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The Diet Martyr


For vegetarians, Atkins’s triumph had created a special suffering. “It’s insane,” says John McDougall, 56, after returning from windsurfing one afternoon. “I consider this terribly wrong.” Not only does it seem bad nutrition to him—“It will rot your arteries,” he says—it seems bad values, not to mention bad business. McDougall, author of the once best-selling The McDougall Program, was told by his publisher to do Atkins-like high-protein diet books. “You’re of the eighties,” they told him.

Certainly, the matter has not been definitively settled in Atkins’s or in anyone’s favor. The low-fat theory has, obviously, failed to stem the crisis of obesity in America. But nothing has yet proved the low-carb hypothesis. A recent six-month trial out of Duke showed that a low-carb diet allows more weight loss than the American Heart Association–approved low-fat diet. But what does six months show? Rigorous, long-term testing of the low-carb diet is still awaited.

In any case, for the loose network of veggie docs, the crucial issue, the one that could win the battle, isn’t weight loss, but heart risk. Meat, they contend, would raise a person’s bad cholesterol, which they say promotes heart disease. (Atkins agreed that his diet elevated cholesterol, but most important, he said, it elevated the good cholesterol, which appears to protect against heart disease.)

Twenty years ago, as a resident at St. Vincent’s, Neal Barnard founded Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which grew to include 5,000 vegetarian-minded docs. Barnard, who grew up in a cattle-ranching family, had his vegetarian epiphany after assisting at an autopsy. (Later that day, ribs were the special in the cafeteria.) Barnard soon became convinced that meat was not only unappetizing, it was a danger. “Meat consumption is just as dangerous to public health as tobacco use,” he said, completing the familial heresy. Plus, of course, meat wasn’t nice. The Physicians Committee didn’t particularly like lab experiments on animals, a stand it shared with the militant peta, for which Barnard was a medical adviser.

For physicians like Barnard and McDougall, Atkins was as near to evil as you could get in a white coat. And the Physicians Committee attacked him with near-religious zeal. Barnard started AtkinsDietAlert.Org, a Website that says the Atkins diet has “spread like a virus.” He tracked claims that the Atkins diet caused illness. (And he had his own book: Eat Right, Live Longer.) The battle got personal. “Okay, chubby,” McDougall had wanted to call him during their last debate. (His wife talked him out of it.)

Then one day, ten months after Atkins’s death, the vegetarians—actually, Barnard and McDougall are vegans—had cause to rejoice. Richard Fleming, a Nebraska cardiologist, wrote to the New York City medical examiner requesting a copy of its report on Atkins. (Fleming had previously published a report asserting that bloodflow to the heart decreased after an Atkins diet—“Flawed,” Atkins’s people shot back.) When the report came in the mail, he forwarded it to the Physicians Committee, which gleefully distributed it.

According to the medical examiner’s scribbled notes, Atkins appeared to have had a history of heart disease, just as the anti-Atkins faction had predicted. The document noted a myocardial infarction, hypertension, congestive heart failure. It was the revenge of the vegans. “He had the diseases you get from eating a rich Western diet,” snaps McDougall, as if engaged in a culture war, which perhaps he is.

The case of one person—even if that person was Robert Atkins—hardly proves anything about the health effects of a diet. Genetics probably plays a predominant role in heart disease—Atkins’s father had coronary-artery disease. But this was as much about public perception as science. And hadn’t Atkins offered himself as an example of how far a person could indulge and still enjoy good health? “He used his health as a marketing tool,” said Barnard.

The Atkins people were furious. “Desperate people,” Stuart Trager, an orthopedist employed as Atkins’s spokesman, called the opponents. Still, Atkins and his people have not always been at their best when delivering answers about the doctor’s own health. “Their version of the truth is a moving target,” says Barnard. “This peculiar behavior I attribute to a lack of fiber in their diet,” he adds in a pointedly vegan gibe. “You think I’m kidding.”

It would have been the simplest thing to release medical records. Instead, Atkins and associates seemed to step carefully, responding politically that nothing diet-related was the matter with Atkins’s health—and they denied emphatically the medical examiner’s report. Atkins himself treated his cardiac arrest as a very minor incident—“It didn’t last very long,” he said, as if he hadn’t been revived with on-the-spot CPR and hadn’t spent a week in the hospital. On emerging, he went right on TV. He told Katie Couric, “So what are they [my critics] going to say now that they know I don’t have any blockages?” Atkins explained that he had an enlarged heart due to an infection, which Veronica thought started as a sinus infection.

