Ancel Keys

From soldiers’ rations to the Mediterranean diet

Deirdre Pirro
June 1, 2011

This time of year, we start thinking about bikini waxes and getting into perfect shape for those lazy, hazy days on the beach. To help us, every day there seems to be a new diet fad to try that frequently turns out to be a nutritional nightmare. Yet there have long been far better alternatives, such as the Mediterranean diet. With its concentration on fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, chicken, fish, olive oil and a little wine rather than red meat, eggs and dairy products, it helps fight obesity and limits the production of cholesterol in the body, a major factor in heart disease.


Beginning in the late 1950s, American physiologist Ancel Keys and his biochemist wife, Margaret, introduced the Mediterranean diet to the English-speaking world through the publication of three best-selling books: Eat Well, Stay Well (1959), The Benevolent Bean (1967) and Eat Well, Stay Well the Mediterranean Way (1975). To test his theories, from 1963 until 1998, Keys lived and worked in Pioppi, a fishing village on the Cilento coast south of Salerno, where he bought a property out of the royalties from the first book. Named Minnelea, a fusion of 'Elea,' a place visited by Homer's Ulysses and 'Minnesota,' his garden with its orchard, olive trees, vines and vegetable plot overlooked the sea. Keys also set aside allotments there for fellow scientists.


Born to very young parents in Colorado Springs on January 20, 1904, Keys grew up in California, where his family had settled to be near his uncle, silent movie star Lon Chaney. As a teenager, Keys ran away from home and had to take a series of unskilled jobs to survive. On returning, he studied chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, but, still restless, he dropped out and set sail on a tanker for China. Back home again, he took a degree in economics and political science and began working at a Woolworth's store. Bored with this, in 1927, he earned a master's degree in zoology in just six months. To complete his studies, he took a doctorate in oceanography and biology at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and then went to England for his doctorate in physiology from Kings' College of Cambridge. Interested in human physiological reactions under extreme conditions, he joined the Fatigue Laboratory at Harvard in 1936 and took part in an expedition to the Andes. In 1937, he moved to the University of Minnesota to he set up what would become the world famous Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, where he would continue to work until his retirement.


In 1939, with World War II approaching, the US War Department asked Keys to create a food box that troops could easily carry. He put together a meal consisting of biscuits, dry sausage, hard candy and chocolate. The army added chewing gum, toilet paper and four cigarettes to each package and called them K-rations in his honour. As the war ended, he began concentrating on the effects starvation would have on millions in Europe. In 1950, he published The Biology of Human Starvation, the results of his groundbreaking research based on observations of 36 conscientious objectors who had volunteered to be subjects for the study.


After the war, with increased prosperity in America leading to a richer diet and a growing problem of heart disease, Keys found a new focus for his research. Surprised when, in 1954, he was told by a professor in Naples that cardiovascular ailments were not prevalent in Italy, he embarked on a comparative study across seven countries to investigate the reasons. Chosen because of their different diets, combined with the fact that they were all rural labourers, over 12,000 men between 40 and 59 years old, from 16 communities in Italy, the Greek islands, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United States were monitored over several decades. This pioneering survey, for the first time, discovered the links between heart disease, cholesterol and diet.


Initially, Keys faced opposition from powerful lobbies in the American food industry, including the National Dairy Council, and from several eminent nutritionists who were irked by his outspoken assertions that the risks of heart attacks were heightened by ?the North American habit for making the stomach a garbage disposal unit for a long list of harmful foods.' Tall and slim with a blunt but generous manner, Keys was nicknamed 'Mr. Cholesterol' by the US press. In 1961, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.


Keys and his wife had three children, a boy and two girls (one of whom was murdered whilst on holiday in Jamaica in 1991). Probably by practising what he preached, Keys lived a century, dying in Minneapolis just two months short of his 101st birthday on November 20, 2004; his wife died, aged 97, in 2006.


Key's theories were again corroborated when, in 2010, UNESCO added the Mediterranean diet to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the first traditional food practice to appear on the international list.


The Ancel Keys Living Museum of the Mediterranean Diet, in Pioppi, is open to the public. It houses a documentary, photograph and film archive regarding the historic, scientific and cultural background of the Mediterranean Diet as well as a library. For further information, go to Closer to Florence, the Living Museum of the Mediterranean Diet of Lucca was opened in July 2007. To book a visit, telephone: +39 0583 385849 or contact




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