Healthy Lifestyles and Longevity

According to David Sinclair, PhD in his recent book, Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, “Aging is a disease and that disease is treatable.” What if you could have some control over how many years you can live and live that life with reasonable health?

There is now a fascinating new surge in aging research and a lot of attention paid to the contribution of healthy lifestyles. According to Dr. Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the key is “activating newly discovered genes, the descendants of an ancient survival circuit that is both the cause of aging and the key to reversing it.” Sounds a little mystical? It makes a lot of sense (after reading the book). New ideas can change the way we think about aging and what we can do about it. Anyone who ages must read about these new concepts.

Spoiler Alert: From the article and study: Researchers estimated participants who didn’t follow any of the habits had a life expectancy at age 50 of 29 years for women and 25.5 years for men. Yet for those who did adopt these guidelines, after age 50 women could expect to live another 43.1 years, compared to 37.6 years on average for men. Ben Renner, Harvard Study: Adopting These 5 Healthy Habits can Add Decade To Your Life. Study Finds, June 16, 2018,

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Hooked on Food?

Hooked on Food: A Battle in the Brain? The Reality of Food Addiction

Our brains maintain a healthy body weight by signaling when to eat and when to stop. Hormones regulate feeding circuits that control appetite and satiety, but fatty sugary foods can motivate some people to overeat. The more they have the more they want, a sensation common in drug addiction.

Sugar in the form of glucose provides the body with quick energy. But lately, we’ve gone way beyond the Call of Duty. 200 years ago, the average American ate about 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today we each eat about 152 pounds a year according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. This sharp increase in the consumption of sugar is no mystery. Sugar is cheap, plentiful, and it tastes great.

Some doctors and researchers classify sugar as an addictive drug because this refined white crystal triggers the pleasure and reward centers in our brain much like a drug does. It was already well established that sugar consumption will light up the nucleus accumbens and other areas of the brain that are collectively known as the reward centers, generating intense feelings of pleasure when we engage in acts like eating. Doctors are trying to curb our out-of-control sweets habit. The American Heart Association recommends that adult men consume no more than 38 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar daily, women only 6 teaspoons, and children even less. The latest 2025 dietary guidelines recommends even smaller amounts for daily consumption: no more than 30 grams of added sugar a day for an adult male. However, these numbers fall far below what a typical American actually consumes. An average soda is 39 grams and a bowl of cereal is 20 grams and that’s without dumping more spoonfuls of sugar on top of it.

Is Sugar Addictive?

A recent study showed that rats can be addicted to foods, too.  Actually, these foods sound very similar to those found in the Standard American Diet. The researchers gave rats unlimited access to standard chow as well as to a mini cafeteria full of appetizing high calorie foods: sausage, cheesecake, chocolate. The rats decreased their intake of the healthy but bland items and switched to eating the cafeteria food almost exclusively. They gained weight. They became obese.

The research then warned the rats as they were eating by flashing a light that they would receive a nasty foot shock. Rats eating the bland chow would quickly stop and scramble away, but time and again the obese rats continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning that they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self preservation.

“We now have the evidence for just how easy this is. People eating ultra processed, palatable foods are likely to eat more calories and no surprise, gain weight. We know this from a clinical trial run by Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. They managed to convince 20 adults to live in a controlled metabolic ward for a month period. They gave the volunteers one of two diets unprocessed or ultra processed that were matched for calories, fats , carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. For two weeks the volunteers could eat as much as they wanted of the assigned diet; they then could eat as much as they wanted of the other diet for two weeks. The results were stunningly clear. On the ultra processed diet, the volunteers consumed many more calories – 500 — more a day than when eating the unprocessed diet.  They also gained a pound week.

This experiment tells us that there is something about sweet, salty, and fatty foods that makes us want to eat more of them and to be unaware of how much more we’re eating. Salads and fruits do not trigger this kind of response.”  Source: Marion Nestle. Let’s Ask Marion: What you need to know about the politics of food, nutrition, and health. California Study in Food and Culture. 2020.

