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CNN Crossfire

Atkins' Diet: Can We Have Our Turkey and Eat it Too?

November 26, 1999



Aired November 25, 1999 - 7:30 p.m. ET

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: On this Thanksgiving day, hold the stuffing, hold the mashed potatoes, hold the cranberry sauce, but pass the turkey. That's what those on the high-protein Atkins' diet are saying. Is it anything to celebrate?

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in New York, Dr. Robert Atkins, founder and medical director of the Atkins Center for Complimentary Medicine; and Barbara Levine, director of human nutrition at Rockefeller University.

PRESS: Good evening, happy Thanksgiving, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Now, we know after eating all that turkey tonight, you are feeling as stuffed as that turkey used to be, and thinking maybe it's time to go on a diet. So do we have the perfect show for you, and maybe before it's over, even the perfect diet. No doubt, the most popular diet in America today is the high-protein diet, low carbo, developed by Dr. Robert Atkins, who promises you can eat the delicious meals you like, never count calories, enjoy a good cheeseburger when you're hungry, even top things off with dessert and still lose weight. Sound too good to be true? It is, say his critics, who warn that pigging out on protein, and cutting back so severely on carbohydrates is not healthy for the body and could actually cause kidney or other problems. Sounds confusing doesn't it? Well, tonight, Mary who is dieting, but should not be, and I who am not dieting but should be will try to sort it all out for you and for us -- Mary.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Well, we should point to our viewers that the TV adds 10 pounds, Bill.

PRESS: Twenty, in my case, I think. 

MATALIN: All right. That's right. Dr. Atkins, it's an honor to be with you tonight. I've grown up with you. I can't remember a time in my life I haven't been on the Atkins' diet, and I -- in this case, I have been on it for four days, have lost five pounds, and that includes cheating, and I feel good, at least I did feel good until I started reading for the first time some of the criticisms of the diet. Starting with the most logical one, if you listen to that menu that Bill just ticked through, this is from Elizabeth Ward of the American Dietetics Association, she says, "It's a heart attack waiting to happen. That is, if you can stay on long enough." For decades, Doctor, we have been told minimize your red meat, stay away from those fats. On the Atkins' diet, you can eat a slab of bacon, you can eat a side of beef, you can take a bath in cheese. This is counter intuitive. How can that be?

DR. ROBERT ATKINS, AUTHOR, "DR. ATKINS' NEW DIET REVOLUTION": It's countered to the misinformation that the American Heart Association has been putting out. Just look at a package of Fruit Loops and you will see the American Heart Association's seal of approval on that box, and that's a junk cereal that's full of sugar, has nothing in it besides sugar and starch, and the American Heart thinks that's good. Yes, I'm very, very proud to take a position quite contrary to theirs.

Remember, I am a practicing cardiologist and have been so for 40 years. People come to me because they were told they need a bypass, and they don't want to, obviously. They go on my program, they no longer need the bypass. It's a heart attack waiting to be stopped. That's what we accomplished, and people who say that, this is what they're doing: they're reasoning an ivory tower kind of logic, but they haven't looked at the bottom line.

We have 9 1/2 million copies of "New Diet Revolution" in print. We have -- more than 9 people have followed the diet and have gotten the same kind of results that my patients get, which is that their cholesterol gets better, their risk factors improve, the triglyceride plummets, the blood pressure drops if it's elevated, the blood sugar becomes normal. All of the risk factors get better. Now, how can you have a heart attack if every known risk factor for a heart attack is getting better?

MATALIN: Well, that makes sense. Let's go, then, through some of the other concerns about the Atkins' diet, starting with mineral depletion, in particular, calcium depletion a concern of menopausal women, not that I'm quite there yet. What about that?

ATKINS: All right. Dr. Hurta Spencer (ph) did some very important work. First place, the work on the calcium was done on giving protein powder. Once they did it with meat, which is what's on my diet, not protein powder, it didn't happen. Also, once they stayed on the diet for more than three weeks, the calcium loss stopped and for the rest of the 50 years that you are on your diet, you don't have calcium loss. That has been, in other words, refuted scientifically.

PRESS: Dr. Levine, good evening. Happy holiday, thank you for joining us.


PRESS: I guess I have an old copy of this book on my shelf, because it says more than 6 million copies in print -- this is the "New Diet Revolution" by Dr. Atkins. He now tells us there are 9 1/2 million copies in print. I read somewhere where two out of every 100 adult Americans have a copy of this book. So, millions of people have tried this diet, and have shed millions and millions of pounds. How can you argue with such success, Doctor?

