War breaks out over Atkins' legacy
BEN MCCONVILLE IN NEW YORK
LOVED by image-conscious celebrities including Renee Zellweger, Minnie Driver, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, Dr Robert Atkins built a burgeoning industry around his low- carbohydrate diet.
Now, seven months after his death, the legacy of the diet guru is proving to be just as controversial as his weight-loss methods.
Rival colleagues of the late doctor are drawing battle lines over who should carry the torch of his $100 million (£59 million) a year empire. The row has broken out over who should get the biggest share of the lucrative patient base he left behind.
Controversy continues to dog the Atkins empire after health watchdogs earlier this month blamed the death of a teenager on the regime. The bread and pasta industry in the United States has also seen sales plummet as more Americans opt for a "low-carb" diet.
Dr Atkins, whose protein-only diet made him a fortune, died in April after slipping on ice on a pavement outside his office. The Atkins Centre for Complementary Medicine in Manhattan closed its doors on 15 October, in compliance with local laws on deceased doctors, but left thousands of patients without guidance.
Dr Keith Berkowitz, 34, an intern who had worked full-time at the centre for two months, opened a practice in Manhattan earlier this month under his own name and claims to have seen almost 200 former Atkins Centre patients.
But Dr Fred Pescatore, the Atkins diet-book author and Len Lipson, a psychotherapist at the Atkins Centre, have opened a rival practice, Partners in Integrative Medicine, on Madison Avenue.
Dr Lipson told the New York Post: "To have somebody carry [Atkins’s] banner with two months of training, that’s a bad joke. One thing’s for sure - it wasn’t clearly left up to the patients."
Dr Berkowitz insists he did not poach patients, saying they contacted him. He says Dr Atkins hired him as the centre’s business director with the intention of passing him the torch after he retired. He recently tried to buy the Atkins practice, but the sale was refused by executives from Atkins Nutritionals, a company that has marketing rights to the Atkins brand name and has endorsed more than 100 "low-carb" products.
Board members include Dr Atkins’s widow, Veronica, who was bequeathed most of her husband’s $10 million (£5.9 million) estate and is chairwoman of the charity foundation established in his name.
Investment firms Parthenon Capital and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners have bought a controlling stake in the 15-year-old company, which netted $100 million in sales last year and is expected to double its returns this year. Mrs Atkins said the investment was in keeping with her husband’s long-range plans.
Patients of the Atkins Centre have since received a letter informing them they should transfer their medical records and listing six doctors who follow the "Atkins nutritional approach". Because the list was alphabetical, Dr Berkowitz was named first. Dr Pescatore is fourth.
First published in 1972, the diet advocated a counter-intuitive approach to dieting that stressed consumption of high-protein, fatty products at the expense of carbohydrates.
According to the theories, eating virtually no carbohydrates causes the body to enter a state known as ketosis, in which it uses stored body fat as fuel. The unique selling point is that if dieters stick to certain types of foods, principally meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, they can theoretically eat as much as they want and yet lose weight.
The diet at first had few takers. But in recent years, ringing endorsements from high- profile Atkins adherents such as Zellweger and Pitt have helped transform a minority fad into a global phenomenon. But not all celebrities are enamoured by the diet. Lawyers for the actress Catherine Zeta Jones have said that she would sue if anyone suggested she had used the Atkins diet. It appears Zeta Jones, who disparages the diet, is worried that "many women who admire her beautiful appearance" may be lured into emulating her looks by turning to Atkins.
According to Atkins Nutritionals, about 25 million Americans are on the diet and nearly 100 million are adhering to some sort of "controlled carbohydrate" diet.
A health watchdog, Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, claimed the Atkins diet could cause severe kidney and heart disorders and had been linked to several deaths. Atkins officials hit back, accusing the committee of exploiting the obesity and diabetes crises in the US "to further its own vegan political and philosophical agenda".