Dr. Atkins Is Rolling In His Grave

Heck, he's on a freakin' rotisserie! Will the slanders and misuses of my hero's name ever stop? First it was all those people claiming to be "doing Atkins" when they hadn't read word one of the book and were just making it up as they went along. At the same time we had all the "journalists" who criticized the diet without bothering to read it either. (You could tell because they'd always claim that "The Atkins diet only allows 20 grams of carbohydrate a day!" as if Induction were the whole diet. Either that, or they'd call it a "no-carb" diet, or an "all-meat" diet.)

Then came the cries of "Oh, look, Dr. Eggs-and-Bacon had a heart attack!" when Dr. A suffered cardiac arrest because of viral cardiomyopathy. (Even the American Heart Association, no fan of the Atkins Diet, made a public statement that as far as they could determine Dr. Atkins' heart trouble had nothing to do with his diet.) And I've seen many claims online that Dr. Atkins' well-documented slip-and-fall head injury was a sham. Oh, no, they claim, he really died of a heart attack.

After that, the ghouls at the PETA-run "Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine" (an organization only 5% of which is made up of physicians) got a hold of Dr. Atkins' final medical records and claimed he'd been obese when he died, even though those same records showed he'd been a normal weight when admitted to the hospital -- he blew up cruelly with water due to steroids and intravenous fluids.

It was laughable in an ugly sort of a way. Dr. Atkins had been all over television in the last year of his life; had he been obese it would have been impossible to hide it. It's none of my business, and I'm certain that she had enough to cope with just handling the grief of widowhood, but I have cherished the hope ever since that Veronica Atkins sued the ever-loving crap out of the doctor who made her husband's confidential medical records public.

Six years after his death, the indignities continue. Have you heard about "Eco-Atkins?"

It just irritates the life out of the low fat faithful, and especially the moral vegetarians that, despite dire predictions, the Atkins diet, replete with animal fat and cholesterol, not only doesn't cause sky-high blood cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, etc, but actually improves risk factors more than a low fat diet does. Yep, Atkins consistently eats the low fat diet's lunch (after discarding the bread) in tests of cardiovascular risk factors, dramatically lowering triglycerides, raising HDL cholesterol, and improving ratios all the way around. A low fat diet -- especially one based on carby stuff like whole grains and beans -- sometimes lowers total cholesterol a bit, but results in low HDL and high triglycerides.

So Professor David Jenkins of the University of Toronto decided to pick on LDL.

It is true that LDL does not generally drop tremendously on a low carb diet, and even occasionally appears to rise a bit. It is also true that the rise in HDL and the drop in triglycerides means that the all-important ratios improve dramatically; I am completely unconvinced that LDL, in and of itself, means much of anything.

More importantly, the rise in LDL is largely illusory. How is that? I only learned recently.

It turns out that LDL is seldom measured directly, because it is difficult and expensive to do so. Instead, LDL is calcuated. The formula used to calculate it is this: Total cholesterol - (HDL + triglycerides/5) = LDL. Apparently this is fairly accurate if triglycerides are above 100 and under 250.

However, low carb diets drop triglycerides to rock-bottom levels. It is not only common but usual for low carbers to have triglyceride levels well under 100. Last time I had mine tested they were at 39. Try that with a low fat, high carb diet! Our low triglycerides skew the results of this equation, leading to artificially high LDL numbers -- in those of us whose LDL goes up at all.

Indeed, on that same test where my triglycerides showed up at 39, my LDL was just a little high; my doctor expressed concern. I said, "You know and I know that that LDL is calculated by subtracting HDL and triglycerides divided by five from my total cholesterol. I could lower my LDL by raising my triglycerides..." She laughed and said, "Bad idea," and admitted I was right.

But Dr. Jenkins is fixated on LDL. His career has been built around the notion of using plant foods to lower LDL. Maybe it didn't occur to Dr. Jenkins that the LDL equation skews results for those of us with very low triglycerides. Maybe he's so invested in the idea that plant foods are the most important that he just couldn't accept the repeated clinical tests demonstrating not just the safety, but the superiority of the Atkins nutritional program. So he decided to come up with "better" version -- a version that would lower LDL. What did he devise? A "low carb" vegan diet.

I put "low carb" in quotes because this insult to Robert Atkins' memory actually includes a whopping 130 grams per day of carbohydrate. Jenkins did this because it's the minimum "recommended amount." In other words, he didn't really want to test a low carb diet, just a lower carb diet than the usual vegetarian grain-and-bean fest. And of course, it's hellishly hard to get enough food on a vegan diet without eating grains and beans. Anyway, Jenkins knows that whole grains are healthful, so he included some. Dr. Jenkins also lowered protein as compared to Dr. Atkins instructions; again, it's hard to get tons of protein on a vegan diet.

