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He was furious at the mainstream medical establishment for lying to America. So, he did something about it. At 69, Robert Atkins, M.D., author of Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, is still dismantling the pervasive thinking behind low-fat diets.

By Beth Salmon

Everywhere—from the morning news to late-night talk shows—Robert Atkins, M.D., has been debated, criticized and, on occasion, condemned. But, despite the controversy, the American public still buys his books by the truckload, crediting his diet with not only helping them to shed pounds, but also with saving their lives. In our candid interview, he talks about the dubious motives of the American Medical Association, why he’s been so angry and how he’s finally finding vindication after all of these years.
For those readers who may not know, briefly tell us what the Atkins Diet is:
It’s a lifelong nutritional philosophy, focusing on the consumption of nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods and nutrient supplementation. It restricts processed and refined carbohydrates, such as high-sugar foods, breads, pastas and cereals. The maintenance level of the diet allows a complete choice of proteins, fats, legumes and vegetables, as well as unrefined whole grains.

Why has the Atkins Diet been so successful?
With this diet, you have everything that an overweight person dreams of: to be able to eat a lot of food, to be able to lose weight dramatically and to have a lot of energy while you are doing it.

How did you formulate the Atkins Diet?
Back in the ’60s, I was looking for a diet just for me, trying to solve my own rapidly increasing weight gain. I was going through a phase where I was putting on 20 lb a year, and at the same time, I had an incredible appetite. Back then, [this diet] was mainstream teaching. I had just picked up an article about it in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

If this diet was mainstream teaching, why do you think that it wasn’t widely accepted?
The answer to this question is what really formulated my whole career. I felt that the American Medical Association was operating with a hidden agenda, which had nothing whatsoever to do with being scientifically on target. But, I could never pinpoint what it was, maybe it was self-interest, but it wasn’t interest in the patients. They attacked [my diet] some six months after my first book was written.

What was their main contention?
They said the diet didn’t work and that all 100 lb that people would lose was water and that everything that I said happened couldn’t possibly have happened. And they also denied that any of the medical studies [supporting the diet] that I had gotten from their journal were ever published. So, it was perhaps the greatest example of intellectual dishonesty published by the AMA in its entire history.

Why do you think this diet has been attacked so vehemently?
I’m going against the teachings of the dietitians, of the American Heart Association and the AMA. They put out this low-fat diet, which has really been responsible for the obesity epidemic escalating so much in the past 20 years. And they know that I’m blaming them, so their self-defense strategy is to try to make me look incompetent so that they don’t look incompetent.

You’ve often suggested that economic interests have influenced mainstream medicine’s attack on your diet. Please elaborate.
If you took the professors who were asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to suggest a food pyramid for all Americans, you would probably have found that they teach that white flour is not a healthy food. Yet, they made it the basis of the food pyramid. Now, the professors advise the federal government. Either they were ignorant of the fact that this was junk food or they were corrupt. And it has long been known that the nutrition departments of the major academic institutions are funded in largest part by the food industry. It is also known that the food industry makes its greatest profit by selling the foods with the cheapest ingredients—corn syrup, white sugar and white flour. And I have rained on their parade.

Are you making an impact?
With all the other people espousing low-carbohydrate diets, we’ve probably had 20 million Americans who have learned from their personal experience that carbohydrate restriction is the best diet they’ve ever been on. We are now affecting the price of beef and pork and the market analysts are blaming me for having beef and pork belly futures going up.

What fuels Atkins’ efforts to change the way America eats? “It’s kind of a spiritual thing,” he says. “I think I was given the assignment to make an impact on health care in the world. I do think it’s a God-given assignment.”
Debunking His Critics
The Atkins Diet has garnered its share of criticisms that question serious safety issues. So, if the Atkins Diet is healthy, why do so many of his colleagues find fault with it? We asked Atkins to counter some of the most common complaints.

Complaint #1 Studies show a link between saturated fat, particularly from red meat and cancer. Therefore, a diet high in fat may increase one’s risk of cancer.
This is unfounded. For one thing, the studies that looked at saturated fat intake are flawed, because one must also look at what else these people were eating. The researchers need to also ask: “How many refined carbohydrates were these subjects eating?” And don’t think you can’t find studies correlating the intake of sugar and [many different forms of sugar] with cancer.

Also, you have to look at the meta-analysis [of studies that looked at fat and cancer] and realize that these researchers came to the conclusion that fat intake had nothing to do with cancer rates.

Complaint #2 The fat content of the diet may increase a person’s risk of heart disease.
In virtually all societies in which it is suggested that high fat consumption causes heart disease, the main dietary modification in this century has been an increase in the consumption of sugar, corn syrup and white flour— all refined carbohydrates. Surgeon-Captain T.L. Cleave of the British Royal Navy, who wrote the classic study The Saccharine Disease (Keats, 1973), argued convincingly that increases in coronary artery disease could be traced to increases in refined carbohydrate intake. He noted that diabetes, hypertension, ulcers, gallbladder disease, varicose veins, colitis and heart disease, to name a few, were all virtually nonexistent in primitive cultures until refined carbohydrates were introduced. And there were no exceptions.

Complaint #3 Eating a lot of meat can’t be good for you when you consider how many hormones and chemicals it contains.
In my latest book, Dr. Atkins’ Anti-Aging Diet Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), I take a pretty strong stance that there is something very wrong with putting hormones and antibiotics into the meat supply. I strongly hope that we will have more choices as individuals and be able to get hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat in supermarkets and restaurants. Right now, people think that if they’re eating vegetables, they are going to avoid [these problems], but we really do have to shop organically on both sides of the aisle.

Complaint #4 You don’t get enough phytonutrients on the diet.
On my maintenance diet, which I’ve been on for 36 years, I probably eat 50 servings of vegetables a week. It basically is a protein and vegetables diet.

Complaint #5 There isn’t much research to back up the diet.
There are several studies going on right now. One of the studies looks at the Atkins Diet and another study looks at the basic scientific underpinnings of why the diet works. I presume in the next year or two, all of the people that are saying there is no proof are going to have to take a different approach, because there will be ample proof.

Complaint #6 A high-protein diet causes calcium loss.
We have not seen calcium loss, but we have seen the scientific literature. The literature was based on giving protein powder to animals and noticing that they put out more calcium. When the studies were repeated using meat, instead of protein powder, however, the calcium loss did not take place.

Complaint #7 The Atkins Diet causes bad breath.
There is a change in the breath. The word bad is a value judgment, though. It’s sweet breath from ketones. But, the sweet breath only occurs in the strictest version of the diet and really goes away in the slow weight-loss version.

Complaint #8 A high-protein diet burdens the kidneys.
Nobody should have invented that. That was a deliberate dishonesty. This shows the magnitude, the degree to which people will impair the truth to get their point across. There has never been a case of [kidney damage]. As a treatment for kidney disease, you do use a low-protein diet. But these are people who are on dialysis. But this is different from saying that the diet causes kidney disease.

Complaint #9 The diet causes constipation.
Constipation is intrinsic with the diet, but not when supplements are given.

Complaint #10 Since each person’s biochemistry is different, the diet can’t work for everyone.
One diet does not fit all. Nutritional medicine, like that which is practiced at the Atkins Center, requires individualization. I give more details on how to customize my diet in my books.

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