How Did Atkins Die?

The truth about Atkins' death

Dr. Robert Atkins
Dr. Robert Atkins. Getty Images News

Long after his death in 2003, the rumor that Dr. Robert Atkins "died of his own diet" persists. The falsehoods concerning his death have been mainly propagated by the vegan group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and related groups and individuals. However, even the mainstream media is not blameless. For example, in March 2007, Newsweek magazine published an opinion piece by Dr. Dean Ornish which contained the same untruths, which were later retracted by the magazine*.

Here are the facts as I have been able to ascertain them.

How long was Atkins on his diet?

Dr. Atkins was a cardiologist who first developed his diet in the early '70s, after becoming convinced that an excess of carbohydrate was having negative effects on his patients' health and weight. He published his first book, Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution in 1972, and many times over the years stated that he followed his plan himself. He was very public, appearing on television many times and having many photos taken. By all accounts, he was healthy and fit for most of that time.


In 2000, Dr. Atkins developed cardiomyopathy, an incurable heart condition which has quite a few different causes. His was thought to be from a viral illness, and his physician stated at the time that there was no evidence that his diet contributed to the condition. His coronary arteries were reported to have been checked at that time and found to be free of blockages.

Cardiomyopathy makes it more likely that a person will have a cardiac arrest (heart stopping), which happened to Dr. Atkins two years after his diagnosis. Again, the cardiac arrest was not thought to be diet related, as, again, his coronary arteries were clear. His cardiologist stated that (other than the cardiomyopathy), Atkins had "an extraordinarily healthy cardiovascular system."

Was Atkins Overweight?

William Leith, a writer who interviewed him around the time of his cardiac arrest stated that "he looks to be just under 6 feet tall and around 200 lbs – not skinny, not thin, but definitely not fat." A report from Atkins Nutritionals states that he played tennis competitively and that his weight was frequently checked, and in the years before his death it remained below 195, and six feet tall. A medical report at the time of his admission to the hospital, which was later made public by his widow, states that he was 195 lbs on admission to the hospital. This would give him a BMI of 26, which is just over the range considered to be "normal weight" - at most he was very slightly overweight.

Atkins' Death

On April 8, 2003, at age 72, Dr. Atkins slipped on the ice while walking to work, hitting his head and causing bleeding around his brain. He lost consciousness on the way to the hospital, where he spent two weeks in intensive care. His body deteriorated rapidly and he suffered massive organ failure. During this time, his body apparently retained an enormous amount of fluid, and his weight at death was recorded at 258 pounds (again, records say that he was 195 on entering the hospital).

His death certificate states that the cause of death was "blunt impact injury of head with epidural hematoma."

Following this, a Nebraska doctor (Richard Fleming) known to be anti-Atkins, and associated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, requested Dr. Atkins' medical records, which should not have been released, but which mistakenly were sent. The Medical Examiner's report had a hand-written note that Atkins had a history of myocardial infarction (heart attack), congestive heart failure, and hypertension (written "h/o MI, CHF, HTN"). The above Committee made much of this and began the rumor that Atkins had "died of his own diet".

The misconceptions remain to this day.

The year following his death, his widow released a statement taking what she called "unscrupulous individuals" to task for spreading falsehoods about her husband.

Apparently, those individuals are still having a measure of success.

* In March 2007, Newsweek magazine published a correction stating, "An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate account of events surrounding the death of Dr. Robert Atkins. Newsweek regrets the error."

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