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Ancel Keys

Ancel Keys
Born Ancel Benjamin Keys
(1904-01-26)January 26, 1904
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Died November 20, 2004(2004-11-20) (aged 100)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Residence United States
Citizenship United States
Nationality American
Fields Human Nutrition, Public Health, epidemiology
Institutions University of Minnesota
Alma mater University of California at Berkeley, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Kings College, Cambridge
Academic advisors August Krogh
Known for Human Nutrition, K-ration, Mediterranean diet
Spouse Margaret Keys

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 have 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 he popularized with his wife Margaret. Science, diet, and health were central themes in his professional and private lives.

In the midst of arguing against his work in her book The Big Fat Surprise (2014), journalist Nina Teicholz writes that if there is a Great Man theory of history, "In the history of nutrition, Ancel Keys was, by far, the Greatest Man."[1]


  • Early life 1
    • Higher education 1.1
  • Professional 2
    • Early physiology studies 2.1
    • Development of K-rations 2.2
    • Starvation studies 2.3
    • Seven Countries Study 2.4
  • Personal life 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Early life

Ancel Keys was born in Colorado Springs in 1904 to Benjamin Pious Keys (1883-1961) and Carolyn Emma Chaney (1885-1960), the sister of Lon Chaney.[2] In 1906 they moved to San Francisco before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck.[3] Shortly after the disaster, his family relocated to Berkeley where he grew up. His intellect was well-known ever since a young age, as Lewis Terman, noted psychologist and inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ Test, identified Keys as one of the 1528 intellectually "gifted" students that he studied at Stanford.[3] During his youth, he left high school to pursue odd jobs, such as shoveling bat guano in Arizona, working as a powder monkey in a Colorado mine, working in a lumber camp,[4] and even working as a crewmember on a ship to China.[3] He eventually finished his secondary education and was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley in 1922.[4]

Higher education

At the University of California, Berkeley, Keys initially studied chemistry, but was dissatisfied and took some time off to work as an oiler aboard the S.S. President Wilson (1st), which traveled to China.[4] He then returned to Berkeley, switched majors, and graduated with a B.A. in economics and political science (1925) and M.S. in zoology (1928).[4] For a brief time, he took up a job as a management trainee at Woolworth's, but returned to his studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla on a fellowship. In 1930 he received his Ph.D. in oceanography and biology from UC Berkeley.[4] He was then awarded a National Research Council fellowship that took him to Copenhagen, Denmark to study under August Krogh at the Zoophysiological Laboratory for two years.[4][5] During his studies with Krogh, he studied fish physiology and contributed numerous papers on the subject.[5] Once his fellowship ended, he went to Cambridge but took some time off to teach at Harvard University, after which he returned to Cambridge and earned a second Ph.D. in physiology (1936).[4]


Early physiology studies

While doing fish research at Scripps, Keys would use regressions to determine the weight of fish from their length, a pioneering use of biostatistics at the time.[6] Once in Copenhagen (1931), he would continue to study fish physiology and developed techniques for gill perfusion that provided evidence that fish regulated their sodium by controlling chloride excretion through their gills.[5][7][8] He would also use this perfusion method to study the effects of adrenaline and pitressin on gill fluid flow[9] and osmotic regulation in fishes.[10] He also designed an improved Kjeldahl apparatus which improved upon Krogh's earlier design and allowed for more rapid determination of nitrogen content in biological samples.[11] This would prove useful for activities as diverse as determining the protein content in grasshopper eggs[12] and anemia in humans.[13]

While at Harvard's Fatigue Laboratory, he was inspired by his Cambridge mentor John Barcroft's ascent to the top of Tenerife's highest peak and his subsequent reports. Keys wrote up a proposal for an expedition to the Andes suggesting the study could have practical value for Chilean miners that worked at high altitudes.[4] He was given the go-ahead and, in 1935, assembled a team to study the effects of high altitude on the body,[3] such as how it affects blood pressure.[2] He spent a couple of months at 9,500 feet and then five weeks at altitudes of 15,000 to 20,000 feet.[4] He noted that there was no good way of predicting how well humans might adapt to high altitude, even if they adapted well to medium altitudes, which would be a problem for potential pilots in a time before pressure control.[14] It was from these studies that he outlined the phenomenon of human physiological adaptation to environmental changes as a predictable event, a novel idea in a time when such things as blood pressure and resting heart rate were considered immutable.[15][16]

