Pritikin Will Eat No Fat, Atkins Will Eat No Grain—and That Feeds a Fierce Dispute Over Diet

updated 12/03/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Breakfasting within sight of each other during a recent diet conference, two of America's leading gurus of weight loss were in no mood to break bread—or chew the fat. At one table Dr. Robert Atkins gobbled down bacon, ham and eggs, but carefully pushed the toast to the side of his plate. Nearby, he says, Nathan Pritikin was munching on nothing but plain toast. "I looked over at him eating his dry bread," Atkins recalls scornfully. "And he looked so pathetic." What does Pritikin think of Atkins' bill of fare? "His diet is a monstrosity," Pritikin says. "It's really a malignancy of nutrition."

Medical disagreements rarely go public, but ever since a nasty run-in in October at the Society of Orthomolecular Medicine in Los Angeles, Atkins and Pritikin have been engaged in an escalating food war. Atkins, a 49-year-old New York cardiologist whose books have sold at least 10 million copies since 1972, accuses Pritikin of retailing an unpalatable diet largely for his own profit. Pritikin, a California inventor and nutritionist whose Program for Diet and Exercise has been on the best-seller list for the past six months, charges Atkins with perpetrating a lethal lie. "The Atkins diet is high in fat," he says. "Fat coats the red blood cells and they block the capillaries. A high-fat diet can kill you." (Pritikin tends to be critical of any diet plan but his. "Weight Watchers is better than Atkins," he says, then adds, "Anything is better than Atkins. The Scarsdale diet is also bad, but you stay on it for only two weeks.")

The collision between the two men seemed inevitable. For Atkins, the chief villain on the American menu is sugar—and he favors a regimen that is high in protein and fat, with almost no carbohydrates. "The advantage of my diet is that it is fun," he says. "My patients can eat meat or any other main course in whatever quantity they wish, and they never go hungry." The Atkins diet is also sky-high in cholesterol—and that makes Pritikin's blood boil. "He is talking about 1,200 milligrams of cholesterol a day—the equivalent of four eggs," says Pritikin. His diet calls for a carbohydrate-rich, cholesterol-poor program of grains, fruits, vegetables and a little fish or poultry. "Every country in the world that is on the kind of diet Atkins advocates has severe artery closure and high levels of cancer and diabetes—without exception."

The two experts also argue economics. Pritikin insists his "Third World" menu of grains and vegetables is far less expensive than Atkins' steak and lobster. Atkins jabs back at Pritikin's profitable Longevity Center in Santa Monica, Calif., where the average patient pays a $3,300 fee plus up to $1,300 medical expenses for 26 days of treatment. "His primary interest in longevity is in the longevity of the Longevity Center," Atkins quips. "After they go to Pritikin, they haven't got any money left for food." (Atkins' fee is $30 per visit, or about $800 a year for most patients.) Defending his fees, Pritikin argues that "any resort hotel will cost that much" and adds: "Practically all the money I've earned goes back into research. We have a budget for research of $700,000 next year. At 64, how much money do I need?"

Although the medical community has yet to agree on what is the ideal diet, Atkins has taken more lumps from his colleagues than Pritikin. A high-fat diet, some physicians say, can lead to heart disease. Deprived of carbohydrates, the body will burn fat for energy, producing ketones (acetone-like compounds) that may be harmful in high concentrations. Although ketosis suppresses hunger pangs, Atkins' critics charge that it can also aggravate kidney problems. "No one advocates ketosis as a way of dieting," says Pritikin. "It's too dangerous. What the Atkins diet does to your system is the same thing that happens in kidney failure."

Nonsense, says Atkins. "I've treated 16,000 patients on a ketogenic diet, and we've never seen an adverse reaction. It is 100 percent without risk if a person's problem is simply being overweight. The exception is a person with major impairment of kidney function—but I've never been called on to treat such a patient." Pritikin scoffs. "Atkins has never had any independent verification of his data," he says. "Everything you hear is from his mouth. The only thing I've seen in the medical literature about the Atkins diet is a warning in the AM A Journal not to follow it."

Pritikin's diet is indeed more consistent with conventional medical wisdom. Even Atkins admits, "I don't find fault with the Pritikin regimen as much as with his belief that his is the only way." Atkins' major specific quibble involves the five fruits a day that Pritikin allows. "Fruit is a simple carbohydrate," Atkins says, "and just like sugar it can trigger a flood of insulin into the blood that begins a hunger cycle." Atkins also disagrees with Pritikin's opinion that megavitamin supplements are worthless. "You can't take too many vitamins," Atkins believes. "Pollutants in the environment require vitamins to counteract them."

Atkins' general complaint about the Pritikin pitch—which some doctors share—is the promise it carries of long life through low fat. "No one has proved that with a lower cholesterol level you have a longer life," Atkins insists. "I don't want to call Pritikin a quack, but, for reasons which I can't disassociate from the fact that it's a moneymaking thing, he's refusing to see valid scientific points." Although Atkins concedes that the Pritikin diet may be perfectly healthy for some people, he insists that overweight patients can alleviate their hunger and lose pounds more pleasantly and permanently by following his theories.

Atkins' greatest ally is his menu. Given the choice of his dinner (shrimp cocktail, sirloin steak, Roquefort cheese and coffee with heavy cream) or Pritikin's (steamed vegetables over brown rice, fresh fruit and linden tea), only the truly committed dieter would think twice. "I've made dieting conceivable to a large segment of the population that is usually frightened off," says Atkins. His opponent offers a somewhat more Spartan crusade. "People can change their life-style," Pritikin insists. "In the next five years, half of the country will be on my diet."

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