Did they become “hooked on food”? An inability to suppress a behavior, despite the negative consequences, is common in addiction. Scientists are finding similar compulsiveness in certain people. Almost all obese individuals say they want to consume less, yet they consume or continue to overeat even though they know that doing so can have shockingly negative health or social consequences. Studies show that overeating juices up the reward systems in our brain so much so in some people that it overpowers the brain’s ability to tell them to stop eating when they have had enough. As with alcoholics and drug addicts, the more they eat the more they want. Whether or not overeating is technically an addiction if it stimulates the same brain circles as drug use in the same way, people also can possibly be “addicted to food.”

What to Do? Protein to the Rescue

Many peoples’ relationship with sugar typically starts when they wake up in the morning.  Many start the day with a sweet bowl of cereal or a muffin (at 600 calories) for breakfast. But this pattern can set you up to fail, so many nutritionists recommend to focus more on protein.

Protein helps stabilize blood sugar which helps keep you out of fight or flight reactions and protein also provides the building blocks for your brain neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Many nutritionists advise their patients to eat protein such as eggs, cheese, nuts, peas, beans, and or even a protein shake at least an hour after they get up, and with every meal. If you snack before bed, make sure that it has protein too. Even if we strive to avoid sugar, it is often ubiquitous in our food culture appearing in many processed foods.  If you have trouble saying no to sweets, it is recommended to eat protein proactively to keep temptations in check. This way you can help to avoid another binge on your favorite indulgence promoted by the American food industry and your brain, which is actually in on the hijacking, by the way.

Fast Food Addiction?

FAST FOOD ADDICTION: A MAJOR PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE

ARC Journal of Addiction, Vol. 4, Issue 2, 2019, pp. 1-11

HIGHLIGHTS

“Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. The food is in its natural (or nearly natural) state. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods would include carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon, and raw, unsalted nuts.

Processing changes a food from its natural state. Processed foods are essentially made by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Examples include canned fish or canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, and freshly made breads.

Some foods are highly processed or ultra-processed. They most likely have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. They may also contain additives like emulsifiers or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.” Source: Harvard Health Letter

The growing widespread use of fast food among Americans is of concern due to the high fat and energy intake, which may cause obesity and subsequently obesity related chronic diseases. Added fat sugar and salt create a taste that makes people crave these foods, a sensation that many described as an addiction. US fast food sales increased exponentially between 1970 and 2000, from $6 billion to $10 billion. During this time, obesity rates among US adults doubled and it is expected that 85% of US citizens will be affected by obesity by 2030.

Fast foods in particular are known to cause many of the chronic diseases that have become the leading causes of death in the United States. What are some of the effects of fast food on the body? Most of the fast foods contain a large amount of sugar, fats and carbs and less minerals and vitamins. This means that people are taking in large amounts of unhealthy calories in the shape of fast food which leads to weight gain and ultimately obesity. Obesity is linked to several long-term health conditions that include premature death, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gall bladder disease, fatty liver, arthritis and joint disorders and some cancers. One study showed that consumption of fast foods greater than two times a week increased the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Frequent consumption of fast foods was accompanied with overweight and abdominal fat, impaired insulin and glucose homeostasis, lipid and lipoprotein disorders, induction of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.

Supersize Me was a 2004 American documentary film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, an American independent filmmaker. Spurlock’s film follows a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003, during which he ate only McDonald’s food. The results showed that his physician became concerned when his liver enzymes became alarmingly high and he had gained considerable weight in that short period of time.

 A new study in PLOS Medicine finds eating unhealthy food is associated with a higher risk of developing cancer. People who ate the most junk food showed a higher risk of stomach, colorectal, and surprisingly lung cancers. Separately, men showed a higher risk of lung cancer and women showed a higher risk of liver and post-menopausal breast cancers. Nitrate and nitrite, which are abundant in processed meats are potential carcinogens found in breast, prostate, pancreas, and colorectal cancers along with non alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance.

Sugar overload – what happens in your body?

20 minutes after drinking a soda, your blood sugar spikes, causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this by turning any sugar into fat. 40 minutes later, caffeine absorption from the soda is complete. Your pupils dilate; your blood pressure rises, and as a response your liver dumps more sugar into your bloodstream. 45 minutes later,  your body ups your dopamine (a neurotransmitter)  production stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain; this is physically the same way heroin works by the way.

