Oct. 31--The Atkins diet has gone from phenomenon to facing a backlash, and now the iconic weight loss plan is in the crosshairs of aggrieved patients and a pro-vegetarian group raising questions about its safety -- and bent on suing it out of existence.
Last week in a Florida courtroom, a judge heard preliminary arguments on the nation's first anti-Atkins lawsuit, filed by 54-year-old Jody Gorran, who said two years on the diet left him with arteries so clogged that only emergency angioplasty saved his life. Gorran seeks little money, and instead wants the court to force Atkins Nutritionals, the firm behind the diet, to print warning labels saying the diet may be "hazardous to your health" on its books and products.
The lawsuit, however, is based on untested and weak legal theories, said legal specialists interviewed. The judge is expected to rule within weeks whether the case can go to trial. Nonetheless, the group representing Gorran, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for nonmeat diets, plans to keep bringing lawsuits until one makes it into the trial stage, when the group's lawyers can subpoena Atkins officials and internal company documents.
"We'd like to see Atkins become one of those fads that disappears into the dust," said Gorran's lawyer, Daniel Kinburn.
After last Tuesday's court hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Atkins Nutritionals issued a statement saying, "We believe Mr. Gorran's complaint is utterly without merit."
"Supported by over 36 peer-reviewed medical studies, Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. stands by its scientifically-validated approach in support of its vision to change the way the world eats to promote good health," the statement said.
The Gorran case involves a charge that has dogged the Atkins diet from its inception three decades ago: that eating a high-protein diet filled with meat will lead to high cholesterol and heart problems. The latest studies indicate that the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet actually lowers cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors even more than a low-fat diet -- over a one-year period. It has not been tested beyond one year, and little is known about how effective or safe the Atkins diet is in the long term.
In fact, it's unclear if the Atkins diet keeps weight off in the long term. Studies show, when compared to low-fat diets, Atkins dieters lose more weight in the first six months, but the weight loss slows in the next six months.
Several studies on the long-term effects of the diet are underway. Nutritionists and dietary specialists measure the success of diets in terms of years.
Gorran was on the Atkins diet for more than two years, beginning in May 2001. He was still a trim 165 pounds, at 5 feet 8 inches, but felt pounds coming on as he aged. It was a time when Dr. Robert C. Atkins, founder of the diet, was becoming an icon for an increasingly overweight US population. Suddenly, banishing carbohydrates became all the rage, and Atkins's books and products flew off the shelves.
"I thought he knew something that no one else knew," said Gorran in an interview.
So, the retired owner of a solar panel manufacturing firm bought the book, and off he went: "I was eating more meat. A lot more fatty meat. Steaks, hamburgers. Lunch was always tuna with mayonnaise and chicken. I put mayonnaise on everything. I stayed pretty pure to low carbs for months."
Gorran lost 8 pounds in three months. Shortly before his diet, his total cholesterol was 146, according to medical documents outlined in court papers. But after two months on the diet, it was 230, 30 points above the safety threshold for a man his age, according to government cholesterol guidelines.
But Gorran decided to continue -- and this is a point of contention in the case.
In its legal brief to throw the case out, Atkins Nutritionals said Gorran erred: "He apparently chose to ignore the warning and to substitute his own perverse interpretation of the Atkins program for the advice of his own physician."
But Gorran maintains the Atkins books preached nonchalance toward cholesterol.
"I didn't think anything of it . . . the book said, basically, don't worry about it," he said.
In October 2003, Gorran was walking in New York City when he felt a pain like "someone pushing their fist into my breastbone." Back home in Delray Beach, Fla., the pain returned when he exercised. His doctor found one of Gorran's heart arteries was 99 percent blocked. A scan before he went on the diet showed no significant blockages, according to court documents.
He had an emergency angioplasty, in which a balloon was inserted into the diseased artery and inflated, restoring normal blood flow. And he went off Atkins, adopting a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean meats. Within two months, his cholesterol was down to 146.
Feeling betrayed, Gorran was browsing the Web one day and found the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine site, which advertised that it sought patients harmed by the Atkins diet.
The committee selected Gorran for its first anti-Atkins suit, charging in court papers that the company pushed a diet they knew could harm some people without adequate warning. The Atkins books do advise people to seek the advice of doctors before dieting and to closely monitor heart risk factors. But Gorran's suit argues the warning is inadequate, buried within pages of anticarbohydrate diatribes.
Gorran wants a cigarette pack-like warning placed on Atkins products: "WARNING -- Low-Carbohydrate diets may be hazardous to your health -- check with your physician."
Atkins Nutritionals countered that the case was a "public relations-oriented diatribe" by a "notorious vegan activist organization," according to court papers. The company argued that the content of books is protected against lawsuits by the First Amendment.
Einer Elhauge, a specialist on health care law at Harvard Law School, agreed with that contention. "I would think it would be difficult to get a publisher to change what they say in a book," he said, adding that if Gorran were to prevail, a wide range of publications, from other diet books to scientific journals to newspapers, could be held accountable for those acting on advice contained within their pages.
As for Gorran, he said he is on a low-fat diet consisting mostly of skinless chicken, fish, and generous servings of vegetables. He avoids red meat, though confessed to a steak dinner on his birthday.
"I think we're going to open up a lot of people's eyes with this lawsuit," said Gorran.
To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.boston.com/globe.
(c) 2004, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprintskrtinfo.com.