Development of K-rations

An example of a K-ration dinner. All the components were intended to fit into a box which would fit into a soldier's pocket

In 1936 Keys was offered a position at the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, where he would continue to carry out his studies in physiology.[14] He left after a year, citing an intellectually stifling environment where research was secondary to clinical "doc business" and playing bridge.[4] In 1937 he would leave the Mayo Foundation for the University of Minnesota to teach physiology;[17] He also founded the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene there. His earlier research on human physiology eventually led to an assignment with the Army Quartermaster Corps, where they worked to develop a more portable and nonperishable ration that would provide enough calories to sustain soldiers (such as paratroopers) in the field for up to two weeks.[18] This development did not begin without some turbulence. His colleague, Dr. Elsworth Buskirk, notes:

Once the basic design had been completed, the Navy, through the National Research Council, funded the testing of the K-rations on its soldiers to determine its feasibility as a temporary and mobile food source. The initial ingredients of the K-ration were procured at a local Minneapolis grocery store—hard biscuits, dry sausage, hard candy, and chocolate.[3] The final product was different from Keys' original ingredients, but most of Keys initial suggestions made it to the final product.[4] The rations weighed only 28 oz (790 g), but provided 3200 calories per day.[17] Though a few sources claim the name was unrelated to Keys,[19] many historical references support the claim that the K-ration was indeed named after him.[4][18][20] The K-ration became such a success that it was often used for more than temporary sustenance, becoming a major staple of military nutrition.[4][18]

Starvation studies

During World War II, Keys produced various studies related to human physical performance that were of interest to the military, such as studying the effects of testosterone on muscle work[21] and vitamin supplementation as a performance enhancer on adequately fed soldiers,[22][23] among many other similar studies. It was during the war that Keys and fellow researchers recognized the importance of knowing how to properly treat widespread starvation, since simple overfeeding for so many would be imprecise and there was a potential that the refeeding would fail.[18] To gain insight into the physiology of starvation, in 1944 Keys carried out a starvation study with 36 conscientious objectors from Civilian Public Service as test subjects in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. At the time, conscientious objectors were being placed in virtual concentration camps, with a few functioning like the Civilian Public Service, so that recruiting them would prove easier than seeking out volunteers in the general population.[15][18] The original pool of 400 responders was reduced to 36 selectees, of whom 32 would go on to complete the study.[24] The main focus of the study was threefold: set a metabolic baseline for three months, study the physical and mental effects of starvation on the volunteers for six months, and then study the physical and mental effects of different refeeding protocols on them for three months.[15] The participants would first be placed on the three month baseline diet of 3200 calories after which their calories were reduced to 1800 calories/day while expending 3009 calories in activities such as walking. The final three months were a refeeding period where the volunteers were divided into four different groups.[15] The war came to an end before the final results of the study could be published, but Keys sent his findings to various international relief agencies throughout Europe[4] and, by 1950, he completed publication of his two-volume 1385-page Biology of Human Starvation.[15][18]

Seven Countries Study

His interest in diet and cardio-vascular disease (CVD) was prompted, in part, by seemingly counter-intuitive data: American business executives, presumably among the best-fed persons, had high rates of [26][27] Naples was the first case study that permits to verify his hypothesis was right.[28]

After observing in southern Italy the highest concentration of centenarians in the world, Keys hypothesized that a Mediterranean-style diet low in animal fat protected against heart disease and that a diet high in animal fats led to heart disease. The results of what later became known as the Seven Countries Study appeared to show that serum cholesterol was strongly related to coronary heart disease mortality both at the population and at the individual level.[29][30] As a result, in 1956 representatives of the American Heart Association appeared on television to inform people that a diet which included large amounts of butter, lard, eggs, and beef would lead to coronary heart disease. This resulted in the American government recommending that people adopt a low-fat diet in order to prevent heart disease.

