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$5 million gift sets up obesity-medicine center

  • April 12, 2005
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From St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 2005 by Judith VandeWater

A $5 million gift from the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation will establish a center at Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital to advance the field of obesity medicine.

The center is named for Atkins and his widow, Veronica Atkins, but its purpose is not to further research of the late doctor''s widely popular, yet still-controversial diet, which favors butter, steak and eggs over fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

"The purpose is to support advances in the field of obesity research and to prevent and treat obesity in the community," said Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Veronica and Robert C. Atkins Center for Excellence in Obesity Medicine.

Klein, a gastroenterologist and nutritional biochemist, also directs the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University.

Even a small weight loss, if maintained for life, can have health benefits, he said.

The university''s Weight Management Program uses multiple dietary approaches and surgery to treat obesity, Klein said.

Gary Harris, 59, a history teacher at Cleveland NJROTC High School, has fought the battle of the bulge since he was discharged from the service in 1966. Ten years ago, he lost 97 pounds on a three-month liquid diet program administered by another hospital. But the pounds came back when he returned to solid foods.

He renewed his determination to diet after he ran into a friend who had lost 100 pounds on the Washington University program. Harris has lost 64 pounds since entering the program in late July. His diabetes is better controlled, his blood pressure is down and he breathes easier.

This time around, Harris attends a weekly education and support class. He cuts calories by substituting nutrition bars for some meals and exercises six days a week.

"When I first started, every day I got to the gym I prayed the electricity would get cut off," he said. "Now, if I miss it, I feel sacrilegious."

Klein said the Atkins center, a component of the human nutrition center, will undertake tasks not usually funded by the National Institutes of Health and other grant-making bodies. It will balance development of community outreach and education programs with laboratory science.

Klein said the center will invest the $5 million Atkins gift and use the interest to:

Offer laboratory support for research involving body composition or metabolic process.

Fund secretarial and administrative support jobs.

Subsidize the cost of the university''s weight management program for people who lack sufficient insurance coverage.

Develop and pilot a medical school curriculum in obesity that can be made available to other medical schools.

Develop a community-based program to treat childhood obesity by engaging the entire family''s support and participation. Klein''s goal is to export a prototype program, based at the West County Family YMCA in Chesterfield, to family fitness facilities nationwide.

Veronica Atkins, chairwoman of the Atkins foundation board and co-author of "Atkins for Life Low-Carb Cookbook," said in a telephone interview that she would welcome programs that reach a broad audience. The gift has no strings. "Once I give them the money, I don''t tell them what to do."

The foundation supports research in nutritional and herbal treatments as well as allopathic and nontraditional healing. Atkins, who lives in Florida, will attend a ceremony at 2 p.m. today at Barnes-Jewish Queeny Tower, officially opening the obesity center.

The gift is the second by the foundation to the medical school. It endowed a chair about two years ago, Klein said. Nada A. Abumrad, is the first to hold the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Professor of Medicine and Obesity Research chair.

Klein was one of a group of researchers who partially debunked Dr. Atkins'' critics in the medical establishment and made the popular diet harder for doctors to dismiss. The results of the multicenter study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, concluded that at three months and six months, obese dieters following Atkins ate fewer calories and lost more weight than those on a traditional low-fat diet. The study also noted that Atkin''s adherents were more likely to fall off the wagon than those on the low-fat diet. After a year there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups.

The research consortium undertook a longer follow-up study, comparing a non-Atkins, low-carb diet to a low-fat diet. Results from that study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, are still several years from publication.

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