The Truth About How Dr. Robert Atkins Died

Portrait of doctor Robert Atkins from the '70s
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Long after his death in 2003, the rumor that Dr. Robert Atkins "died of his own diet" persists. Concerns over his low-carb, high-fat diet have been a topic of much debate over the years and his death did little to quell them.

The falsehoods concerning Dr. Atkins' death were primarily propagated by the vegan group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine as well as related groups and individuals. A vocal opponent well before his death, Dr. Dean Ornish, was among those. He wrote an opinion piece in a March 2007 edition of Newsweek that contains some untruths, which were later retracted by the magazine*.

How did Dr. Atkins die and was his diet to blame? The answer is complicated and it is best to fully examine the facts of his life and death rather than listen to the rumors.

How Long Was Atkins in His Diet?

Dr. Atkins was a cardiologist who first developed his diet in the early 1970s. He was convinced that an excess of carbohydrate was having negative effects on his patients' health and weight.

Atkins 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 often and had many photos taken. By all accounts, he was healthy and fit for most of that time.

Cardiomyopathy

In 2000, Dr. Atkins developed cardiomyopathy, an incurable heart condition which has a number of different causes. It is thought that his cardiomyopathy was due to a viral illness. 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 because 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 Dr. Atkins 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 the doctor's company, Atkins Nutritionals, stated 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 pounds on admission to the hospital. This would give him a body mass index (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. In the fall, he hit his head and this caused 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. His weight at death was recorded at 258 pounds (again, records say that he was 195 upon entering the hospital). His death certificate states that the cause of death was "blunt impact injury of head with epidural hematoma."

Following this, Dr. Richard Fleming, a Nebraska doctor known to be anti-Atkins and associated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, requested Dr. Atkins' medical records. These should not have been released but were mistakenly sent nonetheless.

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." 

A 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 because the misconceptions remain to this day.

A Word From Verywell

The actual cause of Dr. Atkins' death, according to the reports, was the head injury that he sustained, rather than the diet program he created. However, these facts should not be used to determine whether or not the Atkins Diet is right for you. Speak with your doctor, a nutritionist, or a dietician and ask any questions you have. They can offer the best advice for your weight loss goals.

* 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."

View Article Sources
  • Kleinfield NR. Just What Killed the Diet Doctor, And What Keeps the Issue Alive?  New York Times. February 11, 2004.
  • Leith W. The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. London, UK; Bloomsbury Publishing: 2005.
  • Rowland R. Atkins Diet Author Home After Cardiac Arrest. CNN. April 25, 2002.
  • Teicholz N. The Rivalry Between Atkins and Ornish. In: The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. New York, NY; Simon & Schuster: 2014.