Keys had concluded that saturated fats as found in milk and meat have adverse effects opposite to the beneficial effects of the unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils. This message was obscured for a 20-year period starting around 1985, when all dietary fats were considered unhealthy. This was driven largely by the hypothesis that all dietary fats cause obesity and cancer.[31] Recent studies question "cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats,"[32] although Walter Willett, chairman of Harvard's nutrition department, has called this evidence "seriously misleading" and claims that it should be disregarded due to its many flaws and errors.[33]

Keys was always considered an interventionist. He generally shunned food fads and vigorously promoted the benefits of the "reasonably low-fat diets" he contrasted with "the North American habit for making the stomach the garbage disposal unit for a long list of harmful foods."[34] Because of his influence in dietary science, Keys was featured on the cover of the January 13, 1961 issue of Time magazine.

In a 1972 article (Journal of Chronic Diseases), Keys promoted Adolphe Quetelet's body mass index (BMI) as the best of various indices of obesity.

Ancel Keys died on November 20, 2004, two months before his 101st birthday. A year earlier, he had left Pioppi, his beloved village in the Cilento region located on the southwest coast of Italy, where he had spent 28 years of his life.[35]

Personal life

When Keys was hired at the Mayo Foundation in 1936, he hired Margaret Haney (1909–2006) as a medical technologist.[18] In 1939 they married and had three children: Carrie D'Andrea, Henry Keys, and Martha McLain (deceased, 1991).[36] Together, they coauthored numerous books, including Eat Well and Stay Well (Doubleday, 1959) and The Benevolent Bean (Doubleday, 1967). They also traveled the world, traveling to places like Japan and South Africa to record data for Ancel's published works such as the Seven Countries Study.[4]

Keys was an atheist.[37]


