A Biography of Ancel Keys (1904 – 2004) The Man Behind Our Dietary Debacle

Ancel Keys was born in Colorado Springs USA in 1904. During his youth, he left high school to pursue odd jobs, such as shoveling bat guano in Arizona. He eventually finished his secondary education and was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley in 1922. For a brief time, he took up a job as a management trainee at Woolworth’s. In 1930 he received his Ph.D. in oceanography and biology from University College Berkeley. He was later awarded a National Research Council fellowship that took him to Copenhagen studying fish physiology.

In 1936 Keys was offered a position at the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, where he continued his studies in physiology.

He then took up an assignment with the Army Quartermaster Corps, where he worked to develop military rations that would provide enough calories to sustain soldiers. He named it after himself calling it the K Ration.  The initial ingredients of the K ration were hard biscuits, dry sausage, hard candy, and chocolate.

In 1944 Keys carried out a starvation study with conscientious objectors as test subjects in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. The main focus of the study was to study the physical and mental effects of starvation on the ‘volunteers’.

In 1958 he launched the Seven Countries Study, researching  the relationship between dietary patterns and the prevalence of coronary heart disease in countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Japan, and Finland. This flawed study was to have the most profound impact on dietary guidelines to this day.

Keys had concluded that saturated fats as found in milk and meat have adverse effects, while unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils had beneficial effects. This message was obscured for a 20-year period starting around 1985, when all dietary fats were considered unhealthy. This was driven largely by the hypothesis that all dietary fats cause obesity and cancer.

A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration, an organisation which promotes evidence-based medicine, found that reducing saturated fat intake reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, concluding:

“Lifestyle advice to all those at risk of cardiovascular disease and to lower risk population groups should continue to include permanent reduction of dietary saturated fat and partial replacement by unsaturated fats”.

In 1972, Pure, White and Deadly was published, written by John Yudkin. Dr. Yudkin concluded that the over-consumption of sugar was leading to a greatly increased incidence of coronary thrombosis and was also almost certainly involved in obesity, diabetes and liver disease. Yudkin wrote:

“I hope that when you have read this book I shall have convinced you that sugar is really dangerous”.

This message was slammed by the sugar industry and manufacturers of processed foods. The final Chapter of Pure, White and Deadly lists several examples of attempts to interfere with the funding of his research and to prevent its publication. It also refers to the rancorous language and personal smears used by Ancel Keys to dismiss the evidence that sugar was the true culprit. Keys wrote:

“It is clear that Yudkin has no theoretical basis or experimental evidence to support his claim for a major influence of dietary sucrose in the etiology of Coronary Heart Disease, his claim that men who have CHD are excessive sugar eaters is nowhere confirmed but is disproved by many studies superior in methodology and/or magnitude to his own and his “evidence” from population statistics and time trends will not bear up under the most elementary critical examination”.

The efforts to discredit the case against sugar were largely successful, and by the time of Yudkin’s death in 1995 his warnings were, for the most part, no longer being taken seriously.

Keys and his wife Margaret wrote two bestselling cookbooks: Eat Well and Stay Well (1959), and How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way (1975). He remained dedicated to the Seven Countries Study until the end of his long life but he did however, finally admit that cholesterol probably plays a lessor role in CHD than he once thought.

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