Low-carb Lunacy.

February 11, 2004  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Overweight and obesity

"I’m low-carbing and loving it!"

Ten years ago Dr. Stuart Berger, author of a No. 1 best-selling diet book attributing obesity to allergies, died at age 40 weighing 365 pounds. Ditz actress turned diet expert Suzanne Somers tried to keep her liposuction a secret, then went from ThighMaster to lie-master in claiming it was a cancer treatment.

So it’s not entirely surprising to hear that the most successful diet guru in history, Dr. Robert Atkins, weighed 258 pounds at his death. At six feet tall that would make him not just overweight, not just obese, but rather what’s called "morbidly obese." He had also suffered a heart attack, congestive heart failure and hypertension. None of this will slow the flood of vicious e-mail I receive from Atkins cultists who tell me they’ve lost more weight in less time than is physically possible. Or from those who admit they’ve regained all their weight but like contrite penitents claim: "The diet didn’t fail me; I failed the diet." (One supportive e-mailer bemoaned: "Atkins is not Jesus and I am so sick of people telling me he is!") But just maybe this revelation will begin to turn the tide of the dangerous fad called "low-carbing," which can only worsen an obesity epidemic already claiming 300,000 lives a year.

Actually "fad" doesn’t cut it; this is erupting like nothing seen since Mount St. Helens popped her top. What can you say when Burger King is selling Whoppers sans buns? Other chains sell burgers naked as the day they were born, while there’s also low-carb pizza, cheesecake, bread, corn chips, chocolate bars, ice cream, beer, fruit juice, pasta sauce, and peanut butter.

Atkins Nutritionals alone sells over 50 products, while endorsing many others with its red "A" trademark seemingly ripped from the bosom of Hester Prynne.

Low-carb food has even gone to the dogs (and cats).

But while low-carb they may be, low-calorie is a different matter. Subway did a sudden about-face from pushing low-fat sandwiches to hawking Atkins-endorsed low-carb wraps.

With about 250 calories in a 60-gram package, these are candy bars by any other name. But to low-carbers they’re license to pig out.

Although about the same weight as the sandwiches, the wraps have hundreds more calories. The fad probably began with a 2002 New York Times Magazine cover story that argued increased carbohydrate consumption had caused the obesity epidemic. This was despite a mass of government data showing Americans were eating more of everything. Writer Gary Taubes portrayed Atkins, though filthy rich from selling over 10 million books, as a long-suffering victim of a medical establishment conspiracy.

Taubes also ignored decades of controlled studies and surveys. In April 2001, for example, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed "all studies identified" that looked at diet nutrient composition and weight loss, over 200 in total. Conclusion: "Weight loss is independent of diet composition."

Since then, much new research has directly evaluated the Atkins regimen, finding it works briefly then fails as people get bored and fall off the wagon. The claim of the Atkins people that "18 independent scientific studies over these past three years" vindicate them is high-fat fibbery; unless you count as "independent" those they paid for.

More typical was a 2003 Tufts University study comparing four popular diets, including Atkins. Half the Atkins dieters dropped out before the end of a year, while half of those remaining had actually stopped low-carbing. Even for those stayed in, average weight loss was the least of the four diet plans – a miniscule 4 percent.

No matter; a myth was born. Now a mesmerized media see everywhere the presumed evils of carbohydrates. A February 6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report prompted such headlines as "CDC Says Carbs to Blame for Rising Calorie Intake," and "Feds Blame Carbs for Increased Blubber." Yet within one of these stories Jacqueline Wright, the lead author of the study, "noted that the findings should not be seen as supporting the Atkins diet or any other food regimen that stressed low or no consumption of carbohydrates."

That’s because the true import of her research is that, yes, we’re eating a lot more period. The average adult woman reported consuming 1,877 calories per day in 2000, 22 percent more than in 1971. For men it was 2,618 calories or 8 percent more.

"I think we need to focus on total calorie intakes," Wright told Reuters news service.

