Good-bye To A Pioneer

Vital Information

For the past several months, I’ve been writing articles about the history of diets and dieting. Eventually, I would have written about Dr. Atkins. ‘Eventually’ came too soon.

As most of you have already heard, the Dean of the low carbohydrate world has died. Dr. Robert C. Atkins passed away a few weeks ago from complications following a slip-and-fall accident in which he hit his head when he slipped on an icy path on his way to work in still-wintery New York. It was a shock for a vibrant man like he was to die following such a freak injury, and he will be greatly missed.

From Thin To Three Chins

Robert C. Atkins grew up in Dayton, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan, and then Cornell Medical College were he earned his MD degree. He did his residency at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, and afterward set up his private practice as a cardiologist.

As a child, he had been thin and wasn’t particularly interested in food. But by college, he was eating everything in sight until he finally realized that the thin boy he had been, was now a fairly fat man with three chins. He wanted to lose weight, yet he knew he could never follow a low-calorie diet for even one day!

So Atkins began doing some research in the literature. He found out about William Banting, who way back in 1864 had discovered that cutting starches from his diet allowed him to take off the pounds that had been plaguing him for years. Atkins found reports that showed that fasting patients reported losing their hunger after two days without food, an idea that fascinated him. And, Atkins found studies of people who had given up all sugars and starches, but who lost weight on diets of some 3000 calories per day. And, when he tried this too-good-to-be-true diet, he found that he was able to take off his weight.

Being a cardiologist, Atkins worked day in and day out with concepts of high cholesterol levels, dietary fats, and overweight patients who had difficulty losing weight. He saw that cholesterol levels dropped when patients cut carbohydrates from their diets. He saw that fats in the diet did not cause increased heart disease, in the absence of the sugars. And, he developed a mission to spread the word to the world.

Spreading The Word

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Atkins began to tell everyone who would listen about carbohydrate intolerance due to ‘carbohydrate poisoning.’ He pointed out that people were eating more sugar in two weeks than people had been eating in a year, three hundred years previously. This, despite the fact that our bodies and the metabolic systems that use our food haven’t changed in thousands of years. Our bodies were still used to a diet of meats and plants, with no refined carbohydrates at all.

Forty years ago, Dr. Atkins was showing the results of heart and blood vessel damage from excessive carbohydrates in the bodies of very young men who had been examined after they died in battle in the Korean War or the Vietnam War. These men seemed to be in the prime of their lives, and were only in their mid-twenties, but they were already showing artery damage.

Fighting With The Facts

Over the years, Atkins was maligned repeatedly by mainstream ‘authorities’ on diet and health, but ultimately it became clear that there was little to be gained by arguing with the fact that excessive amounts of carbohydrates are not good for people. 

The chief argument that the media and the medical establishment resorted to concerned ketones. Ketones, the chemicals that are produced when fat is incompletely metabolized in the body, are excreted in the urine, a condition known as ketonuria. In certain disease processes, the presence of ketonuria is an unwanted finding because it indicates acidosis. But, in a healthy person who is merely trying to lose weight on a very low carbohydrate diet, there is no acidosis, and the ketones in the urine are only showing that fat is being burned. Acidosis and ketones are both produced by serious disease processes, but the ketones, themselves, do not produce the acidosis. Dr. Atkins was constantly pointing out the difference between the two types of ketonuria.

Other people who had (and currently have) low carbohydrate plans recommended higher carbohydrate levels, usually some 60 per day. This avoided a lot of controversy with the nay-sayers because no ketones are produced at that carbohydrate intake level.

Mainstreamed At Last

At the time of his death, Dr. Atkins’ work was finally being mainstreamed, albeit grudgingly, by the media. But his work was just as accurate 30 years ago when he developed his first diet plan and wrote his first book. 

Although the media likes to talk about the Atkins plan as though it is something fairly new, there was no doubt back in the ’60s and ’70 that carbohydrates are the ‘villains’, and that it was (and is) perfectly safe to eat a close-to-zero carbohydrate diet. In 1963 the US Department of Agriculture wrote in one of their publications that “People can survive quite well on diets containing no carbohydrate because the body can use fats and proteins directly as sources of energy.” Additionally, the then chairman of the department of internal medicine at Yale University Medical School wrote in his 1960s textbook for doctors practicing in the field of metabolic diseases that “no carbohydrate is required in the diet.”

The body burns carbohydrates first, if they are available. But, if there are no carbohydrates present from the diet, the body will fall back on other sources. The major reserve source of fuel is stored fat, however, since 50% to 60% of the protein we eat is converted to carbohydrate, and since we must eat protein to live, we are actually supplying our bodies with some carbohydrate even when we eat only protein.

Owed Thanks From Us All

The contribution Robert Atkins made to the low carbohydrate movement was immeasurable. He almost single-handedly put the phrase ‘low carb’ on the lips of the world. He did not invent the low carbohydrate diet, but every single follower of the low carbohydrate lifestyle, and every single author of other low carbohydrate plans owe him a huge debt of gratitude for being willing to take the years of abuse from the mainstream medical community and the media to fight for what he knew was right.


And, in the final analysis, Dr. Atkins got in the last word. The moment it was announced that Dr. Atkins had died, there was a great in-unison gasp from his critics, who no doubt slapped their thighs, saying “I knew that high fat diet would kill him!” But, they were busy eating low carb crow when they found out that, rather than being in poor health, Atkins had been in great condition, and at age 72, had just walked a mile to his office building, as he did every day. I personally think that Dr. Atkins would be glad to know, if he could, that he got in the ‘last laugh.’

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