The Keys To Your Good Health Were Always in Dr. Ancel Keys’ Hands: Now You Can Rest in Peace

As a cardiologist who has treated patients for over 30 years with nutrition prescriptions, I recommend to my patients a whole food plant-based diet naturally low in saturated fat and rich in nutrients. For over 100 years, research studies have identified that foods rich in saturated fats, particularly from animal sources like cheese, chicken and red meats, are harmful to health.

How did we learn of the risks of dietary saturated fats? Let me introduce you to Dr. Ancel Keys. After earning two PhDs (one from Scripps and one from Cambridge) and positions at Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota, he was selected by the War Department to develop a reliable source of calories for WWII soldiers at war. The K-ration was the result (K is for Keys) and was a small box of food dense in calories that saved many soldier’s lives in battle. After the war, Dr. Keys observed that the number of heart attacks among European citizens fell in many countries like Norway during WWII. He wondered if the largely plant-based diet eaten by these oppressed populations was actually good for the heart? Dr. Keys developed a theory, called the diet-heart hypothesis, that food choices influenced the risk of heart disease, an idea that challenged the notion that heart disease was just an aging process.

In order to study this idea formally, he planned the first international prospective evaluation of diet and death rates, using large teams of researchers visiting 16 communities in seven countries from the USA to Japan and it was launched in 1958. The teams measured details of diet, labs and EKGs in originally healthy persons. The Seven Countries Study (SCS) published results in over 12,000 subjects beginning in 1970. The research team he led showed that the diet-heart hypothesis was correct and that increasing percentages of calories from animal saturated fats and protein were associated with increasing death rates from heart disease.

Keys so fell in love with the food and lifestyle he studied around the Naples, Italy area that, along with his research partner and wife Margaret, he bought a home in the remote town of Pioppi, population under 300, on the Mediterranean. He was the first to write about the Mediterranean Diet, a lifestyle that is celebrated today as an excellent model for health, and published several best-selling cookbooks with his wife Margaret beginning in 1959 bringing this lifestyle to the USA. He stressed reducing both animal fats and added sugars and replacing them with whole foods especially beans. He actually spent over 40 years visiting Pioppi and the Cilento National Park surrounding it, often there for over half of the year until his death at age 100 in 2004. I have visited the region and the museum honoring Keys in Pioppi, still a small town most famous for Keys residence there, and it is lovely.

Unfortunatley, after his death, Keys has become the “whipping boy” of authors and bloggers, blaming him for “demonizing” fats, ignoring added sugar in the diet, and manipulating the American Heart Association and the entire US society into becoming heavier and sicker. Is this true? Did Keys single handedly deceive the entire medical and nutrition community after decades of groundbreaking research?

In order to answer that question, one that continues to circulate on websites read by many such as Mercola, Taubes, Teicholz, and Malhotra, the True Health Initiative commissioned a white paper in which I participated. It was a unique effort as many of Keys original research collaborators in the SCS were contacted and participated in the review and refinement of the paper. That paper was published yesterday and has received much attention via a press release. I invite you to read the entire paper for its importance for nutrition, medical history, and the role of fake news on the Internet. However the conclusion of the paper is concise:

“SCS provided invaluable information about the connections between diet and coronary heart disease, in addition to developing important tools for standardizing nutrition and diet research. Monographs published with five and 10-year follow-up data showed that coronary heart disease and mortality were significantly associated with diets higher in saturated fat. Follow-up data from 15 years of tracking all-cause and coronary heart disease mortality found that diets high in saturated fats were associated with increased risk for dying of heart disease, consistent with earlier findings. Allegations that SCS was deliberately designed in order to find specific, preconceived outcomes are decisively without merit.”

In an accompanying Editorial Epilogue written by David Katz, MD:

“On the basis of data, and perhaps good intuition as well, Keys anticipated the evidence and consensus-based positions of public health nutrition in 2017 with extraordinary accuracy and consistency. When public health nutrition in the modern era has gone awry, it has never done so in accord with the findings and positions of Ancel Keys. It has done so because such findings have been distorted; such positions misrepresented; and the important lessons of this period of nutrition history, and the singular contributions of Ancel Keys, forgotten and replaced with false narratives. “

It seems that finally, 13 years after his death, Dr. Keys can rest in peace, assured that his legendary contribution to science has been evaluated, appreciated, and endorsed. Those that have abused his memory, and caused pain to his family, would be wise to now abandon this ineffective and dishonest mockery of scientific integrity. Perhaps you should just unsubscribe from their sites as I did.