But we can’t focus while we’re chasing down carb-free toothpaste. And no doubt much of the appeal of these fad foods is that they give our already porky population an excuse to gorge, so long as it’s low-carb gorging. But Atkins’s own corpulent body tells us no magic weight-loss formula ever works – even for the magicians themselves.

The Atkins Empire Strikes Back

Note: As this piece went to press, the Empire is striking back with every weapon available – most of them rather silly. Thus we’re told the medical examiner’s report was released by a group with an axe to grind, vegetarians. Dr. Richard Fleming, who received the report, also has his own diet book out and is thus competing with Atkins. Never mind that Fleming’s book, called Stop Inflammation Now!, is not a diet book and the only book truly competing with Atkins is another low-carb one, the South Beach Diet. It’s irrelevant who obtained or released the report or their motives for doing so. All that counts is the report itself.

Dr. Stuart Lawrence Trager, head of the Atkins Physicians Council, claims "a grossly distorted story on the health of Dr. Robert C. Atkins reported that he weighed 258 pounds at the time of his death, making him obese. In fact, the day after his fall, Dr. Atkins’ weight was recorded as195 pounds, 63 pounds less than reported at his death!" The excess weight, he said, was from water bloating while the doctor was comatose. That would be about eight gallons of fluid. But physicians contacted by the media have said that while some bloating might occur, that amount sounds quite excessive. New York Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden splashed water on the fluid explanation, telling Fox News’s Greta van Sustern "I don’t think the 60-pound difference can be explained by treatment in a hospital. He had brain hemorrhage. He died because he fell, had a skull fracture, had an epidural hemorrhage around the brain. The treatment for that is to take as much fluid away from the brain as possible. By (sic) loading up somebody with a lot of fluid would be very harmful to somebody with the kind of blunt trauma that Dr. Atkins had."

Further, while the report with the 258-pound figure is public, Trager provides no source for the 195-pound one. He was not Atkins’s physician; he never claims to have treated him at all. He’s merely the head of a group put together to give the air of medical legitimacy to Atkins Nutritionals. An autopsy report would have settled this and more, but Mrs. Atkins wouldn’t allow it.

Trager also says, "Based on the body mass index (BMI), a desirable range for people over the age of 65, is 24 to 29. At a height of 6 feet, Dr. Atkins’ BMI was 26.4, putting him squarely in the normal range for his age." Utter fabrication. The NIH’s BMI chart makes such no allowance for older age. It says simply that anything over 25 is overweight. Obviously this doesn’t apply to especially athletic persons, but even Trager doesn’t make this claim of Atkins. Thus none other than the official Atkins spokesman for this issue has admitted that their founder and figurehead was overweight when he entered the hospital.

USA Today claimed that, "Records obtained by USA Today *contradict a *Wall Street Journal report that Robert Atkins weighed 258 pounds at the time of his death." The source: Atkins’s widow. But curiously, USA Today makes no mention either of what type of record it was or even what it said other than using the 195-pound figure. It also quoted Trager and tried to impugn the ME’s report by saying that, yes, the group that released it supports vegetarianism. Stranger yet, the only other news stories that make mention of this new information simply cite USA Today. Why would Veronica Atkins give an exclusive on a medical report?

Most pathetic is the "Leave the poor guy alone; he’s dead argument," espoused by the Atkins website (signed by Mrs. Atkins), Fox commentator Neil Cavuto and members of low-carb chatrooms everywhere. Contrary to the popular expression "spinning in his grave," the words of the living do not affect the dead. It’s a pretty good bet Cavuto wouldn’t say the same about JFK and his sexual affairs. Atkins himself is safe from his critics, six feet under and in diet guru heaven. What is at stake is the Atkins empire and Mrs. Atkins’s bank account. One case never proves anything – although from the low-carbers heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence it seems they don’t believe that. But if the best-selling diet doctor of all time was fat, and even Atkins Nutrionals has inadvertently admitted as much, the public has a right to know.