http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/22/weekinreview/22kola.html Vegetarians vs. Atkins: Diet Wars Are Almost Religious By GINA KOLATA Published: February 22, 2004 SHE charges that his group is like the Taliban. He claims that her group's dangerous message has "spread like a virus across North America, Europe and elsewhere." The issue inspiring such invectives? Not religion, but diets. The latest spat is between Veronica Atkins, widow of Robert Atkins, the doctor who promoted a low- carbohydrate diet, heavy on the meats, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates vegetarianism. After Dr. Atkins died last April, the vegetarian group obtained his medical records and gave them to The Wall Street Journal, which reported this month that he weighed 258 pounds and had signs of congestive heart failure. (Mrs. Atkins has said her husband's high weight was the result of fluid buildup from the accidental fall that killed him.) The vegetarians had already formed their conclusions. "Many health authorities have been shocked and greatly troubled by the spread of the Atkins phenomenon," the group proclaimed on its Web site. Obesity researchers say they know the phenomenon all too well. Weight loss can be like a religious epiphany. Someone loses weight on a diet. They are ecstatic and want to share the good news. "These people are believers," says Dr. Gary D. Foster, director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania. Diet books are written in the same spirit. "Evangelism creeps in,'' he said. "It's a way of marketing why this diet is different." The arguments over diet go way back, said Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. "They are in fact an echo of the discredited scientific notion of vitalism," he said of the idea that living things are not governed by the laws of chemistry and physics. Although vitalism was disproved 200 years ago, he said, it is behind the fevered search for a magic way of eating that can override the rigid scientific formula: calories in minus calories out govern weight gain and weight loss. Discovering a diet, Dr. Leibel says, "is almost like a revelation." The 19th century saw, for example, the emergence of the Rev. Sylvester Graham, a promoter of vegetarianism for whom the Graham cracker was named. Graham insisted that people could rise above hunger and cravings if they would just stop being slaves to their stomachs. His followers favored fresh fruits and vegetables, grown without fertilizers, and made bran bread. They established "physiological boardinghouses" where people could live the Graham way. Skeptics were scathing. Dinner at a Graham house, they said, featured delicacies like "straggling radishes," "a soggy bunch of asparagus" and "corpses of potatoes," washed down with "a tumbler of cold water." Low-carbohydrate diets emerged in 1825 in "The Physiology of Taste," a book by a French lawyer, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, that was a sensation across the Atlantic. He knew some would object to his prescription but, he warned, they would suffer the consequences: above! But what a wretch the Professor is! Here in a single word he forbids us everything we must love, those little white rolls from Limet, and Achard's cakes, and those cookies. He doesn't even leave us potatoes or macaroni! Who would have thought this of a lover of good food who seemed so pleasant?' " 'What's this I hear?' I exclaim, putting on my severest face, which I do perhaps once a year. 'Very well then; eat! Get fat! Become ugly and thick, and asthmatic, finally die in your own melted grease. ' " In 1863, the low-carbohydrate diet returned after the publication of "Letter on Corpulence'' by a London undertaker, William Banting. At 5 feet 5 and 202 pounds, he suffered, he said, "sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious." But after a doctor told him to cut back on carbohydrates, he lost 50 pounds. "I am most thankful to Almighty Providence for mercies received, and determined still to press the case into public notice as a token of gratitude," he wrote. So many were converted that for decades in the United States, the word for dieting was "banting." The term is still used in Britain, says Dr. Hillel Schwartz, a cultural historian and visiting scholar at the University of California at San Diego. By the turn of the century, another diet was all the rage. It was the work of Horace Fletcher, who was inspired by the deplored American habit of devouring food, barely taking time to chew it. Eat only when you are hungry, he said, eat only those foods you crave, and chew every morsel of food until no more taste can be extracted from it. As proof, Fletcher gleefully told how his weight had plummeted. In June 1898, he weighed 205 pounds. Four months later he weighed 163, losing seven inches from his waist. He gained celebrity endorsements. Upton Sinclair chanced upon a magazine article about Fletcher. It was "one of the great discoveries of my life," he wrote. John D. Rockefeller Sr. was Fletcherizing. "Don't gobble your food," he wrote. "Fletcherize or chew very slowly when you eat." But some became disillusioned. Henry James began with great enthusiasm, giving Fletcher's book "The New Glutton" to his neighbors and claiming it changed his life. He wrote to Edith Wharton about "the divine Fletcher" and to his friend Mrs. Humphrey Ward: "Am I a convert, you ask? A fanatic." But after five years, he was having stomach troubles his doctor attributed to Fletcherism. James found himself "more and more sickishly loathing food." Over the next century, diet evangelism continued, with diet books and gurus extolling one program after another. Yet, notes Dr. Schwartz, "We keep coming back to the same kinds of diets recycled under different names." With the emergence of each new trend, he said, "there is a different explanation of why it is effective." Today, more than ever, those who want to lose weight find themselves pushed and pulled by diet converts. Jerry Gordon, a Philadelphia record producer, says that, at 5 feet 4 and 227 pounds, he is an obvious target for proselytizers, including his slender wife, who lives on a low-calorie diet. "She has been trying to get me to eat and behave like her for the last 22 years," he says. On the other hand, it seems as if everywhere he looks, people are dropping pounds and telling him they are doing it not by restricting calories, but with a low-carbohydrate diet. Mr. Gordon enrolled in a research study, conducted by Dr. Foster, that randomly assigns people to the Atkins diet or a low-calorie one. He confesses that he was hoping for the Atkins diet. But he got the low-calorie one. "My wife is real excited," he said.