Today I’m sharing with you the story of Ancel Keys, a biologist and physiologist from the 1950’s who should be remembered as someone who’s egoic and flawed science has caused untold harm on the world. It’s a cautionary tale of how the pressure of a new and deadly disease can push scientists and policy makers in making swift, unfounded conclusions without taking the time to examine all of the evidence.
Ancel Keys was an eccentric character who dropped out of college to become a laborer on boats to China, who later finished a doctorate in 3 years at Berkley and got a second PhD in London. Colleagues described him as brilliant, blunt, critical, and ruthless. Someone who would argue an idea to the death.
Because of Ancel Keys, the vast majority of the population fear saturated fats and cholesterol and believe them to cause heart disease with zero evidence to prove it. In 1955 heart disease was abruptly taking the lives of men seemingly in their prime. President Eisenhower had a heart attack even though he was a war hero with the best doctors in the nation. The people of America were terrified of this new silent killer and desperately wanted a cure for this mysterious disease.
Ancel Keys was one of the first to believe that conditions like heart disease might be preventable with diet. His hypothesis was that cholesterol, because it is found in arterial plaques, causes heart disease. When he tried to prove his theory, he failed. He found that no matter how much cholesterol his test subjects ate, it had no effect on their cholesterol levels nor on the development of atherosclerosis.
He still believed cholesterol to be the problem and so he went on to do his famous “6 countries study” that landed him on the cover of Time magazine. This study was done on 12,700 middle aged men from Italy, England, Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States and it seemed to show a correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. Note that this study, along with many others, were done only on middle aged men. Yet they are used as a cornerstone of dietary advice for men, women and children without consideration of each group’s unique nutritional needs.
A few years later another, a more comprehensive study was done, this time using data from 22 countries and it showed that the correlation Keys found between saturated fats, cholesterol and heart disease simply does not exist. In fact, Keys had cherry picked the countries who supported his hypothesis and left out any outliers like France, Chile and Switzerland whose data showed the opposite. His study was a farce, but it was already too late.
Despite this poor, flawed science, Key’s study has been cited over one million times and went on to become the foundation of dietary guidance from the USDA like the food pyramid and the low-fat doctrine of the last several decades. It is just one example of how poor science, done quickly under the pressure of a new disease and a population of terrified people has caused incalculable damage. Will we learn from history or repeat it? I hope we can take pause to look over all evidence before any sweeping changes are made to our health based on rushed science or new medical interventions.
Ancel Keys also went on to be largely involved in the research and development of the “Mediterranean Diet” which was primarily funded by the olive oil industry. The two went nicely in hand since olive oil is a natural source of unsaturated fat, which is the recommended type of fat based on Keys’ diet-heart hypothesis. This diet is a poor representation, however, of what people in the Mediterranean actually eat, which is usually fresh, locally produced and seasonally available foods that vary widely depending on location and time of year. There is no blanket Mediterranean diet, but Key’s set out to prove there was.
Keys’ with the help and money of the olive oil industry won the hearts of the scientific elite, doctors and journalists with lavish conferences designed to immerse these influential characters in everything there is to love about the Mediterranean life and their “diet” - and it worked! This diet is still common even though it’s not much more than a thinly veiled attempt to sell more olives while upholding the notions of Keys' flawed findings.
Just one scientist’s egoic drive to prove his inaccurate hypothesis has undoubtedly made the world sicker. We’ve dutifully followed his instructions for decades, and have slowly eaten our way into poorer and poorer health. We’ve replaced nutritious, whole foods for highly processed foods that are devoid of nutrients. We see “Fat Free” or “Low Cholesterol” on the label of garbage food and believe we are making a healthy choice. Based on Ancel Keys’ bad science, Cheerios can boast being “heart healthy” when actually, the pesticides, chemicals and refined carbohydrates in the cereal are in fact the very factors that cause heart disease! It’s maddening.
If there is one message that I hope to get out to the world, it is that you should not fear fats from whole food sources! This includes saturated fat found in dairy, butter and animal products like bacon, the very foods that we’ve been conditioned to avoid. In fact, eating a wide variety of fats from whole food sources while avoiding processed seed oils like canola, margarine or deep fried foods - may be the most potent way to prevent conditions like heart disease.
Because of the recommendations of the USDA which are based largely on Keys’ findings, many Americans are fat deficient while at the same time consume large amounts of damaged fats. This can lead to a myriad of health problems like:
Insulin Resistance (Precursor to Diabetes)
Fungal Issues or Candida
Digestive Problems like Crohns and IBS
Gas or Bloating
Skin problems, rashes and eczema
Sagging, wrinkled skin
If you have any of these health problems, nutritional therapy can help! Book a discovery call with me! This is a FREE 15-20 minute conversation where we talk about your current health struggles and history to see if Nutritional Therapy is right for you! I find that most of my clients already know intuitively what foods they need, they just need a little guidance and support in finding the right balance!
When all else fails, my mantra is “Just eat real food!”
Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon
The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz
How Ancel Keys Brainwashed the Masses into Fearing Meat (He’s Wrong) https://carnivoreaurelius.com/ancel-keys/