The protein in Jenkins' reduced carb vegan diet was largely derived from soy and gluten products, which were apparently used with abandon, despite being two of the foods most likely to cause sensitivities. Soy has plenty of problems, ranging from interfering with mineral absorption to messing with the thyroid gland to possibly causing cognitive decline. Gluten is implicated not only in gut disorders, but also in many autoimmune diseases. Still, apparently these were deemed safer than animal foods, because they don't have the eeeevul saturated animal fat.

This lower-carb vegan diet was tested against a standard high carb vegetarian diet, rather than against the actual Atkins diet. Unsurprisingly, the diet with fewer carbs did give better results than the diet with more carbs. LDL was lowered a bit. This says exactly nothing about the Atkins diet.

I don't grudge Dr. Jenkins his study. I think a diet based on soy and gluten is potentially dangerous, but clearly he disagrees with me, and he's got the right to explore the various permutations of that. Dr. Atkins thought, and I agree, that animal fats were healthful, and dietary cholesterol a non-issue. Again, Dr. Jenkins clearly disagrees, and he has the right to base his studies on his perceptions, although he does seem to be trying to prove what he already believes, rather than to find out anything new.

I object very much, however, to the appellation "Eco-Atkins." This sort of coat-tail riding is particularly offensive when the diet so called is antithetical to most of Bob Atkins wrote, said, and promoted.

Too, the name suggests a whole different motivation than health, doesn't it? It's not "Healthier Atkins" or "Vegan Atkins" or "LDL-Lowering Atkins." No, they're calling it "Eco-Atkins." The whole thing smacks strongly of ecological guilt-tripping.

I try to be at least moderately ecologically conscious, but I draw the line at eating a diet that makes me fat, sick and tired in the name of living green. Further, I deny that livestock agriculture has to be terribly ecologically damaging. A return to grass-fed and pasture-raised meats would do much to reduce the ecological impact of meat and egg farming, be kinder to the animals, and produce nutritionally superior food, to boot. It is factory farming and feedlot stuffing of animals that causes most of the impact, not the simple existence of livestock.

But I digress. My point is that the diet in this study, touted in the press as a "healthier form of Atkins," has not been demonstrated to be healthier than Atkins, only healthier than the supposedly wonderful, heart-healthy, grain-and-bean diet of your average vegetarian. It pirates Dr. Atkins name, while promoting something antithetical to his work. And it appears to have actually been aimed at something other than improving health in the first place.

If your diet is so great, let it find an audience on its own merits. Don't try to gain an audience by stealing the name of my hero to promote something that would have drawn only derision from the man.

Share this

Dr. Atkins


The proof is in the pudding fellow low carbers, when my friends see how my weight stays off vs the Weight Watchers program most of them are on they just scratch their heads. I have finally convinced my husband to do low carb (he has lost 30lbs) he still won't read the book by Dr. Atkins or Dana, so he doesn't understand how it works. He still has one foot in the low fat valley. The trouble with most Americans is they don't like to read, they like to skim, thus the misconception about Dr. Atkins low carb program. I taught Weight Watchers for two years and I was always hungry I just would not eat. I finally gained all the weight back and some, and left the program that's when I discovered Dr. Atkins, he is my hero past, Dana you are my hero present. Please don't give up the torch.

Weight Watchers

To be fair, and in the interests of full disclosure, I have to state that my sister (and also one of my best friends) has done very, very well on Weight Watchers. However, she was not doing the "Flex Points" program, which so far as I can tell is an algorithm for figuring out just how much junk food one can eat without gaining weight. Instead, she has done the "Core" program, which focuses on a group of foods considered "core" -- all lean meat, poultry, and fish, all fruits and vegetables, all fat free dairy. A little olive oil every day. And very few grain products -- no breads, no crackers, no cold cereal, no pasta appear among the core foods. The only grains I'm aware of are brown rice, plain oatmeal, and barley.

This plan also allows 35 points a week to be "spent" on whatever other foods the dieter likes. Being my sister and all, Kim spends quite a few of those points on dry red wine.

Sadly, I hear that the Core Program has now been phased out by Weight Watchers. Doesn't stop Kim from eating that way, though.

Poor Dr. Atkins


Some folks just won't let go of the myth that Dr. Atkins was unfit and very fat when he died. One commenter on another blog just recently speculated that if Dr. A hadn't been so overweight, he might have been more agile and thus would have avoided injuring himself, as if slipping on a patch of ice is a danger that could only affect the overweight, as if only overweight people are clumsy.

