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Florida Man Sues Atkins for Heart Disease Developed During Diet

May 26 , 2004
By Neal Barnard, M.D.

On May 26, 2004, Jody Gorran, a 53-year-old Florida businessman, filed suit against Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., and the Estate of Robert Atkins in a Florida court because of heart disease he developed while following the Atkins diet.

Gorran went on the Atkins diet in May of 2001, hoping to lose a few pounds. Before starting the diet, he had no symptoms of heart disease. His cholesterol level was a healthy 146 mg/dl. Just a few months earlier, Gorran had a heart scan, conducted incidentally as part of a medical exam, that showed no signs of disease. But after going on the diet, his cholesterol jumped to 230.

Despite the marked rise in cholesterol, Gorran continued to follow the diet’s recommendations, based on the belief that a low-carbohydrate diet would not lead to heart disease. On October 2, 2003, he developed chest pain (angina), which recurred over the next three weeks. On October 27, 2003, he required angioplasty and a stent. Gorran then contacted the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The lawsuit was filed in the County Court for Palm Beach County, Florida, for personal injuries Gorran suffered. The claims asserted are: 1) negligent misrepresentation, 2) products liability, and 3) a statutory claim under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Gorran seeks damages and an injunction preventing the sale of Atkins books and products without fair and adequate warnings.

Gorran’s legal case may be strengthened by recent scientific findings. Although weight loss normally causes cholesterol levels to fall, low-carbohydrate diets are so high in fat and cholesterol they appear to have the opposite effect for many people, raising cholesterol levels, sometimes dramatically. Researchers at the Lipid Research Clinics Trial at the George Washington University School of Medicine placed 24 men and women on a low-carbohydrate (Atkins) diet for eight weeks, using diet alone, without any supplements. Average LDL (“bad”) cholesterol increased by 23 mg/dl.

In a 2002 Atkins diet study conducted at Duke University and funded by the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, cholesterol levels fell in most participants, as is expected from weight loss. Cholesterol levels may also have been affected by the various supplements used in the program. However, in 29 percent of study completers, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels rose by an average of 18 mg/dl (the increases ranged from 4 to 53 mg/dl). One participant had an LDL cholesterol increase from 123 mg/dl to 225 mg/dl. The participant was treated by the study investigators with a “cholesterol-lowering nutritional supplement,” and the LDL cholesterol concentration then dropped to 176 mg/dl, which is still above recommended levels.

In a 2004 Duke University study, two low-carbohydrate diet participants dropped out of the study because of elevated cholesterol levels (one had an increase in LDL cholesterol from 182 mg/dl to 219 mg/dl in four weeks; the second had an increase from 184 mg/dl to 283 mg/dl in three months). A third developed chest pain and was subsequently diagnosed with coronary heart disease. Of the 45 low-carbohydrate study completers, 30 percent experienced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol increases of more than 10 percent. The investigators reported, “Perhaps the biggest concern about the low-carbohydrate diet is that the increase in fat intake will have detrimental effects on serum lipid [i.e., cholesterol] levels.”

In a study conducted at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and published in 2004, two participants died during low-carbohydrate dieting. One died of hyperosmolar coma five months into the study, and a second individual died of severe ischemic cardiomyopathy 10 months into the study. Average total cholesterol increased from 182 to 188 mg/dl, while LDL (“bad”) cholesterol increased from 112 to 120 mg/dl. The degree of change in cholesterol levels varied widely from one participant to the next.

Gorran is not asking for a large judgment. He is seeking less than $15,000 to cover his pain and suffering. He also seeks the return of sums spent on Atkins books and products and intends to donate any monies received to charity. His main goal is to insist on accountability and honesty among diet promoters.

“I felt overall that I'd been betrayed,” Gorran said. “I'm angry, because I looked at everything and this whole thing made sense. But the Atkins diet, there was no need for them to be pushing the saturated fat aspect. They could have gone with the low-carb and simply gone with more monounsaturated fats, more of the good fats. They didn't have to oversell it, over-hype it, make it so that it's so appealing for people to go on it, and wind up, perhaps, with a silent disease.”

PCRM is providing legal help to Gorran, but is not a party in the lawsuit.


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