LEVINE: Well, I haven't been in practice for 40 years, probably about 20 years, but I do remember Dr. Atkins' book in 1972, 1973, when he said he was sorry at one point and was put in front of a U.S. select committee on nutrition, because people had elevations in cholesterol and triglycerides. I do want to debate him -- and I know Hurta Spencer, and have known her quite well over the last decade or so, and that I don't agree with what he is saying in terms of the protein loss for one fact. I do -- I'm a postdoc in calcium metabolism and osteoporosis.

I do work at the Rockefeller University, we do metabolic studies. I work with Dr. Jules Hirsch (ph) and his metabolic unit, and we have tested his diet, many other diets, and I have to say a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. One thing that we know with Dr. Atkins' diet -- don't want to argue with success -- but if it's fluid loss, and that's exactly what happens when you raise the protein and lower the carbohydrates too much, you are getting dehydrated. You lose fluid from your cells and you're worried about other problems, metabolic problems like ketosis, calcium loss, as I mentioned, when the protein goes up too high, and you are concerned about losing lean body mass.

PRESS: OK. I hear your concerns, Doctor. I have to tell you at the same time, if you walk the halls of CNN you will hear person after person, male and female says, I have been on this diet, lost weight, I feel great. I mean, you read the testimonials in the paper. Wouldn't you have to agree that it is working for a lot of people?

LEVINE: Well, if you want to be in the "National Enquirer," and lose 20 pounds in a week or so on or so forth because you're peeing out, so to speak, a lot of fluid, that's fine. But when you then go back on a higher carbohydrate, a lower protein diet, on the same calories...


PRESS: Just finish your point, and then we'll get the doctor in. Go ahead, Dr. Atkins, I know you wanted to jump in there.

ATKINS: Yes, I mean, this is absolutely ridiculous. The whole idea that the diet doesn't work when you go off of it. That's the whole point. Why would you go off of it? Here is a diet that's fun to eat. It has rib-eye steak, and roast beef, it has lobster and butter, it has salmon and vernaisse (ph) sauce, and it has a lot of salad, a lot of vegetables. It's a wonderful diet. There is no junk food in it. Everybody loves it, as you heard everybody loves it. Meanwhile, you have hypothetical reasons.

We've got real human beings who have been on this diet, and they'll tell you exactly what happens. They've never felt better in their life. If they have medical problems such as diabetes, their need for medication goes away. If they have high blood pressure, their need for medication goes away. Heart disease reversed. What more do you need? These are real people. And studies have been done and you have ignored them. Studies have been shown showing that the diet works and helps the risk factor. PRESS: Dr. Levine?

LEVINE: Yes. We have done studies, and what we show when we give specific diets in a metabolic setting where we note everything that everybody is getting, we know that a calorie is a calorie. You can give... ATKINS: Yes, if you've done...


PRESS: One at a time, please. Go ahead, Dr. Levine, finish your point, then -- please.

LEVINE: Give 1,500 calories, or 1,200 calories of Haagen-Dazs, or 1,200 calories and a truckload full of lettuce, you can lose the same amount of weight; however, when you give such a high-protein diet, you are getting dehydrated, you're taxing the kidneys, you are losing bone mass and calcium, and you really are, particularly those who have a high propensity or genetic propensity toward heart disease with elevated cholesterol levels or triglyceride levels, you are going to elevate them. However, I must say that 55 percent of this nation is overweight, many of us to the extent that we are obese, meaning more than 30 pounds overweight. I agree entirely that we should all lose weight, but we have to do it responsibly and...

PRESS: All right.

LEVINE: ... and the other thing that I want to say is when you try to get rid of the carbohydrates, et cetera -- and I always say go back to the garden, you need fruits, and vegetables, and grains, you need those fido-chemicals, you need those antioxidants that may prove to be very important in heart disease, cancer prevention, et cetera.

PRESS: Quick response, Doctor.

ATKINS: We have heard so many inaccuracies, so much misinformation in the past two minutes, it's unbelievable. The idea that a diet which has been shown since the '60s to drop the triglycerides by 70 percent, that it would raise them. This means that you have no experience whatever in the diet. You say you know about diets, and I'm sure you do, but you don't have experience with the low-carbohydrates diet, because no one who has experience with the low-carbohydrate diet would make these inaccuracies.

MATALIN: OK, Doctor.

