The Creed of Ancel Keys

A popular documentary out right now is The Magic Pill. It’s about the Paleo diet with some emphasis on ketosis (low-carb consumption causing fat to be primary energy for cellular metabolism). There are several varieties of the Paleo diet, as there was much diversity in ancient dietary patterns, but there are some key commonalities.

Earlier humans ate little if any grains or beans, often even well into the agricultural period (hunting and gathering remained a mainstay of the American diet for many up into the early-to-mid 20th century, such as my mother’s family when she was growing up). In the distant past and continuing into about a century ago, it was typical to eat lots of raw, fermented, and cultured foods — including meats.

And of course, animal fats with plenty of saturated fats have always been a major food component until the past few generations. It turns out some of the healthiest populations on the planet, including the Mediterranean people, traditionally ate high levels of saturated fats. The Masai, for example, are about as carnivorous as a population can be with heavy emphasis on saturated fats and their health is amazing:

“The Masai are almost pure carnivores, eating mostly milk, blood, and meat. A Masai man drinks up to a gallon of whole milk daily, and on top of that he might also eat a lot of meat containing still more saturated fat and cholesterol. Mann expected the Masai to have high blood cholesterol but was surprised to find it was among the lowest ever measured, about 50 percent lower than that of the average American.”
(Real Food by Nina Planck, p. 61)

Interestingly, Americans too used to load up on animal-related foods and saturated fats, also with a ton of raw whole milk, cheese, and butter. It was only after decades of decline in this earlier diet that Americans began having high rates of all the major diseases that now plague us: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

This leads us to Ancel Keys, the many who promoted much of the present mainstream dietary myths. More than a half century ago, he did some research comparing diets in different regions of the world, but he did so by cherry-picking what fit his preconceptions and ignoring all else (great analysis can be found in numerous videos, articles, and books by Sally Fallon Morell and Mary Enig and at the Weston A. Price Foundation). In Nourishing Diets, Morell writes that (pp. 124-5),

“Critics have pointed out that Keys omitted from his study many areas of the world where consumption of animal foods is high and deaths from heart attack are low, including France — the so-called French paradox. But there is also a Japanese paradox. In 1989, Japanese scientists returned to the same two districts that Keys had studied. In an article titled “lessons fro Science from the Seven Countries Study,” they noted that per capita consumption of rice had declined, while consumption of fats, oils, meats, poultry, dairy products and fruit had all increased. […]

“During the postwar period of increased animal consumption, the Japanese average height increased three inches and the age-adjusted death rate from all causes declined from 17.6 to 7.4 per 1,000 per year. Although the rates of hypertension increased, stroke mortality declined markedly. Deaths from cancer also went down in spite of the consumption of animal foods.

“The researchers also noted — and here is the paradox — that the rate of myocardial infarction (heart attack) and sudden death did not change during this period, in spite of the fact that the Japanese weighed more, had higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels, and ate more fat, beef and dairy foods.”

About the Mediterranean diet, Morell considers the historical context to Keys’ study:

“The question that the believers haven’t asked themselves is this: was the lean, so-called Mediterranean diet they observed after World War II the true Mediterranean diet? Or were they observing the tail end of deprivation engendered by half a decade of conflict? Were the inhabitants of Crevalcore and Montegiorgio abandoning the traditional diet, or were they taking it up again? And did Keys miss the sight of Italians enjoying rich food in the early 1950s because Italians had never done such a shameful thing, or was the visiting professor too poor at the time to afford anything more than plain pizza in a sidewalk cafe?” (pp. 157-8)

Morell then goes on to look at numerous books, including cookbooks, from the region. All the evidence points to the traditional Mediterranean diet consisting largely of whole fat dairy products, meat products (lots of sausage), oils and animal fats, and eggs. As emphasized in the paleo diet,

“Italians love their vegetables for sure, and that’s because they know how to make them taste good. They know that salads taste better with a good dressing of aged vinegar and olive oil; and cooked vegetables blossom when anointed with butter, lard or cream” (p. 160).

Keys didn’t really understand the societies he was studying, much less the societies he chose to ignore. Yet he was charismatic and, though other contemporary research contradicted his data, he was able to promote his views such that they became adopted as mainstream ideology. This new belief system was enforced by the US government and by corporations, often in heavy-handed ways. Adelle Davis was a biochemist and nutritionist who was inspired by Weston A. Price’s research on traditional diets. In response, as described Joann Grohman, “The FDA raided health food stores and seized her books under a false labeling law because they were displayed next to vitamin bottles” (Real Food by Nina Planck, p. 30). “I find it dismaying that,” Planck says in another section (p. 201),

“the dangers of trans fats were known for sixty years. Weston Price cited 1943 research that butter was better than hydrogenated cottonseed oil. In the 1950s, researchers guessed that hydrogenated vegetable oil led to heart disease. Ancel Keys, the proponent of monounsaturated fat, showed in 1961 that hydrogenated corn oil raised trigydcerides more than butter. Year after year, the bad news piled up. [So, even Keys ultimately knew that saturated fat wasn’t the real culprit.]

“One dogged researcher, Mary Enig, helped get the word out. The author of Know Your Fats, Enig waged an often lonely battle. I’m afraid her efforts were not always welcomed with bouquets of roses. In 1978, Enig wrote a scientific paper challenging a government report blaming saturated fat for cancer, in which she pointed out that the data actually showed a link with trans fats. Not long after, “two guys from the Instituted of Shortening and Edible Oil — the trans fat lobby, basically — visited me, and oh boy, were they angry,” Enig told Gourmet magazine. “They said they’d been keeping a careful watch to prevent articles like mine from coming out and didn’t know how this horse had gotten out of the barn.”