*rolls eyes*

That's pretty much all I can do anymore when Atkins is attacked. I repeatedly remind my family (who all have high cholesterol - even my twenty-something brother) that I am the one who does not have high cholesterol/bp/etc.

In fact, several years ago I went on a high carb bender for several months. I was extremely stressed at work, and my blood pressure was out of the normal range. Within FIVE DAYS of low carbing again, I was back to normal blood pressure - on the low side of normal! And I tested it immediately after a very high stress meeting with my boss, when I expected it to be high.

So frustrating!

It's unbelievable the lengths these nut jobs will go to to promote their own agendas. Since low-carb is finally getting some the the kudos it deserves they must figure if you can't beat 'em, try to screw up the whole thing and confuse people instead. Grrrrr!

Great post Dana!

Amy Dungan

Cholesterol levels

Let's hope Mr. Jenkin sees this somehow! Dana, hve you written him directly??

Slightly off topic, but not really...my cholesterol levels are very high. High enough that I'm having trouble getting health insurance because I'm classified as a high cardiac risk! I changed my eating habits (thanks to Dr. Atkins) seven years ago, and six years ago had my cholesterol tested and it was 337 with triglycerides at 105. My dr. at the time wasn't concerned because I had no other risk factors except I smoked. She told me to quit and she wouldn't worry about the numbers. Fast forward to the present; I quit smoking a year and a half ago, and had my cholesterol tested again a few months ago. It came in at 233 with triglycerides at 61, down over 100 points, but THIS dr. totally freaked out and wanted to put me on a low fat regimen and medication. I told her, quite emphatically NO, and I haven't been back since. Am I a low carb anomaly??

Bear, DE

RE: Cholesterol Levels

I also do not worry about cholesterol levels, except triglycerides and HDL.

I also have no risk factors (even in a family with rampant diabetes, we have NO heart disease!) and have talked to my doc about the numbers.

My rationale is as long as my total is under 300-350 I'm not going to worry. My doc said to try for under 250-300. These are the numbers that were considered "acceptable" before all the statins hit the market!

Low carb anomaly

No, you sound normal to me. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on television, but I do know that in much of the world cholesterol up to about 245 is considered stone normal. I have dark thoughts sometimes that the "normal" range is being moved downward to market statins, but that's just me wearing my tin-foil hat again. Nor do I suspect your doctor of such shenanigans; she's just repeating what she's been taught.

I'd have to know more to make an educated guess as to whether you're at any increased risk at all, but it's clear from your numbers that you're a lot healthier than you were -- headed in the right direction. Try dividing your total cholesterol by your HDL. If the result is under 4.5 you're in the normal category, and if it's under 4 you're at reduced risk. Then divide your triglycerides by your HDL. If the results are 2 or under, you're golden.

Be aware, too, that elevated cholesterol appears to be a predictor of increased heart attack risk in women only between menopause and about age 65. If you're still in your child-bearing years, or well past menopause, you're not at statistically increased risk.

If you'd like to reassure yourself, I highly recommend reading Gary Taubes' ground-breaking article What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie. Taubes is an award-winning science writer, and has exhaustively researched the whole heart disease/cholesterol/low fat diet movement, only to find that the evidence to support the overwhelming push for fat and cholesterol restriction simply was never there. If you'd rather watch/listen, Gary's lecture on the topic -- a little over an hour long -- is available through Google Video. I've seen him give this lecture to the Boone County Medical Association; he's a fine and engaging speaker. I promise you will not be bored, and you will be enlightened.

If you still want to drop your total cholesterol a little further, if only to get your doctor off your back, you could take supplements of soluble fiber -- sugar free Metamucil would do, or Benefiber, or you could start eating lots of flax seed, or increase your guar or xanthan intake. Soluble fiber lowers total cholesterol a bit through totally mechanical means: It binds to the digestive fluid bile, so that it is then passed out of the body. The body then needs to make more bile, and since cholesterol is used in making bile, you use some up in the process.

Personally, I wouldn't bother, since your numbers -- at least what I know of them -- wouldn't worry me at all. But it would be a harmless way to lower your total cholesterol a little, which is more than I can say for taking a bunch of cholesterol-lowering drugs.


You go, Dana! It makes me mad when people slur the Atkins diet while obviously not knowing what they're talking about. I especialy hate it when entertainers do it to get a laugh. There's one reason I don't intend to watch Leno's new prime time show.

BTW, my cholesterol levels have always been good on low carb.



I long since abandoned Leno and Letterman for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Far sharper and funnier, and I occasionally learn a little something.



We are on antenna only, so I can't see those 2 shows.

I don't like letterman or Conan much either. Craig Ferguson of the Late Late Show, on the other hand, I would definitely watch him in prime time.