  1. ^ Teicholz, Nina (2014). The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, ISBN 978-1-4516-2443-4. p. 46.
  2. ^ a b Brody, Jane E. (November 23, 2004). "Ancel Keys, 100, Promoter of the Mediterranean Diet, Dies".  
  3. ^ a b c d e Sullivan, Patricia (November 24, 2004). "Ancel Keys, K Ration Creator, Dies".  
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Hoffman, William (1979). "Meet Monsieur Cholesterol".  
  5. ^ a b c Zadunaisky, JA (1969). "The Chloride Cell: The Active Transport of Chloride and the Paracellular Pathways". In William Stewart Hoar, David J. Randall. Fish Physiology. Part 1 of Fish Physiology: Anatomy, Gas Transfer, and Acid-base Regulation 10 (Academic Press). pp. 130–136.  
  6. ^ Blackburn, Henry (1998). "Ancel Keys - by Henry Blackburn, MD".  
  7. ^ Keys, Ancel; Willmer, EN (1932). Chloride secreting cells' in the gills of fishes, with special reference to the common eel"'" (PDF). The Journal of Physiology 76 (3): 368–380.  
  8. ^ Keys, Ancel (1931). "The determination of chlorides with the highest accuracy". Zeitschr. Vergl. Physiol. 15: 352. 
  9. ^ Keys, Ancel; J.B. Bateman (1932). "Branchial Responses to Adrenaline and to Pitressin in the eel" (PDF). Biological Bulletin 63 (2): 327–336.  
  10. ^ Keys, Ancel (1933). "The Mechanism of Adaptation to Varying Salinity in the Common Eel and the General Problem of Osmotic Regulation in Fishes". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 112 (776): 184–199.  
  11. ^ Keys, Ancel (1939). "A Rapid Micro-Kjeldahl Method". The Journal of Biological Chemistry 132 (1): 181–187. Retrieved 2011-02-05. A micro-Kjeldahl method is described. The method is more rapid than the ordinary macro-Kjeldahl procedure and is not appreciably less accurate 
  12. ^ Trowbridge, Carolyn; Joseph Hall Bodine (1940). "Nitrogen content and distribution in eggs of Melanoplus differentialis during embryonic development" (PDF). Biological Bulletin 79 (3): 452–458.  
  13. ^ Jandi, James H. (1955). "The anemia of liver disease: observations on its mechanism.". Journal of Clinical Investigation 34 (3): 390–404.  
  14. ^ a b Keys, Ancel (1936). "The Physiology of Life at High Altitudes". The Scientific Monthly 43 (4): 289–312.  
  15. ^ a b c d e Kalm L, Semba R (2005). "They starved so that others be better fed: remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota experiment". J Nutr 135 (6): 1347–52.  
  16. ^ Keys, Ancel; Matthews, Bryan H. C.; Forbes, W. H.; McFarland, Ross A. (1938). "Individual Variations in Ability to Acclimatize to High Altitude". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 126 (842): 1–24.  
  17. ^ a b Reed, Christopher (8 Dec 2004). "Ancel Keys The dietician who promoted the virtues of the Mediterranean diet".  
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Buskirk, ER (1992). "From Harvard to Minnesota: Keys to our History". Exercise and sport sciences reviews 20: 1–26.  
  19. ^ U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, RATIONS: The History of Rations, Conference Notes prepared for the Quartermaster General, The Quartermaster School (January 1949)
  20. ^ Schemmel, Rachel; Simin Vaghefi; Barbara Bowman (2001). "Olaf Mickelsen (July 29, 1912 to August 8, 1999)". Journal of Nutrition 131 (2): 205–210.  
  21. ^ Samuels, Leo; Austin Henschel; Ancel Keys (1942). "Influence of Methyl Testosterone on Muscular Work and Creatine Metabolism in Normal Young Men". Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 2 (11): 649–654.  
  22. ^ keys, Ancel; Austin Henschel; Olaf Mickelsen; Josef Brozek (1943). "The performance of normal young men on controlled thiamine intakes" (PDF). Journal of clinical nutrition 26 (4): 399–415. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  23. ^ keys, Ancel; Austin Henschel (1942). "Vitamin supplementation of US Army rations in relation to fatigue and the ability to do muscular work" (PDF). Journal of clinical nutrition 23 (3): 259–269. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  24. ^ Keys, Ancel (1950). The Biology of Human Starvation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 262. 
  25. ^ Keys A, Taylor HL, Blackburn H, Brozek J, Anderson JT, Simonson E (1 September 1963). "Coronary heart disease among Minnesota business and professional men followed 15 years". Circulation 28 (3): 381–95.  
  26. ^ Famous Polemics on Diet-Heart Theory. Henry Blackburn, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota. accessed 18th March 2014
  27. ^ Keys, Ancel (1980). Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease. Harvard University Press.  
  28. ^ António José Marques da Silva, La diète méditerranéenne. Discours et pratiques alimentaires en Méditerranée (vol. 2), L'Harmattan, Paris, 2015 ISBN 978-2-343-06151-1, pp. 49-51
  29. ^ Kromhout D: Serum cholesterol in cross-cultural perspective. The Seven-Countries Study. Acta Cardiol 1999;54:155–158
  30. ^ Katan MB, Beynen AC. Linoleic acid consumption and coronary heart disease in U.S.A. and U.K. Lancet. 1981 Aug 15;2(8242):371
  31. ^ Prentice RL, Sheppard L. Dietary fat and cancer: consistency of the epidemiologic data, and disease prevention that may follow from a practical reduction in fat consumption. Cancer Causes Control. 1990 Jul;1(1):81-97
  32. ^ "Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis". Annals of Internal Medicine 160 (6): 398–406. March 18, 2014.  
  33. ^ Dietary fat and heart disease study is seriously misleading
  34. ^ Ancel Keys, Ph.D., Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  35. ^ "Ancel Keys." (Press release). The American Physiological Society. 2004. Retrieved 2007-11-13. 
  36. ^ Cohen, Ben (18 Dec 2006). "Chemist, author, diet researcher Margaret Keys was 97".  
  37. ^ Todd Tucker (2008). The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science. U of Minnesota Press. p. 146.  

External links

  • Blackburn, Henry. "Ancel Keys".  
  • António José Marques da Silva, La diète méditerranéenne. Discours et pratiques alimentaires en Méditerranée (vol. 2), L'Harmattan, Paris, 2015 ISBN 978-2-343-06151-1, pp. 49–51.
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