Fast food in particular was first popularized in the 1970s in the United States, which is today the largest fast food industry in the world. Fast food restaurants serve as popular sites for their meals eaten outside the home. Current approaches suggest that fast food restaurants should be required to clarify nutrition information such as calorie and fat content on their menu boards and on product packaging. Studies have shown mixed results as to whether consumers’ choices are affected by this information on packaged and fast foods.

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Breast Cancer, Obesity and Time-restricted Eating

There is a great need for research on the effects of diet and cancer. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in United States. As with cardiovascular disease, there is evidence that the risk of cancer can be reduced with changes in diet and activity patterns. Breast cancer is the leading form of cancer in women worldwide as there are new cases of invasive breast cancer that occur among women annually; a percentage of them will die from the disease. Obesity has been estimated to be associated with 13 different types of cancer.

Time restricted eating or intermittent fasting has been shown to have health benefits in addition to weight loss. This study attempts to measure the effects of intermittent fasting without calorie restriction on aspects of breast tumor formation in mice.

Note: Since this was an animal study, different metabolic effects can be found in humans. While most people can practice many fasting styles safely, extreme types of any type of fasting, can lead to inadequate intake of nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Therefore, people should approach any style of fasting with caution. If you have diabetes, you should consult with your physician before attempting any type of fasting program. (SJF).

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Vitamin D: An Update At A Glance

Several posts have explained the role of vitamin D in immunity and and thus the Covid virus – (can search on this blog under Infectious Disease). This post is simply an update about the expanded role of vitamin D status.

WHAT You Need to Know Vitamin’s Immune Benefits

More than 70% of Americans have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D.

Vitamin D supports the immune system’s response to illnesses of all kinds which may include COVID-19.

Past studies show that low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased rates and severity of viral infections.

Clinical trials have shown that vitamin D has a protective effect against respiratory tract infections.

Vitamin D and Viral Illness

Vital respiratory tract infections, such as flu, are more common during winter. One of the reasons for this may be seasonal variations in our vitamin D levels. During winter, we get less sun, leading to lower vitamin D production. That puts us at increased risk for viral infection. Low vitamin D is also a risk for more severe lung disease called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This condition can lead to what is called a cytokine storm with hyper- production of inflammatory factors that can lead to death.

Vitamin D’s Protective Action

Vitamin D contributes to many functions that help shield the body from infections and lessen their severity. Maintaing adequate levels of vitamin D:

Interferes with the ability of viruses to replicate and produce more viral particles.

Helps support and repair heathly cellular linings in the body, including the airways of the lungs.

Increases production of proteins that shield against bacteria and viruses, enhancing the ability of cells to protect themselves from infection.

Improves the ability of immune cells to mount an effective attack against specific viruses.

Helps prevent the immune system from going overboard and producing excessive pro-inflammatory compounds in the lungs.

Summary:

Unfortunately, vitamin D is found naturally in few foods in the diet. These are fish and seafood, fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, regular milk, rice milk, soy milk, yogurt, and margarine Therefore, an oral supplement may be necessary. If you think you may not get enough D in your diet, please see your physician to discuss the benefits and side effects of vitamin D supplementation. There is a common blood test that he/she may suggest to indicate your blood level of this fat-soluble vitamin.

The Upper Limit is 100 mcg or 4,000 UL if you choose to take a supplement. Consequences of overdose may include: mental retardation in young children, abnormal bone growth and formation, nausea, diarrhea, irritability, weight loss, calcium deposition in organs such as kidneys, liver, and heart, toxicity is possible with long-term use of 10,000 daily.

Nutrition Now, Judith E. Brown, 7th Edition, 2013

Life Extension November, 2020

Food Additives and the Metabolic Syndrome

 

What is the metabolic syndrome?

The metabolic syndrome is cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Metabolic syndrome includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. The syndrome increases a person’s risk for heart attack and stroke. Weight loss, exercise, a healthy diet, and smoking cessation can help. Medications may also be prescribed.

