Harmful myths – the death of Dr. Atkins

‘Didn’t Dr Atkins die of a heart attack?’ or ‘Wasn’t Dr Atkins obese when he died?’ are questions we’re asked from time to time. Unfortunately, many years after the death of Dr Atkins these harmful myths are still out there.

The reason I say they are harmful is that they have prevented (and possibly still do) people who believed them, from following the Atkins way-of-eating. Or maybe they stopped following it when friends/co-workers derided them. Based on false information those individuals may not have been able to reach and maintain their weight loss goals and even more importantly gain the health benefits offered by the Atkins Nutritional approach. That is the real damage done by these myths..

The facts

So, what really happened? The fact of the matter is that Dr. Atkins died aged 72 as a result of a serious head injury from a fall that occurred April 8th, 2003. What happened after this is clearly and fully detailed in the hospital records. He lost consciousness en route to the hospital and his condition failed to improve despite emergency neurosurgical treatment for bleeding within his head. He was adamant about not wanting life support, and when his wishes were honored, he passed away on April 17th when ventilator life support was withdrawn. His death certificate chalked up the immediate cause of his demise to “blunt impact injury of head with epidural hematoma.”

Was Dr Atkins overweight?

A medical report at the time of his admission to the hospital, which was later made public by his widow, states that he was 195 lbs (13 stone 13 lbs) on admission to the hospital. This corresponds with a statement of a writer called William Leith who interviewed him around the time of his cardiac arrest stated that “he looks to be just under 6 feet tall and around 200 lbs – not skinny, not thin, but definitely not fat.” However during his 2 weeks in intensive care his body retained an enormous amount of fluid, and his weight at death was recorded at 258 pounds (18 stone 6 lbs).

In an interview with Larry King on 6 Jan 2003 just three months before his death Dr Atkins comes across as being is great form. I think if he was obese at that point it may have come up in conversation!

Did Dr Atkins have a heart attack?

As the medical records mentioned above show, Dr Atkins did not have a heart attack. However, he did have a condition called cardiomyopathy. This is a serious and progressive condition caused by a viral infection. Though this condition weakened his heart, its cause was clearly related to an infection and not his diet. In fact, just the year before that his personal physician and cardiologist Patrick Fratellone said: “We have been treating this condition, cardiomyopathy, for almost two years. Clearly, his own nutritional protocols have left him, at the age of 71, with an extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system.

Truth and lies

Dr. Atkin’s widow Veronica released a statement the year after he died. In it she said referred to the fact that Dr. Atkins’s medical records were illegally obtained and sent to the media. She calls them “dishonest individuals who will stop at nothing and will proceed without any regard for medical ethics …in an attempt not only to discredit my husband’s work but to profit from his death“.

In the same statement Stuart Trager, M.D. of Atkins Physicians Council made a similar point about the untrue information that was reported:
Today’s Wall Street Journal ran a story on the health of Dr. Robert Atkins and grossly distorted and inaccurately reported information that Dr. Atkins was obese at the time of his death. In fact, up until the time he became comatose and lay in the hospital for two weeks. Dr. Atkins’ average weight was actually 60 pounds less than reported in the Journal. The newspaper article was based on incomplete personal medical records that were illegally delivered to the newspaper in violation of federal law.

Unfortunately the untruths about Dr Atkins death still persist and even in mainstream media publications like Newsweek. In March 2007, Newsweek magazine published an opinion piece by Dr. Dean Ornish which contained the same untruths, which they later retracted: “An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate account of events surrounding the death of Dr. Robert Atkins. Newsweek regrets the error.”

Modern science

To be honest, how Dr. Atkins did die is really not relevant to the question of whether or not someone should consider following the Atkins diet. The case of one person—even if that person was Robert Atkins—hardly proves anything about the health effects of a diet. What doctors and health care professionals should be looking at is the published scientifically controlled and peer reviewed research. The work of Dr. Atkins had been vindicated by many such studies by the time of his death and by many more studies since:

Of course, the very idea that people would think Dr. Atkins died of a heart attack from his own diet stems from the erroneous idea that eating saturated fats causes high cholesterol or heart disease. This couldn’t be further from the truth as people on a low carb diet improve their cholesterol much more that on low-fat diets and the diet has many other beneficial effects when it comes to heart health. See studies above for much more information on this.

Here is an excellent clip about the life and times of Dr. Atkins:


The future for the Atkins diet

Hopefully the “dishonest” and “unscrupulous” individuals that Veronica Atkins refers to will not continue to succeed in their efforts and many more people will look to the facts and the science rather than the myths. That way we will hear lots more stories like the following success story on the Atkins site:
I read of Dr. Atkins’ death some time ago and wished I could have told him he’d made such a huge difference in my life. I genuinely wish he could have seen where I came from and where I am now. Best wishes to EVERYBODY who’s considering this lifestyle change! If I could do it, so can everybody else! You all have my greatest thanks. You helped me save my life. – Cas O’Connor


Acknowledgements: The following excellent article on About.com provided much of the information in this post and had additional interesting information on the subject.

2 thoughts on “Harmful myths – the death of Dr. Atkins

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