A Lot To Lose: Atkins Controversy

It Works But Is It Safe?

Scott Plavner, a Philadelphia businessman, stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 228 pounds.

He has a body that in his words "was built by Hershey's." A typical breakfast for him is a Coke and Tastee Cake, reports Correspondent Erin Moriarity.

Even though he suffered a heart attack five years ago at the age of 40, it wasn't until recently that he realized he needed to do something about his weight. And it was his 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, who brought him to that realization.

"If I want to see my daughter get married and see my grandchildren," he tells 48 Hours, "I've gotta change or I'm not gonna be here."

Like millions of Americans over the last three decades, Scott has chosen the Dr. Atkins diet, which allows him to eat all the burgers and eggs he wants.

For 30 years, Manhattan-based Robert Atkins has defied the medical establishment with his high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that goes against everything taught about nutrition.

"We've got an epidemic of obesity and an epidemic of diabetes because of what everybody's being taught," Atkins says, "and we have to put an end to the epidemic."

The Atkins Difference
The Atkins diet differs from other plans because it recommends menus that are low in carbohydrates but high in fats and cholesterol.

To see what this means to the typical dieter, compare an Atkins' menu plan with one offered by the federal government on the National Institutes of Health Web site.

Atkins puts the blame for the epidemic squarely on the government and its familiar food pyramid with a heavy emphasis on bread, pasta and rice.

Since his book, "The Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution," was first published in 1972, some 30 million Americans have tried his diet. The book, now out in a new edition, has been one of the best-selling books of all time.

Atkins claims that without carbohydrates and foods loaded with sugar, the body is forced to burn fat for energy and that, he says, will take off pounds. The foods allowed on the diet are loaded with fat and high in cholesterol but they contain almost no carbohydrates.

All this advice about getting thin has allowed Atkins and his wife, Veronica, to live large.

At 71 , he still sees patients four days a week and earned an estimated $6 million in the year 2000 from a growing empire that includes a Web site, weekly radio program and his own line of food products.

The couple, who have no children, spend weekends in their Southhampton estate, where Atkins pursues tennis, his latest passion, and weekdays in a multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartment, filled with examples of another of Atkins' passions - art.

But his success has come at a high price: the disdain of many of his peers who say his diet may lead to high cholesterol and heart damage. Just last fall, the American Heart Association issued a blistering advisory against going on high fat diets like Atkins'.

Gary Foster, a psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania's Weight and Eating Disorders clinic, had been asked so many questions about the Atkins diet he decided to study it.

"We didn't know what to expect. But we did have concerns about long term sustainability," he tells 48 Hours.

What he discovered surprised him. In his study of 50 obese men and women, those on the Atkins diet lost more than twice as much weight as those who followed the USDA pyramid recommendations. What's more, the Atkins dieters stuck with it longer.

Heart risk indicators are a mixed bag.

"LDL, the bad cholesterol, goes up; that's not so good," Foster says. "On the other hand, HDL, the good cholesterol, goes up. That's good. And triglycerides go down significantly, and that's also good.

The bottom line, says Foster, is that the Atkins diet is definitely worth a closer look, and now, for the first time in his long career, Atkins, a cardiologist by training, is being invited to speak at medical schools.

But a doctor in the audience at one of Atkins' presentations says that while he himself lost 20 pounds on the Atkins diet, he cannot recommend it to his patients because of the high fat content.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia businessman Scott Plavner has lost 15 pounds on the diet and says he feels "fabulous." He has taken three inches off his waist; nearly all of his cholesterol readings have improved.

"We've saved my life," Plavner says. "We've turned it around. I've got more time to be with my daughter, I feel like I've got another chance at life."

July 2002 Update:

Dr. Atkins turns 72 in October, and is back to working 4 days a week, after having cardiac arrest in April of this year.

Atkins' cardiac arrest was caused by an infection of the heart he had been suffering from for several years. He did not have a heart attack which is caused by clogged or hardening of the arteries, and the cardiac arrest was not related to his diet.

As far as the Atkin's diet is concerned, the National Institutes of Health has for the first time decided to study whether the diet is helpful or harmful.

July 2002 Update

Since January, Plavner has lost an additional 15 lbs., for a total weight loss of 30 lbs.

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