In the current study presented, the results support the emerging concept that perturbed host–microbiome interactions resulting in low-grade inflammation can promote obesity and its associated metabolic effects. Moreover, they suggest that the broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases.

Emulsifiers as a food additive act as detergents to  reduce stickiness, control crystallization and prevent separation. They are commonly used in many processed foods such as mayonnaise, ice cream, peanut butter, chocolate, salad dressings to create a smooth texture, prevent separation and extend shelf life.

Commonly used emulsifiers in modern food production include mustard, soy and egg lecithin, mono-and diglycerides, polysorbates, carrageenan, guar gum and canola oil. Lecithin in egg yolks is one of the most powerful and oldest forms of an animal-derived emulsifier used to stabilize oil in water. These ingredients are required by law to be included on a food’s ingredient label. Emulsifiers can disrupt the tight seal called tight junctions formed by the intestinal tract lining, enabling gut bacteria to cross and gain access to nearby immune cells, promoting metabolic toxemia.

Even though these ingredients are on the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list , many have not been thoroughly tested. Testing can occur if an ingredient is found to causes a health problem.

Conclusions:
The mice study presented below was concluded by the co-author, Andrew Gewirtz, PhD, as saying, “We suspect some emulsifiers act like detergents, upsetting the friendly bacteria in the microbiota, which triggers low-grade inflammation and causes excess  eating and weight gain”. A follow-up study suggested the changes in gut bacteria from emulsifiers could trigger bowel cancer;  however, more recent findings confirmed that emulsifiers remained safe at the estimated exposure levels. However, based on the study, the use of these emulsifiers may need some revision.

Bottom Line:  The current use of emulsifiers in the food production system may affect the health of the microbiome and parameters of the metabolic syndrome. This in turn can contribute to a higher risk of several chronic diseases, namely obesity and/or diabetes type 2. Consumers are encouraged to read labels and consume less highly processed foods and substitute more minimally processed foods to prevent these occurrences.

UPDATE: Source: Medical News Today, August, 2020

A new study has found that people with metabolic syndrome, which refers to a cluster of conditions that increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular issues, are more likely to have worse COVID-19 outcomes — including requiring ventilation and death.

The research, which appears in the journal Diabetes Care, August, 2020, provides further information on the underlying risk factors that affect the severity of COVID-19.

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Getting your protein from plants: A recipe for longevity?

Question: Does plant or animal protein affect mortality and/or longevity?

A study found that for every 3% of a persons daily energy intake coming from plant protein instead of animal protein reduces a person’s risk of premature death by 10%.

For this study the researchers analyzed dietary data from more than 237, 000 men and 179, 000 women gathered between 1995 and 2011 as part of a long-term study on eating patterns and health. During 16 years of follow-up, a pattern emerged where plant protein intake appeared to reduce risk of early death. Every 10 grams of plant for animal protein swapping per 1000 calories resulted in a 12% lower risk of death for men and 14% for women, the finding showed.

Bottom Line: The findings provide evidence that dietary modification in choice of protein sources may influence cardiovascular health and longevity.

Taking red meat out of your diet can be beneficial, but only if you swap for a healthy substitute, said a lead researcher from the US National Cancer Institute. For example, replacement of 3% energy from egg protein or red made protein with plant protein such as whole grains or cereals resulted in a protective Association for overall mortality, the researcher said on the other hand replacement of 3% energy from egg protein or red meat protein with other foods such as sugar sweetened beverages may or may not result in a reduction in mortality.

There are many reasons why choosing plant protein over animal protein could help extend your life; meat protein tends to come with higher levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and other nutrients that aren’t very good for your health. For example, one ounce of red meat mixed with whole wheat pasta and veggies would provide much less saturated fat than a 9 ounce steak

On the other hand, plant proteins come with loads of fiber , antioxidants, and other compounds like vitamins and minerals that add to the nutrient density along with lesser calories as fat than in some meat products (processed meat in particular).

The researchers also added that there might be something specific about the products formed from the breakdown of animal-based protein that could cause arteries to grow harder or inflammation to occur. In 2011, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic demonstrated that meat eaters produced a metabolite that promotes heart disease called Trimethylamine-N-Oxide or TMAO. Of great interest, TMAO was not elevated in vegans who were asked to meet eat a meat meal for the purposes of the study. .

