Note: Part one of this three-part series is also accessible online – Nutrition science serves a big fat lie. On Wednesday, we learned how we got to today in the fat debate, learning from Nina Teicholz’ book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.” Today, we’ll talk about the research, or lack thereof.
Long-story short, the American Heart Association bloomed to be a leading health advocate at the same time heart attacks were the nation’s leading killer. They went with a hypothesis linking a low-fat diet to less heart risk, and the rest is history, or so we thought.
Studying a bad example
One of the first things I learned in my experimental design and statistics coursework at the University of Minnesota’s graduate school was how important a representative sample is. Without a representative sample, you have nothing. Or worse; you think you have something when you actually have nothing.
But over 60 years ago, Dr. Ancel Keys, eventually forgot that part of his studies, or possibly didn’t realize his error and was too vested in the results.
Regardless, when I reference Dr. Keys, I’m not talking about a half-brained person. By many counts, the man was a genius. An obituary tells that he was one of 1528 “gifted” students discovered through a test. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, with bachelor degrees in economics and political science and a master’s in zoology. He received a Ph.D in oceanography and biology and bounced around to many research positions and then taught at Harvard, earning another Ph.D. there in physiology.
Then, in 1936 he came to Minnesota with the Mayo Foundation. Not liking the Mayo work environment (not enough research), he headed to the University of Minnesota in 1937. There, he developed the infamous K-ration (K for Keys), a meal that fit in a box in a pocket, which millions of soldiers ate during World War II.
He then studied the effects of testosterone, vitamin supplementation, and starvation.
But in the 1950s, seeing the contrast in heart disease between well-fed American businessmen and those in underfed Europe, he set his sights on cardio-vascular disease research. When he saw that southern Italy contained the highest number of centenarians, he looked further into the Mediterranean diet.
As Teicholz explains in the book, Keys’ hypothesis about the Mediterranean diet came at a time when the country was looking for answers on the heart disease problem. It also came as lipid (fat) research exploded, as gas-liquid chromatography allowed scientists to test different fats’ effects on human biology. Early experiments showed that replacing animal fats with vegetable fats dramatically reduced cholesterol levels – a suspect as a leading cause of heart attacks.
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