Nutritionist poses science problem
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In 1957, Ancel Keys and a team of researchers embarked on an ambitious, global mission to reverse the heart attack epidemic through studying diet.
The University of Minnesota academic and his team traveled the world, from Japan to the Netherlands, testing men’s physical performance and collecting information about their diets.
Two decades later, Keys’ work was published in a landmark study — the Seven Countries Study. It evaluated a range of diets and was one of the first studies to pin cardiovascular disease, or CVD, to diet. The work helped define national nutrition guidelines today.
The study launched Keys’ already successful career into the stratosphere, and he became an academic celebrity. He made the cover of TIME magazine and emerged as the common person’s dietary guru, and his findings became nutrition science orthodoxy.
The Minnesota Daily reports that in recent years, studies accumulated that cast doubt on his findings, methods and prestige. The most damning result of his work, for some, is their claim that it played a role in creating the American obesity and diabetes epidemics.
After Ancel Keys earned his Ph.D. in oceanography and biology in 1930, he worked briefly for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester before relocating to the University of Minnesota to found its Laboratory for Physiological Hygiene, which the War Department quickly conscripted for research work. He died in Minneapolis in 2004.
Keys’ interest in human nutrition was viewed as pioneering at that point, and his study in the halls beneath the university’s old football stadium on human starvation informed Allied Forces’ attempts to recover large portions of the war-torn world from malnutrition.
During this period, Keys made his name as the father of what would become nutrition science.
“But a big part of the public wants to know facts about diet and health. The man most firmly at grips with the problem is the University of Minnesota’s Physiologist Ancel Keys,” the 1961 TIME magazine cover story said of Keys. “Keys’ findings, though far from complete, are likely to smash many an eating cliche.”
Keys’ Seven Countries Study became his most controversial and most important contribution to nutrition science.
Starting in 1957, Keys studied men from then-Yugoslavia, the U.S., Greece, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Japan and derived his famous “Diet-Heart Hypothesis,” — which states that people should eat less cholesterol and saturated fat to reduce cholesterol and resulting CVD — from the study.
Four decades passed before any researchers revisited his conclusions. Their criticisms have a growing foothold on the field Keys left behind.
“(The Diet-Heart Hypothesis has) certainly had a profound impact on the field . and really on the world because most countries follow our diet policies,” said Jeff Volek, a researcher in The Ohio State University’s Department of Human Sciences. “If you honestly look at the evidence, it continues to get weaker. There’s certainly no smoking gun studies out there that really support the Diet-Heart Hypothesis.”
Volek’s own research, started in the late 1990s, contradicts Keys’ frameworks. He found that those who follow low-carb, high-fat regimens are healthier and more resistant to diabetes. In some patients, this diet, paired with proper training, has even reversed Type 2 Diabetes, he said.
Professor Andrew Mente of McMaster University in Canada uses his background in epidemiology to study the effects of diet on certain biological metrics. He first stumbled on the Keys controversy after publishing a 2009 survey of nutrition research.
None of the data in Mente’s meta-analysis showed the same correlation between high-fat diets and negative health outcomes that Keys’ science would have predicted.
Mente has since studied Keys’ work closely and found Keys selected to study countries that would support his theories most intensively. He also identified issues with Keys’ methodology and the fact that it has not been replicated since.
Volek said the prevalent orthodoxy started by Keys made it difficult for him to launch his career, which has since included the publication of multiple research books and guides to low-carb living.
Volek said he faced pressures not to question the views held by most nutritionists. Deviation could mean trouble with peer review boards or even losing consideration from funding sources like the National Institutes of Health.
Mente said he didn’t face as much pushback, but he was cautious rolling out his findings at first. Today, the concern has lessened. He called the change a paradigm shift.
“I get a sense that the tide is turning and people are very, very receptive to the messages that are coming out from people like myself and others,” he said.
While researchers like Volek and Mente have questioned Keys’ findings on saturated fats, work from reporters like Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz paved the way for criticism in the media.