Ancel Keys, Ph.D. Was Right (and Nina Teicholz was Wrong): We Eat Too Much Sugar and Saturated Fat
The headlines are buzzing with new data from France that added dietary sugar in juice and soda are associated with an increased risk of cancer. A prior report last month reported a strong relationship of added sugar and mortality. It is a bad month to be in the sugar business (notably this is not referring to whole fruit).
Is this new data or did a famous professor decades ago warn us about excess sugar intake? Indeed, the famous Ancel Keys, Ph.D. warned us of our excesses long ago.
Do you know of the amazing career of Ancel Keys, Ph.D? If you want the long story, I have previously written about the his scientific contributions and the controversy that certain authors and bloggers raised after his death in 2004. If you would like an ever longer scientific analysis of his career, there is a 64-page White Paper to review. The short story is that among his many research projects, over the course of several decades, several projects, and many esteemed co-investigators, his team identified dietary saturated fat as an important cause of the number 1 killer in the Western world, coronary heart disease. In my prior writing I reported that “ If one references his Wikipedia entry of 2017, a journalist Nina Teicholz is featured commenting that if “strong personalities steer events using their own personal charisma, in the history of nutrition Ancel Keys was, by far, the Greatest Man”. She would have us believe that it was his overbearing charisma and personality, and not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of data points and miles flown across the world, that accounted for his influence. In reality, Dr. Keys had more than a dozen international and independent co-researchers in the SCS who formed and contributed to the research and writings that shaped the message surround the risks of foods high in saturated fats. Wikipedia continues the defamation of Dr. Keys reputation citing from her book that “critics of Keys showed no correlation of dietary fat with heart disease, when more countries beyond Key’s original six were added”. In a popular You Tube, Teicholz accuses Keys of “fudging” his data.
In 2019, due in part to the efforts of the True Health Initiative and my writings, Keys’ deserved accolades have been restored to good standing. For example, his current Wikipedia entry no longer quotes Teicholz and praises his many research efforts. A consensus paper published in 2018 on diet referenced Keys’ work without disdain even though one of the paper’s authors was Gary Taubes, perpetual critic of Keys.
Is there any credence left to the former allegation that Keys was somehow in favor of excess sugar in the diet? This remains a point of discussion in the current Wikipedia entry on Keys.
Was Keys in favor of sugar in the diet?
How better to evaluate this question than to turn to his writings. There is a famous scientific paper from 1971 called “Sucrose in the Diet and Coronary Heart Disease” wherein Keys addressed point by point the allegations of an English researcher John Yudkin who championed that sucrose (sugar) is an “important factor in the etiology of coronary heart disease”. In the paper, Keys addressed 4 arguments from the science that Yudkin offered and responded why they were either inaccurate or weak in force. Of importance, he concluded the paper with the admonition “none of what is said here should be taken to mean approval of the common high level of sucrose in many diets. But there are plenty of good arguments to reduce the flood of dietary sucrose.”
Even earlier, in 1967, Keys published a delightful small book with his wife Margaret entitled The Benevolent Bean. This book provided a basis for adding more beans in the diet and provided a host or recipes (by no means low fat recipes either). On page 26 they favored adding a pound of beans a week but wrote “our proposal would be to reduce sugar. Nutritionally, and gastronomically too, it is scandalous that Americans get some 16% of their calories from sugar and other sweeteners. If we substituted twelve pounds of beans for an equal amount of sugar in the yearly diet, we would still be eating around 85 pounds of sugar a year”. Keys would be shocked and offended to know the average sugar intake in the USA has ballooned up to 152 pounds yearly!
Overall, the new data on added sugar in the form of sweetened beverages including juice is a sobering reminder that our habits 200 years ago of eating about 2 pounds yearly of added sugar has exploded and we are paying a price for it in terms of heart disease, cancer, and overall mortalty. Added sugar in excess is toxic, just as saturated fat of animal origin (cheese, meats, egg yolks) is toxic, both should be drastically reduced or eliminated in our diet.
Looking back on an amazing career, Keys got it right and the critics have fortunately been silenced by the truth.