ATKINS: Now admit it! Will you please admit that you have had no experience with a really, truly low intake of carbohydrates?

MATALIN: How about this Dr. Atkins? Let me say I have had 30 years of experience with these low-carb diets, and I have to say, even though you picture that yummy, yummy menu earlier, my sentiments kind of echo this of another former Atkins' dieter, "Not having any pasta or potatoes is not a life worth living." Come on, the way to lose -- to keep the weight off is to stay on the Atkins' diet, and the minute you start slowly adding back carbohydrates, you start quickly adding back pounds.

LEVINE: Mary, if I may call you Mary, I just...

ATKINS: Wait a second, Mary.

PRESS: The question, first, is directed to Dr. Atkins, please, then Dr. Levine.

ATKINS: Yes. Because we teach people how to deviate from the diet. I have potatoes, but I know how to control it. People -- once they've been on the diet, the first thing that comes to their mind, this is something I'm going to do the rest of my life. Now, there's a maintenance diet. The maintenance diet doesn't have to be the same as the induction diet, which is for serious weight loss. You can begin to add things. Yes, you can have some pasta once in a while, certainly you can have some French fries once in awhile, because it doesn't take you over your critical carbohydrate level for maintenance. That's a higher number. So, of course, you can have these things, but you have to know how to do it. My life has been worth living. I've been on the diet for 36 years, and I have never had a meal that I didn't like.

PRESS: Your point quickly, Dr. Levine? I heard you jump in there.

LEVINE: Let's do an experiment of nature. In those cultures where they really have carbohydrate-based diets, whether it's rice, or cous-cous, or cornmeal, or whatever, you are looking at people that are not obese. We are the most obese nation in the world, it's because we eat far too much fat, far too much protein that's laden with fat, and I don't think it's -- and I do take an objection to what Dr. Atkins said. I have been at Rockefeller University, Cornell University medical college doing metabolic unit studied by the NIH, and we do know a calorie is a calorie. We have studied his diet and people that have, and one out of two of us have elevated lipids, lipids go up on this sort of diet.

MATALIN: All right, Doctor.

ATKINS: What about the millions of people -- we have 40,000 people that show the opposite. Now, there is something wrong with your research.

MATALIN: OK, doctors, doctors. Please, we have to take a break. It's time for everybody to run out to their ice box and grab a snack. We'll be right back with more dieting tips after you pork up. Stay with us.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Not to rub it in, while you're trying to forget about that second third helping of pumpkin pie, but tonight we're focusing on fat with one doctor whose diet is sweeping the country again, Robert Atkins, and another who advocates eat right for life, Barbara Levine -- Bill. PRESS: OK. Dr. Levine, I think we would all agree that the key is not just taking off the weight, the key is also keeping the weight off. Now, here's a diet that let's you eat what you like to eat. Isn't this just then basically a diet that people can get on and want to stay on? Isn't that -- I mean, what maybe makes it so popular?

LEVINE: Well, as you said in the beginning, it's too good to be true, and it is. As a matter of fact, I'm speaking here not only for myself at the Rockefeller University and Cornell Medical College, but also for the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Diabetes Association. We think this diet is dangerous, and I know that Dr. Atkins is selling a lot of books, and he's selling a lot of his time to patients, and he has a lot of patients, but truly the recidivism or the return of their weight is really something that he hasn't published or done good studies on.

PRESS: Well, that's the second time tonight you mentioned heart disease, and I saw today a study from Harvard Medical School just a few months ago that did a study of 80,000 women, and their finding was that those women who have a high protein intake are 26 percent less likely to have heart disease than other women. So doesn't that show that the Atkins' diet is actually good for you?

LEVINE: But let's fine-tune that. I am not against protein. I think lean protein, particularly fish, which has a lot of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids such as DHA and EPA may be very protective against heart disease. I'm talking about lean fish, or lean chicken, meaning without the skin, or even lean beef, there's a place in the diet for all of those things, with fruits and vegetables. But you have to remember that we're not talking about a lot of prime ribs of beef, as Dr. Atkins said before, or filet mignons with vernaisse sauce and cheese cake, and cheese sauces. This is not the


PRESS: Sounds good to me.

LEVINE: I mean, if it worked I would do it. I love to eat. I have a fat tooth. We don't have sweet tooth, we have a fat tooth. I would love to do it. If I could lose weight on that diet and stay healthy I would be the first one to do it, but I cannot.

MATALIN: OK. Dr. Atkins, Dr. Levine...

