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March 2005
Carbophobia! The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze

By Michael Greger



Do you remember when Dr. Atkins’ diet book broke publishing records, selling over 100,000 copies a month and shooting to the top of the bestseller charts? Atkins became a media darling and did dozens of print, radio and television interviews a week. All across the country, people were reading his book. The year was 1972.

You may also recall that, the year after Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was first published, Dr. Atkins was brought before a Senate investigation on diet fads and frauds. At the congressional inquiry the head of the American Medical Association (AMA)’s nutrition council called the Atkins Diet a “serious threat to health,” and the founder and chair of Harvard’s nutrition department for 34 years went on record calling for Dr. Atkins to be brought up on malpractice charges for writing what he called such “dangerous nonsense.” The president of the American College of Nutrition at the time declared, “Of all the bizarre diets that have been proposed in the last 50 years, this is the most dangerous to the public if followed for any length of time.”

By the late ’70s, diet rival Nathan Pritikin, who advocated a low-fat, plant-based diet after claiming it had reversed his own heart disease, locked horns with Atkins in nationally televised debates. The public started questioning the Atkins Diet, and Atkins’ medical practice started to suffer. Fearing, in his own words, that Pritikin had begun “to be listened to,” Atkins filed a $5 million lawsuit, charging Pritikin with slander. When Pritikin tragically lost his 28-year battle with radiation-induced leukemia, Dr. Atkins reportedly continued his lawsuit against Pritikin’s grieving widow.

Before he died, however, Pritikin directed that his body be autopsied. He wanted to show the world what his diet could do. The autopsy findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in an article entitled “Nathan Pritikin’s Heart.” Evidently, his arteries were as “soft and pliable” as a teenager’s, with no signs of heart disease. “In a man 69 years old,” wrote the pathologist, “the near absence of atherosclerosis and the complete absence of its effects are remarkable.”

In contrast, according to a medical examiner’s report at the time of his death in 2003, Dr. Atkins was overweight and stricken with hypertension and heart disease—all conditions Atkins claimed his diet would cure. Although Atkins’ health may indeed be a matter of legitimate public concern, more troubling is whether or not the Atkins Corporation lied to the American public to shield their assets.

When Atkins suffered a cardiac arrest and nearly died in 2002, the Atkins Corporation quickly posted a statement on its website emphatically denying that the event had anything to do with his diet. “Clearly,” the statement read, “his own nutritional protocols have left him, at the age of 71, with an extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system.” Atkins himself went on television the week after his cardiac arrest, categorically denying he had had any blockages of his coronary arteries. “So what are they [my critics] going to say,” he boasted to Katie Couric, “now that they know I don’t have any blockages?”

Of course he did have blockages. His cardiologist has divulged that indeed Atkins’ coronary arteries were “perhaps 30 to 40 percent blocked,” a fact even his widow was forced to acknowledge. After the coroner’s report on Atkins’ death was leaked, Veronica Atkins went from swearing on Larry King Live that her husband did not have coronary artery disease to finally admitting that his cardiovascular system may not have been as fit as the public had been led to believe. “Robert did have some progression of his coronary artery disease in the last three years of his life,” she finally admitted in a public statement, “including some new blockage of a secondary artery.” This suggests, as a former director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health accused, that “Dr. Atkins wasn’t being straightforward with his patients, with the public.”

Dr. Atkins died in 2003, but with billion-dollar backers, his diet didn’t die with him. Millions of Americans continue to risk their health on Atkins-like diets. It seems everywhere one goes these days, the Atkins “A” can be found. In the first six months of 2004, no less than 1,864 new “low-carb” products were launched. Now there is everything from low-carb bread to low-carb gummy bears. Hershey’s and Nestle are making low-carb candy bars and Coke and Pepsi have launched carb-cutting colas. Kellogg’s even defrosted some of its flakes and premiered a reduced carb version of Fruit Loops. Krispy Kreme has a lower-carb doughnut in the works, and, thanks in part to pork-rind sales, hog prices are at record highs. All of this has public health experts very concerned.

The official condemnations of the Atkins Diet from the medical authorities of the ’70s continue to hold weight to this day. The Atkins Corporation claims that the basic tenets of the Atkins Diet have remained “consistent since 1972,” insisting that “nothing in the earlier books is wrong.” But public health experts are no less troubled now than when the fad struck 30 years ago.

Warnings from medical authorities continue to pour in. “People need to wake up to the reality,” writes former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, that the Atkins Diet is “unhealthy and can be dangerous.” The largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the world calls the Atkins Diet “a nightmare of a diet.” The official spokesperson of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) elaborated: “The Atkins Diet and its ilk—any eating regimen that encourages gorging on bacon, cream, and butter while shunning apples, all in the name of weight loss—are a dietitian’s nightmare.” The ADA has been warning Americans about the potential hazards of the Atkins Diet for almost 30 years now.

Dr. Atkins dismissed such criticism as “dietitian talk.” “My English sheepdog,” Atkins once said, “will figure out nutrition before the dieticians do.” The problem for Atkins (and his sheepdog) is that the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious scientific body in the United States, agrees with the AMA and the ADA in opposing the Atkins Diet. So do the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, the American Kidney Fund, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Institutes of Health. In fact, there does not seem to be a single major governmental or nonprofit medical, nutrition, or science-based organization in the world that supports the Atkins Diet. As a 2004 medical journal review concluded, the Atkins Diet “runs counter to all the current evidence-based dietary recommendations.”

This is not the Dr. Greger Diet versus the Dr. Atkins Diet. This is a century of medical science versus the Atkins Diet. This is not a case of academic “he said/she said.” This is a case of a multi-billion-dollar corporation with a financial stake in ignoring “all the current evidence-based dietary recommendations,” no matter what the human cost.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to and read the American Medical Association’s scathing official critique yourself. Read what the founder of the Harvard Nutrition Department, and the current chair, have to say about the Atkins Diet. Also posted are dozens of official position statements and journal articles from medical and nutrition authorities across the country, warning of the widespread potential risks of low-carb diets.

A 2003 review of low-carb “theories” in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition concluded that “Carbophobia is a form of nutritional misinformation infused into the American psyche through...advertising...infomercials...and bestselling diet books.” By countering this misinformation with scientific fact, I hope to give the public the tools with which to make up their own minds.

Michael Greger, MD, is a general practitioner, a founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and an internationally recognized lecturer on nutrition and food safety issues. This article is adapted from the introduction to Greger’s new book Carbophobia: The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze just published by Lantern Books. Reprinted with permission.



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