Most people aren’t able to remain on the Atkins Diet long enough to develop osteoporosis, kidney damage or hardening of the arteries. Sixteen year-old high school student Rachel Elizabeth Huskey only lasted seven weeks.
Rachel had a crush on a boy in her church. So she started the Atkins Diet to lose weight. In part because she was so nauseated on the diet, she lost 16 pounds. She was hoping being thinner would make her more popular at school. After a brief carbohydrate relapse, she began again “very strictly” but could only stick with it this time for 9 days.
In history class, amidst cheering fellow students for acing a tough question, she collapsed without warning. And then she died. Frenzied attempts to resuscitate her failed. Her doctors blame the Atkins Diet.
The kidney uses minerals such as potassium and calcium to help rid one’s body of toxins like ketones. People on the Atkins Diet are urinating these minerals away. And critically low levels in the blood of these electrolytes can lead to fatal cardiac arrhythmias–lethal heart rhythms. Rachel was on the Atkins Diet, was found on autopsy to have critically low blood levels of both potassium and calcium, and she died of a cardiac arrhythmia. Rachel was previously in good health and had no history of any medical problems.
After ruling out other potential causes, the medical team of child health specialists that investigated her death couldn’t help but conclude in their published report, “Sudden Cardiac Death of an Adolescent During Dieting,” that the Atkins Diet was the most likely cause of her death.
The chief executive of the Atkins Corporation denied there was a link between the diet and Rachel’s death, but implied she should have consulted her doctor before starting the diet. In fact, concern over just such an event led the Director of the Nutrition Department at the esteemed Cleveland Clinic to declare that for people on the Atkins Diet, “Careful monitoring of electrolytes is absolutely essential…” Those who aren’t professionally monitored on this kind of diet “are at the greatest risk for dangerous complications.”
Dr. Paul Robinson, the Director of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Missouri, who was involved in the investigation of Rachel’s death, is afraid that “we’re having lots of near misses that we don’t know about.” “You wonder,” he said, “whether there are other people dying and we don’t know about it.”
“Is the diet safe for teenagers?” Dr. Atkins was asked in an interview. Dr. Atkins replied “The [Atkins] diet is safe for every overweight human being from the age of 18 months…” Guided by this doctrine, the Atkins Corporation is trying to make inroads into schools. “I frankly think it’s scandalous,” said the Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, “really very dangerous.”
One would think a teenager collapsing and dying after just 9 days on the diet might have ruined people’s appetite for Atkins, but her death was hardly reported in the American press. When her parents held a press conference to tell their story for the first time and warn others that Atkins “killed our little girl,” it was reported in London, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. But out of the 34 reports that made it into the papers around the world about this Missouri teen, only 3 appeared in the U.S. Despite repeated warnings from the American Heart Association, enthusiasm for the Atkins Diet did not seem to wane.
While tending her daughter’s immaculately-kept grave, Rachel’s mom told a reporter her thoughts on the diet: “I want people to know you can actually die doing something as stupid as this.”