Huang, Jiaqu, et al. JAMA Intern Med. Published online July 13, 2020.

 

Is DNA Your Destiny?

Thinking of getting one of those DNA testing kits?  Aside from the Ancestry tests, the tests for your future health risks may be questionable and at this point you may want to save your money. Here is why.

A new outlook on genetics is called epigenetics  and involves the concept of environmental factors (including diet) affecting how genes are expressed or inhibited. Thanks to this relatively new science, we now know that experiences of previous generations may show up in your health and well-being. Many of the risks for chronic diseases – including obesity, diabetes type 2, high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia can be traced back to your biological roots and the experiences your parent and even grandpaents had. Similarly, the food you eat may affect your children and grandchildren.

Is Your DNA Your Destiny?

Gene Expression: the process by which a cell converts the genetic code into RNA and protein

Epigenetics: the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence itself

DNA Methylation: A chemical reaction that occurs in a cell when a methyl group attaches to DNA, changing the expression of the gene to which it is attached.

Methyl Group: A type of molecular structure that occurs in many compounds, CH3, for example.

Methyl Donor: Nutrients, like folate and vitamin B12 that when metabolized can donate methyl groups during the process.

To fully illustrate the epigenetic process, one must tell the story of the agouti gene.

The Result of Methylation

Methylation Effects in the DNA

Both these mice have the gene called the agouti gene that tends to produce fat, yellow pups, so we want to silence the expression of the gene if possible. There is a way.  The mom of the brown mouse was fed B vitamins which silenced the gene. This produced brown pups with normal appetites resulting in a thin, healthy mouse.

Without altering the genomic structure, agouti moms were then able to produce healthy brown pups of normal weight and less prone to diseases.

How did this occur?  Some nutrients silence genes by providing methylation (adding a methyl group (CH3); others activate genes by inhibiting methylation. It’s like throwing a wrench into the DNA to stop the expression of a gene or removing the wrench to allow the expression of the gene. The B vitamins acted as methyl donors that caused methyl groups to attach more frequently to the agouti gene in utero, inhibiting its expression.  Silence or inhibiting depends on what the gene does: e.g., silencing a gene that stimulates cancer growth is beneficial; silencing a gene that suppresses cancer growth would be harmful.

In any case, your lifestyle choices may play a role in your future health status.

It must be remembered that with any new concept, doubts and skepticism will occur. Time for more research to examine this interesting hypothesis. The   implications are enormous in that we may be able to improve our health status by choosing healthy habits and lifestyles such as diet, exercise, stopping smoking, for example.

 

 

 

 

 

Nutrition News: No Nonsense

Are those eggs OK to eat? 

Too many of us end up throwing out food that is still perfectly safe to eat. Eggs are often on the top of the list of things people think go bad quickly. But eggs are safe to eat up to five weeks after the sell by date. If you’re curious about when those eggs were packed just look at the number under the sell by date, the three-digit number in the middle.

The problem with potassium.

Many people load up on bananas and potatoes because they are high in potassium, which can help lower blood pressure. But more isn’t always better. Too much potassium can cause irregular heartbeat and other side effects. While the National Institutes of Health has not released an upper limit for potassium, the supplements in the US do not contain more than 99 milligrams. Taking more potent forms can have serious adverse side effects including confusion, temporal paralysis, low blood pressure, weakness, and coma.

Reduce Your Risk of Stroke

What is the biggest benefit of getting enough protein? If you said building muscles, you’d be close, but it might not be the biggest benefit. Recent studies show people who ate the most protein had higher levels of HDL ( good cholesterol) and those who eat the most protein (not including red meat ) were 20% less likely to suffer a stroke than those with the lowest intake. What’s more, people who ate more protein and fewer carbohydrates had better numbers for blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Bacon as Bad as Smoking?

