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Pritikin vs. Atkins

Pritikin vs. Atkins

A Decades-Long Battle Whose Resolution
Could Save Millions of Lives

This is the story of Nathan Pritikin, who started a health revolution in America. It is also the story of Pritikin's decades-long battle with Dr. Robert Atkins, whose diet books have topped bestseller lists in America for the past several years. The nation is confused with "low-fat vs. low-carb" and is now consumed by the Atkins low-carb "health" craze. Restaurants and food manufacturers across the country are now catering to this "health" craze. The battle could turn soon, thanks to this week's revelations in The Wall Street Journal about Atkins' heart disease, hypertension, and obesity - and future revelations about Atkins' medical history.

In 1958, when he was 41, Pritikin was diagnosed with heart disease. Cardiologists told him to keep eating his diet full of butter, ice cream, and steaks. But Pritikin, an inventor with numerous patents, started doing his own research and became convinced that people with cholesterol levels under 160 rarely suffered from heart disease. They had something else in common: they ate a diet high in natural, fiber-rich carbohydrates and very low in fat, particularly saturated fat from meat and dairy foods. By contrast, those countries that consumed the most fat had the most arterial clogging, and they had the highest rates of heart disease.

Pritikin's own cholesterol at that time was 280. He created an eating plan rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans and with moderate amounts of lean meat, seafood, and nonfat dairy foods. He also began exercising. His cholesterol plummeted to 120. Two years later, a new electrocardiogram showed that his coronary insufficiency had disappeared. His test results: normal.

Emboldened by his new life, Pritikin launched several research projects over the next 25 years that have now validated the efficacy of his program. In 1975, he also opened the Pritikin Longevity Center, now located at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, a residential program of diet, exercise and education that attracts people from around the world. At the Center, cholesterol levels plummeted 23% and more; 83% of the people with soaring blood pressure on medication left with normal blood pressures, free of hypertension medication; 70% of type 2 diabetics on medication left drug-free and insulin-free; people who had already been scheduled for heart bypass surgery left never needing the operation and 81% of them still didn't need the surgery after 5 years. The stories became legend. To date, these and other results of the Pritikin Program have been published by UCLA scientists in nearly 115 studies in top peer-reviewed medical journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.

But the opening of the Center and the avalanche of publicity Pritikin received touched off a war between Pritikin and the medical establishment. One of Pritikin's strongest critics was Dr. Robert Atkins, whose own diet was the antithesis of Pritikin's. During the late-70s and early 80s, media coast to coast broadcasted their debates. Pritikin claimed that the Atkins diet clogged arteries and would kill Americans. Atkins claimed that his diet prevented heart attacks and strokes. By 1983, Atkins' attorneys had filed lawsuits against Nathan Pritikin, charging him with libel.

In 1985, Pritikin died from complications related to a 35-year struggle with leukemia. The results of his autopsy were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and showed that Nathan Pritikin's arteries were free of any signs of heart disease, and were as "soft and pliable" as a teenager's.  "In a man 69 years old," wrote pathologist Jeffrey Hubbard, "the near absence of atherosclerosis and the complete absence of its effects are remarkable."

On April 17, 2003, Dr. Atkins died. He was 72 years old. The media reported that he had suffered a fall and subsequent head injuries while walking to his office in New York City. Several months earlier, he had been hospitalized for a heart problem, which his public relations representatives asserted was not related in any way to artery blockage. But the question remains unanswered whether Atkins' heart problem was in fact a heart attack related to severe hardening of the arteries. Did Atkins fall cause the head injuries that killed him, or was the fall really caused by a massive stroke or other event? Did Atkins' injuries reveal that he never even sought to brace himself at all to break his fall?

On February 10, 2004, The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from the New York City Medical Examiner's report on Atkins' death. The report indicated that Atkins weighed 258 pounds at his death, making the diet-guru clinically obese, and that he had a history of heart disease, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. Was this caused by his diet? Did the Atkins' diet kill Atkins?

Atkins' widow, Veronica Atkins, told the Journal she was outraged that the report had been made public, but even she conceded in a statement issued the same day the story came out that her husband "did have some progression of his coronary artery disease in the last three years of his life, including some new blockage of a secondary artery."

At his death, the family apparently objected to and stopped any autopsy, so city medical examiners conducted only "an external exam" and a review of Atkins' hospital records, according to the Journal . But in these records there clearly is plenty of information about Atkins' heart disease and hypertension, information that the public never knew of until this week and much of which is still unknown.

In her statement, Veronica Atkins asserts that her husband's personal medical history "is private and of no concern or relevance to the media or general public." She also calls the individuals who made public her husband's records "unethical." But couldn't the same be said of the Atkins' empire? Given the widespread popularity of the Atkins diet, Americans have a right to know all the facts. The Atkins' books and food sales continue to rise, exceeding $100 million dollars last year, and are expected to be at least double that amount this year. Given the nationwide popularity of the Atkins diet, Americans have a right to know all the facts about Dr. Atkins and the Atkins diet. They are entitled to know if this diet harmed the arteries of its most ardent proponent who followed the diet long-term rather than just for a short 6 or 12 months like the people in the recent Atkins' diet studies. They are entitled to know because their own arteries are at stake. The whole debate, in short, is not just about diets. It's about the health and well-being of the nation.  

Atkins' medical history, like that of Nathan Pritikin's, is a matter of public concern. If a more involved autopsy report exists, or if there are pertinent reports like angiograms detailing just how blocked Atkins' coronary arteries were, and serum cholesterol and lipid levels and medication dosages which can be predictive of heart disease, Americans have a right to see them. It could save lives, millions of lives . We know what Nathan Pritikin's arteries looked like at his death. The public deserves to know what Robert Atkins' arteries looked like, too. It could well be that if Americans knew the real story behind Dr. Atkins' diet, if they were to see what happens after a lifetime of eating foods high in saturated fat, they might be motivated, like never before, to make healthier choices about the foods they eat. They might live longer, healthier lives free of the ravages of heart disease and related illnesses.

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