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Feb. 24, 2000 (Washington) -- You could call it a food fight sponsored by the government. Today's "Great Nutrition Debate" held by the Department of Agriculture pitted some of the nation's leading diet gurus against each other as they discussed the best way to lose weight and stay healthy.

Featured in the fray were Robert Atkins, MD, creator of the controversial Atkins diet; Morrison Bethea, MD, co-author of Sugar Busters!; Dean Ornish, MD, author of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease; Barry Sears, PhD, co-author of The Zone; and John McDougall, MD, founder of the McDougall Plan for healthy living.

The debate produced a lot of heat but little consensus on strategies for eating healthy. Moreover, there are no long-term scientific data about any of the diets pitched by the entrepreneurs. Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman said he was interested in funding long-term studies of differing diets, although he did not want to endorse any particular approach.

According to Glickman, Americans are spending an estimated $50 billion each year on weight-loss programs, even as some of the most popular diets differ sharply from federal nutrition guidance that recommends a balanced intake of dairy, meat, poultry, and fruits and vegetables.

Atkins, famous for his decades-old high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, insisted his program is the best. "It will correct diabetes, [high blood pressure], and most of the risk factors for heart disease," he said, adding that it helps children avoid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sugar cravings.

The Ornish diet is a strict contrast to that meat-and-eggs plan. Now approved for reimbursement by Medicare in a few trial locations to prevent heart bypass surgery, the Ornish program is a low-fat vegetarian diet. Ornish called the Atkins diet "hazardous" and said its anti-carbohydrate emphasis was "the big lie." He further attacked it by saying that it brings bad breath and body odor, and that this is evidence that it is toxic.

Ornish and American Dietetic Association spokesman Keith-Thomas Ayoob attacked Atkins for not producing evidence that his diet reverses heart disease. Atkins responded, "We're working on it. I haven't been able to fund a study." But Ayoob shot back, "Ten million books in print and you can't fund a study."

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