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Ancel Keys, Ph.D.

In addition to his role in establishing modern cardiovascular disease (CVD) epidemiology, Ancel Keys (born on January 26, 1904) is closely associated with two famous "diets," one loathed by soldiers and the other beloved by health-conscious and taste-conscious diners. As an advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II, he formulated balanced meals for combat soldiers that became known as K rations. Later, Keys and his wife, Margaret, popularized the Mediterranean diet with a series of best-selling books. Science, diet, and health have been central themes of 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 a Ph.D. in oceanography and biology (1930). 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.

During World War II, Keys studied starvation and subsistence diets, 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) (1), culminating in what came to be known as the Seven Countries Study (2). These studies found strong associations 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. This controversy left greater opportunity for competing food industry groups, health promotion associations, food faddists, physicians, and insurance companies to use the ambiguities and methodologic quibbles inherent in such studies to pursue their own agendas. In its simplest form, the debate over dietary fat and CVD pitted "interventionists" against those calling for further studies--preferably clinical or laboratory studies.

Keys always has been considered an interventionist. He generally has shunned food fads and vigorously promotes the benefits of "reasonably low-fat diets," instead of following "the North American habit for making the stomach the garbage disposal unit for a long list of harmful foods." Keys' studies and recommendations have had a substantial impact on changes in the U.S. diet and the resulting downward trend in CVD.


  1. Keys A, Taylor HL, Blackburn H, Brozek J, Anderson JT, Simonson E. Coronary heart disease among Minnesota business and professional men followed 15 years. Circulation 1963;28:381-95.
  2. Keys A. Seven countries: a multivariate analysis of death and coronary heart disease. London: Harvard University Press, 1980.

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