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Life and times of Ancel Keys – a nutritionist and a bully

In 1972, John Yudkin, a British nutritionist published a book called “Pure, White and Deadly” which summarised the dangers of overconsumption of sugar and connection to coronary problems, obesity, dental cavities, diabetes, liver disease and possibly even gout attack. The final chapter mentions instances when the sugar and food processing industry did everything possible to derail his work and prevent the publication of his book. Especially harsh in criticism and language was an American, Ancel Keys.

Thirty years before this book was published, approximately 1950, the food processing industry had reached its peak and had begun extensive use of sugar in their food products. So anyone who even made a remote suggestion that sugar was responsible for health problems, was immediately met with ferocious response. Ancel Keys accused Yudkin’s research as being commercially motivated and questioned his methods, statistics and data.

Was Ancel Keys motivated and persuaded by the food corporations to respond? Or was he just backing his own research which suggested fats and fats only responsible for lifestyle ailments. Was Ancel Keys a person of multiple talents and capabilities or was he just a nutritionist trying to get it right in the age of lack of technology? After all Ancel Keys was featured on the Time Cover in 1961. There had to be some truth or some miscalculation in the book published by John.

Qualification of Ancel Keys

Ancel Keys was an intriguing personality. In those days when access to education was still a challenge he was able to acquire a wide range of qualifications in a number of fields. That made it very difficult to pin point his area of expertise. In the end he did announce the world that he is a nutritionist. Here is the full list.

  • BA in Economics and Political Science
  • MS in Biology
  • PhD in Oceanology & Biology
  • PhD in Physiology

People those who knew him and his fans gave him the following titles

  • Public Health Scientist
  • Physiologist
  • Nutritionist

As part of his studies he did research on basic public health issues where the problem of heart attacks due to cholesterol caught his attention. He tried to find the connection between heart diseases and cholesterol. Remember his research was during the time when medical science was still in its infancy and there were not too many fancy gadgets available with doctors and researchers. Most of the research was based on empirical data and patient research. It was that time when you could choose and pick data to reach the end result.

mediterranean diet

7 country study

Obsessed with finding the connection between heart disease and cholesterol, Keys came up with the idea of the seven country study, results of which proved that there is a direct connection between consumption of fats and heart diseases.

He first propagated his idea in 1955 at a WHO convention in Geneva. Immediately in 1956 he gets a yearly $2,00,000 from the US Govt to carry out his study. With this massive grant, he conducts research for 20 years at the end of which in 1978 he publishes his first study results. Keys goes on to tell that “saturated fats in milks and meats have adverse effects on the heart while unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils have beneficial effects.”

This set of chain of events which culminated in animal and dairy fats being declared at the villains and gradually started going off the diets of American house holds.

The basis of his theory was that certain people in southern Italy followed a diet which made them live over a hundred years. This led him to believe that this diet of fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, pasta, etc with small portions of fish and poultry was responsible for longevity.

There is no viable explanation as to how and why did he come about to select just seven countries for his research spanning nearly 20 years. Or why he did not study local American tribes and their ancient food practises instead.

He also never considered the possibility that sugar consumption is a threat. Carbs were also omitted from his study.

olive oil

Other achievements of Ancel Keys

When America joined WWII he went to meet the US Army Quarter Master Food and Container Institute in Chicago to enquire about emergency rations for soldiers. He was politely reminded that this work is best left to the Army to decide. Undeterred he went to William Wrigley’s office to secure a loan for his newest experiment. The US Navy got interested in his idea of providing food in a water tight portable box which can fit in a pocket. Biscuit, sausage, hard candy and chocolate could provide 3200 calories a day. These were called the K-rations.

He coined and pioneered the term BMI and advocated its use.

At the end of World War he started his experiments on starvation and its effects on humans.

What happened to the study by John Yudkin

At the time of his death in 1995, most of the warnings of John Yudkin were ignored with three generations of Americans paying the price. The rise in heart diseases continued unabated.

Till 1994 WHO acknowledged sugar only as a cause of dental cavities but not cardio vascular diseases. Who would challenge Ancel Keys and the powerful processed food industry. This also resulted in sugar entering almost each and every processed food in the USA.

But by the turn of the century things have changed dramatically. Last few years especially there has been a spurt of theories floated on social media which points out inconsistencies in the data and research of Ancel Keys. This does not cater for the fact that Mediterranean diet is still considered very healthy and adopted by many people across the globe. Also the fact that Ancel Keys went on to live for a hundred years! Ancel Keys worked his whole life as a public health scientist.

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