ATKINS: I have to say, if your mind weren't so narrow, your waist would be. I'm really -- this is ridiculous. People don't quite understand why the diet works.

LEVINE: How did you -- did you find that as a joke?

ATKINS: We have to explain how the diet works so people understand why a protein is not the best choice, that fat is better. Because what you want to do is burn your fat if you're overweight. Now the signal for burning fat is there should be no carbohydrates. Protein -- 60 percent of protein takes the carbohydrate pathway, so it can't be a protein and carbohydrate diet. It has to be a diet which has protein and fat and no carbohydrates, otherwise you don't get the automatic switch over to burning your stored fat, and that's the key to success. That's why so many people have done it.

MATALIN: OK, Doctor Atkins...

ATKINS: And people are making it sound like, how could there have been 10 million people buying the book? All because they're hearing it from their friends and their workmates how well it works. How could that be if it didn't work, if it didn't help your health?

MATALIN: All right. Dr. Atkins, before we run out of time, you have been on the diet for 36 years. Do you -- is it true you take 60 vitamins a day?

ATKINS: I try to.


ATKINS: I believe in vitamins.

MATALIN: Well, that does not speak well for the diet if it needs to be supplemented...

ATKINS: No, it speaks well for my knowledge of vitanutrients. I take them because I have learned in my study of vitanutrients how valuable they can be. I'm looking to do things above and beyond what other people can achieve. I'm looking to be by the age of 100 still young and active and functioning well, and for that I'm going to need some extra vitamins. That's what my research in vitanutrients has shown me. It doesn't mean my diet is inadequate. It has been shown that our diet is more nutrient dense than the diet consumed according to the government recommendation. And the American Heart Association -- can you imagine they have their seal of approval on Fruit Loops.

LEVINE: Well -- let's be realistic.

PRESS: Let me jump in here, Doctor, if I can. I just want to -- I know we're running out of time -- but I have to get to the important stuff here with both of you. And I -- you can start, Dr. Levine, all right. I would say that a day without wine is a day not worth living. Do you have a diet that will enable me to have a glass of wine and maybe an occasional martini, or is that just forbidden to both of you?

LEVINE: Well, I think -- and if you look at the French paradox in all of that, the issue about alcohol is in very, in moderation, certainly in moderation. Count the calories. If you have a glass of wine and it's three or four ounces, it's going to be 80 to 90 calories. You have to take that into consideration. But a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. And again, I stand behind the Heart Association, American Diabetes and American Dietetic Association, and I don't want to sound boring. It's Thanksgiving. You know, I want to say salud! But, it sounds more when I speak to Dr. Atkins that it's Halloween and this is really scary stuff.

PRESS: Dr. Atkins, you will allow me to have a glass of wine on your good diet there with everything else I like? ATKINS: Absolutely. It belongs in the maintenance diet and even in the ongoing weight loss phase of the diet if that's what you want.

MATALIN: All right. Doctors, thank you so much. All this debate has really given me an appetite.

PRESS: Leaves me hungrier than ever.

MATALIN: We want to thank Dr. Atkins, Dr. Levine. And Bill and I will be back with our closing comments after this quick break.


PRESS: Mary, I just have to point out, number one, that Monica Lewinsky is working for Jenny Craig, not for Dr. Atkins. She has it wrong again. And the other thing is, I have never in my life -- this is a present for Thanksgiving. Never in my life have I had a fried pork skin, but these are allowed on this stupid diet you're on.

MATALIN: How Busharian of you. I eat these just in tribute of George Bush, this is his favorite food.

PRESS: I am going to have one, and I want you to have one, too.

MATALIN: Listen, it's not a stupid diet. It's not that I need -- I don't have a weight problem, I have a distribution problem. Everything is hanging in a little bit different of a place.

PRESS: People eat these -- wait a minute.

MATALIN: Well, look.


MATALIN: You're not going to die from a heart problem. You're going to choke.

PRESS: No, I'm not. But all I can say is, as long as Dr. Atkins said that I can have a glass of wine with the diet...

MATALIN: Apparently, you have already had a glass of wine on this Thanksgiving show.

PRESS: You get to eat all the rest.

MATALIN: All right. We just need to add for our viewers the best advice, because we never got to it on this show, you have to work out to pig out, to quote our...

PRESS: I just have to tell you, after listening to those two, I'm more confused about the diet than ever.

From the left, Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. Happy Thanksgiving. I'll see you tomorrow night.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Happy holidays. Join us again for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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