Is that slice (or two or three) of bacon on your BLT as dangerous as smoking a cigarette? Processed meats like bacon and cold cuts are listed as a Group One carcinogen, the same as smoking or asbestos. But that doesn’t mean they’re equally as dangerous. The classification reflects the strength of evidence linking processed meats – think: bacon, sausages, hot dogs, jerky, and cold cuts to cancer risk. Basically, any meat that’s been tweaked to enhance the flavor or improved preservation by salting, curing, fermentation or smoking is considered processed. Just one 0.75 ounces of bacon (about two slices a day) is linked to an 18% greater risk of colorectal cancer. That’s the equivalent of 1 hot dog or a couple slices of cold cuts. While it isn’t a good idea to load up on these foods, they’re often high in saturated fat and salt too, let’s put the risk in perspective. The lifetime risk of an average American of developing colorectal cancer is 5%. An 18% increase raises that number to about 6%, so an occasional ballpark dog or B LT should be fine.  Important note: simply choosing nitrate-free meats may not reduce your risk of cancer. High temperature cooking methods like pan frying and grilling may produce more carcinogens in meat. Choosing lower temperature cooking methods like braising or roasting may reduce your risk. Ever tried cooking bacon in the oven? Works well!

Zinc can help boost your immunity as you age.

A new study showed that 30% of nursing home residents have low blood levels of zinc, and those with low levels were at significantly higher risk of pneumonia. Ensuring adequate zinc consumption could reduce chances of deadly infections. Zinc helps to improve the function of T-cells, a special type of white blood cell that targets and destroys invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc supplementation not only increased the number of T- cells, but it improved effectiveness, too. Get more zinc in your diet with shellfish, pork, cashews, peanuts, and chickpeas.

SOURCE:

19 Health and Nutrition Secrets that Can Change Your Life: Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter

Ancel Keys – Big Fat Confusion ?

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An early picture of Ancel Keys, This image is ...

An early picture of Ancel Keys, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Time Magazine 1961. Ancel Keys appears on the cover to claim that saturated fat in the diet clogged arteries and caused heart disease.

Time Magazine, 2014. Eat Butter. Scientists were wrong about saturated fat. They don’t cause heart disease.

How did the low saturated fat message begin?  How, when and why did this confusion begin?

Ancel Benjamin Keys was born in 1904 in Colorado Springs, Colorado to teenage parents. In his younger years he had various jobs including a clerk in a Woolworth store. He finished college in 3 years with Honors at Berkeley and earned a MS in Biology followed by a PhD from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. In 1930 he traveled to Copenhagen to work with Nobel laureate, August Krogh where he studied the ability of eels to survive in both fresh and salt-water environments. He then went to Cambridge and obtained a second PhD in animal physiology from King’s College.

What made Keys famous was his Seven Countries Study, a study that remains controversial to this day. He initially observed that heart disease rates dropped in countries forced to alter their high fat diets because of the war rationing and reversed to higher rates when these diets returned.

He suspected dietary factors, particularly saturated fat, that might play a key role in atherosclerosis. After conducting some well-designed studies to support his theory, “he formulated an equation that simply showed a 2.7% mg/dl rise in cholesterol for every 1% of calories derived from saturated fat. The equation also suggested that polyunsaturated fat lowered serum cholesterol and dietary cholesterol raised serum cholesterol but to a lesser extent than saturated fat. “ Journal of Clinical Lipidology, page 435

Keys had based his theory on when he had previously visited Italy and Spain. He observed in Naples, Italy that only heart disease patients in hospitals were wealthy men. In Madrid, Spain he took blood samples from some men in one of the poorer districts where heart disease was rare and compared them to samples of more well-off patients with heart disease. What he found were differences in their serum cholesterol values with the higher levels in the wealthy and lower values in the poorer population. The diets of the two groups also differed with the poorer diets lower in fat than those of the wealthy. These observations were central to his theory that saturated fat or animal fat and dietary cholesterol contributed to heart disease.  Levenstein, Harvey, Junk Science Week: Lipophobia and the Bad Science Diet, Financial Post, June 11,2012.

The theory gained some steam when in 1955, President Dwight David Eisenhower had a heart attack at age 64, “ Over the next six weeks, twice-daily press conferences were held on his condition. After his attack, he dieted religiously with a low-fat diet and had his cholesterol measured ten times a year (it had been 165 mg initially)”. Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories, page 1-4.   The low-fat diet had little effect and his cholesterol continued to rise as well as his weight.

