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Exposing the Fat Deception: Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study’s Influence on Dietary Myths

This is part 1 of a 2 part blog post. To create some context for the topic of dietary fat phobia, we need to unpack some history between government federal health agencies and the food industry. Wherever there is big money to be made, there’s often an agenda. FYI, that agenda is not always in the best interest of public health. 

At one time in my life, I was fat phobic. I ate egg whites and shunned the yolks. Anytime I would go out for a Sunday brunch, it was egg white omelets with veggies, or a huge green salad with grilled chicken breasts. Never thigh meat. Because I wasn’t getting enough fat in my diet, I was also often hungry. While I’m confessing here, I might as well admit that I used to drink diet soda too…During high school and college, diet coke was my beverage of choice. I’m ashamed just writing this but it’s true. My journey towards a holistic lifestyle and unprocessed food was an evolution. It didn’t happen overnight. 

I forgave myself for being naive, falling for the food industry propaganda and wising up over the years with education. Better late than never, I like to say. You learn when you’re ready and open to hearing the truth, as hard as it may be to believe sometimes. That being said, it’s helpful to understand where all this fear mongering about fat came from so you can go on with your life and enjoy some pasture-raised whole scrambled eggs with butter. 

Ancel Keys and “The 7 Countries Study” that hoodwinked the public into believing that saturated fat causes heart disease

Ancel Keys was an American physiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Born in 1904, Keys made significant contributions to the fields of nutrition, epidemiology, and cardiovascular disease research throughout his career. He earned his Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, Berkeley, before transitioning his focus to human physiology and nutrition.

Keys gained prominence in the mid-20th century for his research on the relationship between diet and heart disease. Ancel Keys’ “diet-heart hypothesis” proposed that dietary fat, particularly saturated fat (i.e Lard, Tallow, Butter, Meat…) , was a major contributor to heart disease. This hypothesis gained widespread attention and influenced public health policies and dietary recommendations for decades.

In the late 1950’s, Ancel Keys was chosen to lead the Seven Countries Study by the United States Public Health Service, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. This agency was responsible for promoting public health and conducting research on various health-related issues, including cardiovascular disease

The Seven Countries Study aimed to investigate the relationship between dietary fat intake and heart disease mortality across different populations. The study focused on seven countries: the United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Japan, and Yugoslavia. Keys selected these countries based on their diverse diets and varying rates of heart disease.

 Here’s a summary of the key points of this hypothesis: 

Saturated fat and cholesterol: Keys suggested that consuming foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol led to an increase in blood cholesterol levels, specifically low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. Elevated LDL cholesterol was believed to contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and ultimately increasing the risk of heart disease. Since then, we now know that LDL is not entirely negative, as long as you know what the particle size of the LDL is. If it’s small, it can create problems of coronary artery blockage but if it’s large and fluffy, it’s not a danger. You can request a large and small particle size LDL test from your doctor. If they deny your request or insurance does not cover it, you can use independent labs like Life Extension who offer the NMR LipoProfile lab (LDL particle size test). It’s quite reasonable at $99.00. 

Dietary recommendations: Based on the diet-heart hypothesis, Keys advocated for reducing the consumption of foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat, butter, cheese, and tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Instead, he recommended replacing these with foods rich in unsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils, seed oils, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.

Population-level interventions: Keys’ research, including the Seven Countries Study, provided support for population-level interventions aimed at reducing saturated fat intake to lower the incidence of heart disease. These interventions often involved public health campaigns, dietary guidelines, and policy initiatives promoting low-fat diets.

Controversy and criticism: While the diet-heart hypothesis gained widespread acceptance and influenced dietary recommendations for decades, it also faced criticism and controversy. Some researchers questioned the strength of the evidence supporting the hypothesis, pointing to inconsistencies in observational studies and methodological flaws in clinical trials. Additionally, critics argued that focusing solely on reducing saturated fat intake may have overshadowed other dietary and lifestyle factors that also play a role in heart disease risk.

Ancel Keys’ diet-heart hypothesis posited that dietary fat, particularly saturated fat, was a significant factor in the development of heart disease. While this hypothesis shaped public health policies and dietary guidelines for many years, it also sparked debate and controversy within the scientific community.

Low fat diets hurt your gallbladder and cause problems

One of many thoughts that came to mind as I was writing this post is that more women than men have their gallbladders removed and are under the age of sixty;the number of cholecystectomies (i.e gallbladder removal) performed on women is increasing, while the age of female patients is decreasing. In 2011, gallbladder removal was the eighth most common operation performed in the United States. The gallbladder is necessary for the breakdown and digestion of fat. A low fat diet interferes with gallbladder function because it causes the liver to secrete less bile to metabolize the decreased amount of fat. The unused bile gets backed up and stored in the gallbladder and turns into gallstones. The gallbladder is also essential for the synthesis of vitamin D. It’s definitely not a useless organ. 

Why “The 7 Countries Study,” conducted by Ancel Keys, falls flat

Cherry-picking data: One of the primary criticisms of the Seven Countries Study is that Keys selectively chose data from seven countries out of the 22 available, which supported his hypothesis linking saturated fat intake to heart disease. Ignoring data from countries that did not fit his theory could have skewed the results and conclusions. 

Methodological flaws: Critics argue that the methodology of the Seven Countries Study was not robust. For instance, it relied heavily on observational data, which can establish correlations but not causation. Additionally, dietary data collection methods were inconsistent across countries, leading to potential inaccuracies.

Disregarding contradictory evidence: Keys disregarded data from countries such as France and Switzerland, where saturated fat intake was high but rates of heart disease were relatively low. This selective focus on data that supported his hypothesis while ignoring contradictory evidence weakened the credibility of the study.

Bias and conflicts of interest: Ancel Keys was known for his strong beliefs about the role of dietary fat in heart disease, and some critics suggest that this bias influenced his interpretation of the data. Additionally, Keys had connections to the food industry, which could have influenced his research agenda.

Overall, while the Seven Countries Study played a significant role in shaping dietary guidelines and public health policy, it has been criticized for its methodology, selective data analysis, and potential biases. Subsequent research has provided a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between dietary fat intake and heart health, emphasizing the importance of considering overall dietary patterns and individual differences.

Final thoughts 

As the decades rolled by, the diet heart hypothesis has been debunked. Saturated fat is a building block for sex and steroid hormones as well as components for our cell membranes.  Twenty five percent of the human brain is made of cholesterol, and when women eat a low fat diet they are also putting themselves at risk for depression, anxiety and cognitive issues. Saturated fat plays an important role in optimum human health. 

Next week, I’ll go more into the reasons and need for making saturated fats like butter and meat a part of your diet. Especially for menopause and beyond.  Stay tuned for part 2. 


Look, Feel and Be Kuhle! 


7 countries study, Ancel Keys, bias, butter, cheese, cholesterol, coconut oil, conflicts of interest, contradictory evidence, controversy, criticism, data manipulation, debunking, dietary recommendations, gallbladder, heart health, heart health hypothesis, hormones, LDL, lifestyle, methodological flaws, nutrition, palm oil, red meat, research, saturated fat, steroid hormones, women's health

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