Why the state of Dr Robert Atkins’ arteries and his weight when he died are irrelevant

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I had an email from a doctor this week who tells me he and his wife are embarking on the dietary recommendations to in my last book Waist Disposal. He admits, though, that it’s hard for him to put his hang-ups about saturated fat to one side.

He asks in his email if Dr Robert Atkins (low-carb diet guru) had had his coronary arteries dissected. He also asks if I follow my own ‘diet’. I have not had time to respond personally to the doctor, but thought his line of questioning would be the good basis for a blog post.

When Dr Atkins died a few years back, there was a widely disseminated claim that he was obese when he died. However, some claim that he died as a result of a head injury sustained falling on ice, and that his considerable weight at the time of death was due in no small part to treatment he received while in the intensive therapy unit. A combination of steroids and fluids could, for example, have caused his weight to balloon due to fluid retention.

Because of the world I live in, I hear these claims and counter-claims on a not-too-irregular basis. And when I hear them, I always think ‘who cares?’

Let’s imagine that Dr Atkins was indeed obese prior to his fall. What does it tell us? Practically nothing. First of all, we really have no idea whether Atkins was following his own dietary advice or not. Perhaps he had a weakness for crappy carbohydrates and was obese as a result. In which case we could perhaps claim he was weak and lacking in self control, but that does not mean he was wrong about carbohydrate being the major dietary cause of obesity.

But even if he was following his own advice and was obese, this still tells us little to nothing. No approach (I’m aware of) works for everyone. Maybe, for instance, Dr Atkins had an undiagnosed problem with low thyroid function that meant he did not respond to his own diet like most.

There’s practically nothing we can learn from an single anecdote, and that’s why I have no interest at all in what weight Dr Robert Atkins was when he died.

The doctor who emailed me this week had a specific query regarding saturated fat and heart disease, and if you remember, asked if Dr Atkins had has his coronary arteries cut open. Again, though, why should we even be interested in the state of his coronary arteries? What truly useful information would be gleaned from such an exercise? Such an approach is about as unscientific as one could get.

Does science serve us better? I believe so. And what we have here is good evidence that supports the following facts:

1. Saturated fat intake is not linked with risk of heart disease.

2. When individuals modify their fat intake (usually with an emphasis on less saturated fat), it does not reduce their risk of heart disease.

3. Low-carbohydrate diets lead to beneficial changes in a range of heart disease markers including blood pressure, triglyceride levels, HDL-cholesterol levels, and LDL-cholesterol particle size.

As to my own diet, again, this has no relevance to the role of diet in health, but at the same time I have no issue declaring that, yes, I do generally follow the dietary advice I dispense. I am not obsessive about it though. If nothing else, life can get in the way.

Today is a prime example. I was out with my girlfriend and my parents. At one point, my mother appeared and thrust ice creams in to mine and my girlfriend’s hands. My mother had not even asked if we wanted ice creams, she just went and bought them for us as well as one for my father. I don’t normally eat ice cream, but I did on this occasion. It’s the sort of indulgence that I most certainly don’t get hung up about.

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