Paging Dr. Fatkins?

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TED THAI

Atkins in a photo taken in 1999. His wife says his heart disease came from a viral infection

You can try religion or politics, but if you want to get a real fight going, talk about your diet. The low-fat vs. low-carb battle got ugly last week, with both sides arguing over how hefty a corpse Dr. Robert Atkins left behind. Not since the death of Ayatullah Khomeini have people fought so much over a dead body. From the moment Atkins died from head injuries after slipping on a patch of ice in Manhattan last April at age 72, the low-fat fanatics have been trying to prove the low-carb guru had been on a diet to disaster. Atkins did have heart disease, and suffered a cardiac arrest in 2002, but his family and staff maintain his heart problems were due to a viral infection that disrupted his heart's rhythm and not the steaks and cheese cubes he ingested and promoted. It was the calorie-free ice, the Atkins industry insisted, that did him in. But his family declined to have an autopsy done, and suspicion grew among rival diet groups, especially because his body was cremated. Somewhere in L.A., CSI writers are planning a three-parter.

The rumble started anew when Richard Fleming, a cardiologist in Omaha, Neb., who opposes the Atkins regimen, somehow got the New York City medical examiner's office to send him Atkins' confidential medical report. Such reports are meant to be given only to the next of kin or a physician who has treated the patient. Fleming, who was neither, handed the records to a pro-vegetarian group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an organization that opposes the meat-loving Atkins movement so vehemently it has a website called atkinsdietalert.org. The committee then sent the medical examiner's report to the Wall Street Journal. Details from the report, published last week in the Journal, showed that Atkins left a 258-lb., 6-ft. corpse. Atkins' widow Veronica threatened to sue. But by then anti-fat bloggers — and we all know how cruel they can be — were already calling him Dr. Fatkins.


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Atkins Nutritionals, which has parlayed the low-carb concept into a food business with annual revenues of more than $100 million, countered by sending USA Today a hospital record showing that Atkins weighed 195 lbs. when he was admitted in April, a detail that is supported by photographs of Atkins taken in the weeks before his mishap. While he was on life support, the Atkins camp claimed, he retained fluids that caused him to balloon 63 lbs. "He became essentially unrecognizable, he was so bloated," said Dr. Stuart Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physicians Council. That IV, it turns out, is bad for the figure.

As for the health of his heart — which is the real question for many who believe that the fat-rich Atkins diet may help shed pounds but could raise cholesterol to dangerous levels — the medical report noted that Atkins had a history of myocardial infarction (translation: heart attack), congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. The Atkins people insist his coronary arteries were fine until he got a viral infection three years ago that reduced his heart's pumping capacity to 15% to 20% of normal, just shy of making him a candidate for a transplant. But conspiracy theorists wanted to attribute Atkins' condition to his fat-skewed diet and speculated that his heart, not his feet, caused the fall to the ice. "The Atkins corporation has been saying that Dr. Atkins was essentially the picture of good health, that he had healthy arteries. I think this is misleading the public," says Amy Lanou, PCRM's nutrition director.

Even before the fat fracas ignited a war of facts, it had already dragged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the lardy mix. At a fire fighters' carb-laden pasta lunch on Jan. 20, when Bloomberg didn't realize he was being filmed by a local TV station, he said, "I don't believe that bulls___, that he dropped dead slipping on the sidewalk." Bloomberg also said the Atkins-friendly food he once sampled at the deceased doctor's home was so bad "I had to spit it into my napkin." And he called Atkins "fat." When pressed by Veronica Atkins for an apology, Bloomberg initially refused, then, remembering he's not just a cantankerous billionaire but also a politician, invited her to "a steak dinner — no potatoes." She backed out last week.

The arguments are bitter because the stakes are high: 17 million Americans are estimated to have tried a low-carb diet within the past year. And people get testy when they're told their rigorous diet might be bad for them. There's nothing worse than finding out you ate 875 bacon strips just for the taste.