Ancel Benjamin Keys (January 26, 1904 – November 20, 2004) was an American scientist who studied the influence of diet on health. In particular, he hypothesized that different kinds of dietary fat had different effects on health.
He examined the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and was responsible for two famous diets: K-rations formulated as balanced meals for combat soldiers in World War II and the Mediterranean diet, which, with his wife Margaret, he popularized. Science, diet, and health were central themes in his professional and private lives.
Keys attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a B.A. in economics and political science (1925), an M.S. in biology (1929), and is a '30 University of California, San Diego Alumus receiving a Ph.D. in oceanography and biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He earned a second Ph.D. in physiology at Cambridge in 1938. In 1936, he became a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he established the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene. Keys directed the laboratory from 1939 until his retirement in 1975. After that he moved to Pioppi, a small village of fishermen in southern Italy where he lived until 2003 studying food habits of the locals, leading to the foundation of health evidence for the Mediterranean Diet.
During World War II, Keys studied starvation and sustenance diets using 32 conscientious objectors from Civilian Public Service as test subjects in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and eventually producing his two-volume Biology of Human Starvation (1950). His interest in diet and CVD was prompted, in part, by seemingly counterintuitive data: American business executives, presumably among the best-fed persons, had high rates of heart disease, while in post-war Europe, CVD rates had decreased sharply in the wake of reduced food supplies. Keys postulated a correlation between cholesterol levels and CVD and initiated a study of Minnesota businessmen (the first prospective study of CVD), culminating in what came to be known as the Seven Countries Study. These studies found no association between the CVD rate of a population and average serum cholesterol and per capita intake of saturated fatty acids. From the early 1950s, Keys actively promoted his findings to an increasingly health-conscious public. The resulting "cholesterol controversy" revealed sharp divisions in post-war scientific culture over whether the statisticians' "strong associations" could provide scientific certainty. In its simplest form, the debate over cholesterol, dietary saturated fat and CVD pitted "interventionists" against those calling for further studies—preferably clinical or laboratory studies. The role of cholesterol in CVD was cemented in the minds of many when huge studies with powerful cholesterol-lowering drugs seemed to show a correlation between lowering LDL cholesterol and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. (Law MR, Wald NJ, Rudnicka AR. Quantifying effect of statins on low density lipoprotein cholesterol, ischaemic heart disease, and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2003 Jun 28;326(7404):1423. www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/326/7404/1423). However, one of the largest studies in their meta-analysis(Heart Protection Study, Lancet. 2002 Jul 6;360(9326):7-22) used rather questionable methods: all prospective subjects were given the investigative drug (simvastatin) for 6 weeks, and anyone showing signs of abnormal responses to the drug were excluded from the formal study. These exclusions were far stricter than standard management of statin therapy, and resulted in fully two-thirds of the initial pool of subjects being ineligible for the study. This would have grave implications for clinical practice, but was not mentioned in the conclusions or discussion section of the primary research article. Not dissimilar to the dishonesty of which Dr Keys was accused, this has incited far less criticism, but the significance of dietary saturated fat intake for cholesterol and CVD remains an area of heated debate.
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