Ancel Keys

Does the name Ancel Keys mean anything to you?

Right now, half of you are saying, "Well, of course, duh." My guess is you know the rest of what I'm going to say, so you could go look at LOLCats instead. (Oh, hai!) The rest of you are saying "Ancel Keys? Who the heck is Ancel Keys?" You're the ones who need to read on, because Ancel Keys has profoundly influenced your life, and the lives of everyone you love -- or hate, or are indifferent to -- and not for the better. Ancel Keys was the teller of one of the most damaging lies in the history of human kind. Ancel Keys is the man who convinced the world that saturated fat is dangerous.

Keys was a scientist who noticed in the post-World-War II era that while Americans, who were well-fed, had a high-and-rising rate of heart disease, Europeans, who had been on short rations through the war, had far less heart disease. He hypothesized that this was because of blood cholesterol, and that high blood cholesterol was due to the dietary intake of saturated fats. Apparently it did not occur to Keys that rationing in Europe also meant that the Europeans were eating less sugar, less flour -- really, less of everything. He was sure it had to be the fat.

Eventually, Ancel Keys published something called the Seven Countries Study. In this study, he looked at the rate of heart disease in seven countries, and compared it to the level of saturated fat consumption. He got a strong, nearly straight line: The more saturated fat the population ate overall, the higher the heart disease rate.

It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Keys and his Seven Countries Study. Heck, in 1961 he hit the cover of Time Magazine; how many scientists can say that? You can still read the article, called The Fat Of The Land.

And that was the beginning of it all. From Keys and his Seven Countries Study came all the recommendations to cut back on fat, stop eating eggs and cheese, substitute the new-fangled vegetable oils for traditional animal fats. It's what started us on the road that led to statins. But here's the thing:

Keys faked his data. Oh, it's absolutely true that he had a lovely graph showing seven countries with their rates of saturated fat consumption paralleling their rates of heart disease. However, Keys had data from 22 countries. And when you look at the data for all 22 countries, the tidy rising line vanishes. Take a look at the two graphs, one with just seven countries, and one with all twenty two. No pattern at all. Finland, with only a bit more than 20% of their calories coming from fat, had nearly as high a heart disease rate as the US, with 40% of calories from fat, while Sweden, eating as much fat as the US, had less than half of the US's heart disease rate.

To be fair, I'm sure Keys meant well. I have to agree with him about his opposition to "the North American habit for making the stomach the garbage disposal unit for a long list of harmful foods," though we would disagree as to what those harmful foods are. And the man did make it to the age of 100, so whatever he was doing it apparently was a pretty good fit for his body.

But the bottom line is that Ancel Keys lied. He dressed his personal opinions up in the garb of science and trotted them out to change public policy -- and it worked. The explosion of pro-inflammatory, carcinogenic omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet, the substitution of hydrogenated oils for animal fats in restaurant fryers (and home kitchens) throughout the land, the breeding of leaner and leaner hogs and cattle, the demonizing of egg yolks that makes That Nice Boy I Married sad, the rise in carb intake, and the diabetes and obesity epidemic it has caused, can all be blamed, to one degree or another, on Ancel Keys and his well-intentioned lie.

I admit freely that I, too, voice my personal opinions regarding nutrition. The difference is that I openly admit to being an educated layperson; I do not cloak myself in a veil of science. I'm a smart housewife who lost weight and improved her health, and reads a lot. That's it.

It all calls to mind the famous quote from Mark Twain: "Be careful when you read health books. You could die of a misprint."

I wonder how many people have died because of Ancel Keys' well-meant deception?

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