Of course, Atkins did have blockage. In 2001, his coronary arteries were perhaps 30 to 40 percent blocked, according to Patrick Fratellone, his cardiologist and employee. “Pretty good for a man who eats that much fat.”

"I’m not going to allow them to persecute Bobby anymore. Thank God, I have the wherewithal to do it.”

In a statement after his death, his wife confirmed, “Robert did have some progression of his coronary-artery disease in the last three years of his life, including some new blockage.” She mentioned a secondary artery and a procedure to remedy the situation. He was on heart-rhythm medication as well.

Of course, while the vegans and the meat eaters skirmished, other players assembled for another kind of clash: the competition for Atkins’s profitable mantle. His former employees all seemed to want to follow the master, his good works, and his substantial earnings. “Everybody’s trying to capitalize on Bobby’s success,” said Veronica.

There was the former associate medical director, Fischer, who had launched what he called the Sutton Place Diet, a plan to deliver gourmet Atkins-style meals to your door—a practice Atkins had pioneered.

Fred Pescatore had set up his own center, Partners in Integrative Medicine, with other former Atkins employees. Pescatore wanted to take the next step, and that includes separating the good fats from the bad fats. The latter category, says Pescatore, include Atkins’s beloved bacon, which isn’t good for you. “Atkins had to exaggerate because he was on the front line,” says Pescatore.

Dr. Keith Berkowitz, former business director for Atkins, has his own center as well. And Fratellone, who has an integrative heart practice and a book in the works, believes that he is the truest incarnation. “His dream is being fulfilled in what I do,” he says.

“They all know better than Bob,” sniffs Veronica. (Most annoying to her seems to be the South Beach Diet, a descendant of Atkins that adjusts the prescription—low-carb and less fat—and now competes with Atkins on the best-seller lists.)

“If the egos get out of it, it will be better,” she says. Though the chances of that seem slim. Even the Atkins side is hardly altruistic. His publisher, HarperCollins, has two more books planned from Atkins, one of which Atkins worked on.

Veronica’s place in Palm Beach isn’t far from the Meisters, or the Boardmans, or South Beach. Veronica walks most places. Palm Beach—“it’s like a spa,” she says in amazement one day. Her apartment is modest by Palm Beach standards, a single bedroom, and spare, a few pieces of furniture from the Hamptons, from Barneys, and, so far, no paintings. She serves guests coffee, a hazelnut blend from her favorite place in the Hamptons, with Splenda, a sugar substitute.

Veronica seems to have two modes these days. In one she is calm, vague, indefinite. “I am depressed,” she says over lunch at a local restaurant—she orders crab cakes on arugula. She leads a quiet life. There are no poolside lunches these days; Bobby’s season has passed.

At times, Veronica, who is blonde with pale hazel eyes, doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with herself. In the afternoon, she’ll take a Pilates class. “I love Pilates,” she says. She takes long walks, amazed that people sweetly say hello.

Then, standing on her terrace—the Florida air is thick today, rain is coming—she seems to enter her other mode. In this one, she is steely, fierce, combative, the Atkins who always was more offended by the attacks than her husband was. She has, she says in this mode, one principal task: fending off the vegetarians, the copycats, the pretenders, the low-fatters, the high-carbers, all those who ever “looked down their nose at him.”

“If anybody attacks Bobby, God help them,” she says. “I will not allow them to continue to persecute Bobby any longer. He doesn’t deserve it,” she says, her emotions momentarily taut, focused. “Thank God, I have the wherewithal to do it.”

Veronica, it appears, will tend the legacy, with all its complications. She has funded a foundation, the Robert C. Atkins Foundation. In October 2003, Atkins Nutritionals sold for over $500 million. She will give $50 million to the foundation, and with it will prove, once and for all, that Bobby was right. “I’ll beat them through research,” she says.

And she’s thinking of other things to do with the money, things that would secure his reputation, enshrine it beyond the reach of nasty critics. She’s thinking of the very place that shunned him: the halls of traditional medicine. How about, she thinks, an Atkins wing at his alma mater, Cornell, which shortly before his death invited him in, finally, to deliver a lecture. “He was so happy with that,” she says.

Additional reporting by Claire Sulmers and Collin Campbell.

Previous Stories
Carb Panic
More and more New Yorkers are deserting their laborious low-fat regimens and gleefully dropping pounds while gorging on steak and bacon. What now strikes fear in their hearts: the bread basket. Welcome to a city in the throes of carb panic. (December 16, 2002)


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