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Did the Atkins Diet Fail Dr. Atkins?

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Robert Atkins, the diet guru who for decades led the charge against obesity by preaching high-protein, high-fat foods over carbohydrates, is proving to be as controversial a figure in death as he was in life. According to a Feb. 10 article in the Wall Street Journal, the 6-ft.-tall Atkins weighed a hefty 258 lbs. when he died last April of a head injury after slipping on a patch of ice. The story, based on a report prepared by a New York City medical examiner after the diet doctor died at the age of 72, also says Atkins had a history of heart attacks—precisely the sort of health problem that his detractors warn can result from a fatty diet.

The report surfaced less than a month after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was overheard saying Atkins was “fat,” a comment for which he eventually apologized. As she did then, Veronica Atkins, 66, the doctor’s widow, vehemently defended her husband and his legacy. “He did not have a heart attack,” she said in a statement. “I have been assured by my husband’s physicians that my husband’s health problems late in life were completely unrelated to his diet or any diet.” As for his high weight at the time of his death, an official for the Atkins Physicians Council says Atkins retained 60 lbs. of fluid after he entered the hospital in a coma.

Still, Atkins’s physical condition has been a source of debate ever since he suffered a cardiac arrest in 2002. His defenders insist he suffered from cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle probably caused by a virus. Critics, such as the animal-rights group that brought Atkins’s private medical information to the attention of the Journal (the medical examiner’s office says the report should not have been released), say Atkins’s health problems underscore the dangers of his theories. As for Veronica Atkins, still grieving from her husband’s death, she calls the latest flap “a sad and distracting sideshow” to the nation’s pressing fight against obesity.