“The stakes were high. “We spent lots of time, and lots of money and energy, refuting this work,” said Dr. Lars Wiederman, who once worked for the American Soybean Association. “Protecting trans fats from the taint of negative scientific findings was our charge.””

That sounds a lot like the corporatist defense of profits as happened with the decades of lies, spin, and obfuscation pushed by the tobacco and oil companies. Another more recent example is given in The Magic Pill documentary. In South Africa, the government put a doctor on trial for daring to give dietary advice that was in line with millennia-old traditions of human eating habits — fortunately, the doctor won his case but only after the government spent immense amount of taxpayer money trying to destroy him.

Dominant paradigms die hard and only after an immense fight, backed by the full power of the government and millions of corporate dollars. But that is only one part of what slows down change. Ideologies as worldviews hold on so long because they become entrenched in our minds and cultures. As often is noted, old scientists (along with old doctors, professors, bureaucrats, etc) don’t change their minds but eventually die and are replaced by a new generation with new ideas.

This was demonstrated with Michael Pollan’s latest documentary, In Defense of Food (transcript). In it, the professor of nutrition Marion Nestle adds a note of caution: “And it should be written on every single epidemiological study, ‘Red flag, association does not necessarily mean causation.’” Does that stop Pollan from basing conclusions on Keys problematic research? Nope. Instead, he promotes the belief that Keys’ conclusions are still valid: “But based on the strong association Keys saw in his data between heart disease and saturated fat, he advised people to eat less of it.” Not a single mention of any doubt or criticism.

It might be noted that Pollan was born in 1955. That was right in the middle of this now dominant ideology coming into ascendance. He reached adulthood as Keys’ ideology was being promoted by the USDA and as it became the new creed in mainstream thought. Now in his sixties, he is one of the older generation still clinging to what they were taught growing up. Yet, as a Boomer, his influence is still at its peak. Despite all the Western ailments, conventional medicine has allowed people to live longer and that means ideologies will remain entrenched for longer.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for younger generations to challenge the status quo. But the shift is already happening. From a personal perspective, this time lag of common knowledge creates a sense of disorientation, as it will take at least decades for official advice and public opinion to catch up with the research that has been accumulating over this past century.

This point was emphasized for me in reading a book published two decades ago in 1998, The Fats of Life by Caroline M. Pond — the author, a mainstream academic and researcher, notes that, “Heart attacks are thus seen as arising from a deficiency of polyunsaturated fatty acids rather than from an excess of saturates of cholesterol” (p. 293). This is far from being new knowledge. Pond doesn’t mention Weston A. Price, but she does discuss “the Oxford physician and biochemist, Hugh Sinclair (1910-1990), who studied the diet and habits of the Eskimos in northern Canada in 1944. Sinclair noted that Eskimos rarely suffered from the heart disease or strokes in spite of a very high-fat diet that included reindeer meat.” She goes onto say that, “The Masai people of Kenya eat large quantities of ruminant milk and meat, and Jamaicans eat saturated fats in coconut oil, but few of them die from heart attacks.”

In The Magic Pill, it is pointed out that Americans have been following the USDA Food Pyramid in eating less red meat and saturated fats while eating more grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. More Americans have been eating as they were told. What has resulted of this drastic dietary change? All the diseases this diet is supposed to prevent have gotten worse. This stark reality has yet to sink in because it would require thousands of officials and authority figures to not only admit they were wrong but that they caused immense harm to so many.

But why do others continue on with the sham? We’ve known much of this info for a long time now. Why are we still debating it as if the conventional view still has any relevance?

4 thoughts on “The Creed of Ancel Keys

  1. “As often is noted, old scientists (along with old doctors, professors, bureaucrats, etc) don’t change their minds but eventually die and are replaced by a new generation with new ideas.”

    Maybe we should increase their intake of trans fats;-)

    • It’s funny that you say that. There is a something in Sally Fallon Morell’s Nourishing Diets that caught my attention. In reference to Ancel Key’s “stringent vows of the dietary priesthood”, she offers the following note (p. 157):

      “Actually, Keys recommended the practice of renunciation for the general population but not for himself or those of his inner circle. The esteemed researcher Fred Kummerow, PhD, defender of eggs and butter in the human diet, once spied Keys and a colleague eating eggs and bacon at a conference for cardiologists. When Kummerow inquired whether Keys had changed his mind about dietary fats and cholesterol, Keys replied that such a restricted diet was “for others,” not for himself.”

      Keep in mind that Keys was the main figure that forced this dietary religion onto the American population and much of the rest of the world. With persuasive charisma, he righteously advocated that others should eat a high carb and fiber diet with restricted animal products: meat, fat, butter, eggs, etc. This became government policy and transformed the entire food sector. The eventual impact has been on maybe billions of people over multiple generations. Yet it wasn’t important enough for his own dietary habits.

      • I guess it all falls under do as I say not as I do.

        years ago, I ran into a doctor I had met because someone I knew had gone into the hospital for heart issues. The doctor was out in front of the hospital having a smoke. I said: Physician heal thyself.

        He thought that was pretty funny.

        As to the damage done by the food and medical industry it may end up being as bad as the oil industry in terms of fatalities and environmental cost.

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