy, they are the same people who leaked Dr. Atkins’ medical records after his death and suggested he'd died from his own diet, a claim his doctors disputed.

Veronica Atkins: “I will not let anything, anybody denigrate my Bobby.”

And in an interview with Dateline, Robert Atkins’ widow, Veronica, said the smear campaign shows the committee will go to any lengths to disparage her late husband and push its own agenda.

Ms. Atkins: “These things are lies. They are like the Taliban. They're the vegetarian Taliban. I mean, I shouldn't insult vegetarians, but they are like the Taliban, these people. They're nasty.”

For his part, Jody Gorran is unapologetic about enlisting the so-called vegan activists to take up his cause. He says he went to them.

Gorran: “They've been successful in generating the publicity that I could never have done on my own. People claim it's an animal rights group. I don't know that, and what does that mean to me?”

Magnus: “They'd like us all to stop eating meat.”

Gorran: “I like animals, but I don't see that as having any influence or anything to do with the issue of whether or not Atkins oversold the safety of his diet.”

But the Atkins people claim it has everything to do with what we are to believe about Jody Gorran, including whether he can be trusted at all.

Dr. Trager: “Who knows how well Mr. Gorran was following Atkins? Who knows if he was able to control his carbohydrates?”

Magnus: “He says he was following it religiously.”

But Dr. Trager says while cheesecake is technically allowed on the Atkins plan, nowhere is it suggested it be a staple.

Dr. Trager: “You know, I've read Atkins. I've practiced Atkins for four years. And I don't know how you can do it and eat cheesecake three or four times a week, even exercising as much as I do.”

Magnus: “Is it your position that the Atkins diet is never, under any circumstances harmful to people?”

Dr. Trager: “Oh no, I think what we're seeing is that there's no nutritional approach that's going to work for everyone.”

Magnus: “Can it be dangerous for some people?”

Dr. Trager: “I think we're now learning that any nutritional approach can be counterproductive for some people.”

Magnus: “You don't like that word, dangerous.”

Dr. Trager: “You know, I think the challenge with ‘dangerous’ is, when we make claims based on anecdotes. I think when we look at scientific studies, the approach is one that has been deemed safe for people to go through.”

Interestingly, the language Gorran found offensive -- the if-you’re-not-happy-don't-bother phrase that he says steered him back to the high-fat road -- has been taken out of the most recent edition of Dr. Atkins book. But Dr. Trager says Gorran took those lines out of context and is using them to misrepresent Dr. Atkins’ advice. And he says, while the new wording is different, the message of the diet has always been the same.

Dr. Trager: “You need to be responsible. You need to talk to your physicians. You need to take their advice. And you need to try to make changes.”

He says it's very clear that one of the goals for anyone on the diet should be to keep cholesterol levels down. If a dieter is unsuccessful in making that happen, the book Gorran was using says clearly: "Then you are fat sensitive and should follow the fat restricted variation of the diet."   

Dr. Trager: “This is someone who clearly chose not to understand, chose to ignore the message that Dr. Atkins was giving. And now in looking back ,at least in my mind, is looking for a scapegoat.”

Gorran: “If you can come up with a better reason as to why I developed heart disease, please let me know. Because I haven't found one yet.”

Jody Gorran is making his medical records available to anyone who wants a look, though most legal experts say his chances of success against Atkins in court are slim. Needless to say, he's off the Atkins bandwagon for now. He's still counting carbs but says he's has reduced the amount of saturated fat food he eats.

Gorran: “I’m kind of paranoid about the food I eat.”

Magnus: “No more pastrami and cheesecake?”

Gorran: “No more pastrami, no more cheesecake. Not, at least, at this point in time.”

Jody Gorran filed his lawsuit May 26. Lawyers for the Atkins estate have two more weeks to respond. Doctors with the Atkins company recommend that, if you're following the Atkins plan, you should be sure to check your cholesterol six weeks after starting the diet, and if the levels are higher than normal, continue testing at three month intervals. And of course, before starting Atkins or any diet, you should consult your doctor.

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