America has an epidemic of obesity. Right now, it's all the rage to fight the battle of the bulge with a low carbohydrate food plan that cuts pasta, grains, bread and more. And there's no low-carb diet more popular or controversial then the one pioneered by Dr. Robert Atkins. Now, there's a new controversy about the doctor's health before his death. Was he done in by his own diet? Dateline got extraordinary access to Dr. Atkins and his family just weeks before he died.
He's there when she turns on the TV, and picks up a newspaper. Veronica Atkins has had to watch as new questions are raised about the Atkins Diet and the wisdom of the man behind it, her late husband diet doctor Robert Atkins.
Veronica Atkins: “They're tearing him apart. And all he has done, he has helped people. He never wavered. For 30 years, he never wavered, once he discovered the truth.”
Since his first book was published back in 1972, spreading his more fat low-carb dieting message Dr. Robert Atkins’ popularity and financial success have never faltered. But now allegations about Atkins’ own weight and cardiac health have once again challenged the safety of the Atkins approach. This time the question is more pointed: Did Dr. Atkins lose one of his patients, one of his patients who'd been on his high fat diet for 43 years – namely, himself?
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't realize he was being recorded when he made off-hand remarks that “the guy was fat,” a few weeks ago about Dr. Atkins reported death from a fall on icy pavement, saying, "I don't believe that bull, that he dropped dead after slipping on the sidewalk... yeah, right."
Mrs. Atkins fired back three days later.
Veronica Atkins: “I'm sick and tired of my husband being always maligned and his life's work being trivialized. And Mayor, you did it and I do demand an apology for that.”
She got one. But then there was a missile fired over the horizon in the form of a fax: an official and confidential document from the New York City Medical Examiner's Office sent to the news media by Atkins' opponents. It purported to show that Dr. Atkins weighed in at 258 pounds at the time of his death, obese for a six-foot-tall man. And the notes listed a surprise history of serious heart problems including myocardial infarction (a heart attack), congestive heart failure and hypertension.
Dr. Neal Bernard: “The Atkins Web site says that his good health and his clean coronary arteries were apparently due to his diet. An extraordinary claim. And apparently one that was not at all true.”
Dr. Neal Barnard is head of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the vegetarian activist group which distributed the confidential coroner's document.
Dr. Bernard: “This is not a joke. This is serious business. This is a major public health problem.”
And it would be a major health problem for millions of people who swear by the Atkins regime if the doctor's alleged health problems were true and could be linked to his diet. But Veronica Atkins says her husband was in good health when he died and she has no problems with the Atkins regime. She compares dr. Barnard's group to another regime.
Veronica Atkins: “These things are lies. They're like the Taliban. They're the vegetarian Taliban. Oh, I mean, I shouldn't insult vegetarians. But they're like the Taliban, these people. They're nasty.”
Dr. Stuart Trager was an associate of dr. Atkins for three years. He insists this vegetarian group is trying to destroy Atkins’ reputation to promote its own agenda.
Dr. Trager: “Here's a group of people who compare eating cheese to heroin, feeding children meat to child abuse. They don't think anyone should eat animal products. And it's clear they'll go to any extreme, any extreme, including giving out records, breaking ethical violations to try to convince people.”
But the release of only limited details have made Dr. Atkins' health the subject of a very public and intense debate. The medical examiner's report is not an autopsy. It is a coroner's description of what the outside of Atkins' body looked like at the time of death. Atkins opponents say the report proves he was in poor health when he died. Mrs. Atkins says that wasn't the case at all.
Veronica Atkins: “My husband's weight never was 258. In his whole life, it was not 258.”
Atkins’ widow insisted that the weight on the leaked medical examiners report was the result of fluids pumped into him during nine days in intensive care as his life slipped away, a claim supported by numerous independent doctors we spoke with. Mrs. Atkins says she remembers this unnatural swelling all too well.
Veronica Atkins: “My husband was so bloated. He had very slender hands. And when he was in this bed, his hands were like ham hocks, this big. He was bloated, he did look like a balloon.”
And Dr. Atkins' hospital admissions form seems to back her up. It shows he was a technically overweight but not obese 195 pounds. That was also born out by Dateline’s visit with Dr. Atkins six weeks before the fall that killed him. He was an active 72-year-old, big, but not bloated and hardly obese.
What we could not see was the health of his heart.
Doctors who treated Dr. Atkins told Dateline that they knew of no hypertension or heart attack, but they confirmed that Dr. Atkins heart was weak. His congestive heart failure was a complication of a cardiac arrest he suffered in 2002. His coronary arteries also had problems requiring treatment, even though Atkins’ doctor described them a year before his death as normal.
Dr. Patrick Fratellone treated Dr. Atkins from 1999 until 2002, and also worked with the doctor at the Atkins Center. He says Atkins suffered from cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart weakness. But this condition, he says, was caused by a virus not his diet.
Dr. Fratellone: “I was his attending cardiologist at that time. And I made the statement… When we did his angiogram, I mean, the doctor who performed it, said it's pristine for someone that eats his kind of diet… Pristine, meaning these are very clean arteries. I didn't want people to think that his diet caused his heart muscle – it was definitely a documented viral infection.”
Dr. Fratellone stopped treating Dr. Atkins 10 months before he died, but insists the Atkins Diet was unrelated to his heart problems and had nothing whatsoever to do with his death.”
Dr. Fratellone: “The man slipped on the ice and had a head injury, so he died. Don't blame his diet.”
Proving that Dr. Atkins was not done in, in part, by his diet, has become a crusade for Veronica Atkins, to preserve the well over $100 million value of the Atkins name, and the reputation of the man she still calls Bobby. It's a battle she plans to win. So what would she say to someone worried about the Atkins diet?
Veronica Atkins: “I would say please read the studies. I will devote my life to prove that he was right. I'm going to prove it scientifically. I will not let anything, anybody, denigrate my Bobby.”