Between 1955 and 1958, Keys began to study the male population aged 40 to 59 in rural areas in certain countries. He used electrocardiograph data to detect heart abnormalities and cardiovascular disease. The countries included Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Japan. The countries he had chosen represented varied intakes of saturated or animal fat; lower levels were found in some populations in Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, and Japan. Finland, the Netherlands, and the U.S. represented higher levels of animal fat in their diets. Five and ten years later, the researchers returned to identify those who had experienced heart attacks. The lowest rates were found in Crete and Japan with the lowest levels of animal fat; the highest was found in East Finland and the U. S. with the highest levels of animal fat. All in all, Keys studied nearly 13,000 men.  From this study, he concluded that “saturated fats as a percentage of calories was the most powerful lifestyle predictor of heart disease. “Blood cholesterol was the important physiological variable. “ Journal of Clinical Lipidology, page 437.

In 1961 Keys appeared on the cover of Time magaine with the Seven Countries Study’s alleged link between fat, cholesterol and heart disease that fueled the fear of dietary fat in America. Two weeks later the American Heart Association (AHA) endorsed the theory.  With this announcement, the vegetable oil producers could not get their advertisements out fast enough. Wesson Oil said: “polyunsaturated Wesson is unsurpassed by any leading oil in its ability to reduce blood cholesterol.” Nutrition scientists jumped on the bandwagon. For example, Harvard nutritionist, Frederick Stare advised swallowing three tablespoons of polyunsaturated oil each day. Lipophobia had begun in earnest. Levenstein, Harvey, Lipophobia and the bad science.

Consumption of margarine doubled from 1950 to 1972 and that of vegetable oil rose by over 50% in the 10 years from 1966 to 1976. Ironically, based on the thesis of Keys that saturated fat was the culprit, the AHA and other agencies had urged food processors to use trans fats to replace the alleged deadly saturated fat. Ironically, the most common source of trans fats turned out to be the very margarine they had promoted as heart healthy. From 1956 to 1976, per-capita butter consumption fell by over half.

Key’s hypothesis strengthened in 1977 with Senator George McGovern’s publication of the First Dietary Goals for the U.S., which was the first time that any government group had told Americans to eat less fat and cholesterol to improve health. The document became gospel and had a tremendous impact on consumers and the food industry. In 1980, Hegsted and McGinnis produced the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans that concurred with “avoiding too much fat and cholesterol and eating more foods with adequate starch and fiber.”

However, three major studies failed in their support for Key’s hypothesis and without going into the details, each one raised doubts about the  hypothesis.

The Key’s Seven Countries Study, so pivotal in lipophobia has been debunked by many, particularly those who favor the idea of eating meat.. On the other hand, vegans favor the thesis. Here is what the critics of the study say: First, Keys did not randomly choose countries but is accused of picking those countries most likely to support his theory. He excluded France whose diet has been notoriously rich in saturated fat along with a low heart disease rate (The French Paradox). He also excluded Switzerland, Sweden, and West Germany with the similar higher saturated fat intakes but with lower rates of heart disease. He originally gathered data from 22 countries.   However, some point out that even when all 22 countries are analyzed, the trend that fat intake is associated with heart disease still weakly exists.

Ancel Keys died in November of 2004 at the age of 100 years old.

Key’s thesis is still hotly debated to this day because of its limitations and lack of  conclusive support from the research community. There are still adherents of the efficacy of the low fat diet, particularly in its effects on atherosclerosis regression or prevention.  The debate has now switched to which diet is heart healthy – a low-fat or a low-carbohydrate diet. However, that is another story.

I truly don’t know if Keys was right or wrong. The purpose of this post is to point out that his legacy remains as one of the leading food crusaders that changed the American plate.  Is the low fat craze finally coming to an end?  Has this national experiment failed?  Will the low carbohydrate diet help curb the obesity epidemic or prevent heart disease?  Sounds like a “soap opera, doesn’t it?  One thing is certain – atherosclerosis is a complicated disorder and until its origin and pathology is conclusively determined, no one will know who was right.