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Gleaning from the Food of Yesterday: The Diet-Heart Hypothesis

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Change, though it may seem to occur in a moment, often evolves through a series of smaller events. If you reflect back on the the articles within this series, “Gleaning from the Food of Yesterday,” you will remember the changes which we discussed from the refining of sugar, through the industrial revolution, and then ending with the era of WWII. Increasingly, our culture consumed more processed foods--most of which had an alarming amount of added sugar. While this occurred, specific chronic diseases began to rise. Within this article, the last historical milestone of our food journey, I purpose to skim the surface of our medical industry’s evaluation of this change, and where that has landed us today.

In 1850, the top ten leading causes of death were tuberculosis, dysentery, cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, scarlet fever, meningitis, and whooping cough.[1] Notice, heart disease and cancer are not on this list. However, in 1900, heart disease appeared as the third leading cause of death and cancer the eighth. By 1938, heart disease made it to first place, cancer second, and diabetes jumped on board in tenth. [2] These new chronic diseases did not just rank higher because tuberculosis and the other infectious diseases declined. Rather, the amount of individuals dying each year from heart disease, cancer and diabetes was growing at an alarming rate. The medical industry needed an answer.

Ancel Keys, director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota, proposed the diet-heart hypothesis in 1953. It stated that dietary fats (specifically saturated fats) cause heart disease, and by avoiding them we can avoid developing heart disease. Because his hypothesis appealed to the politicians and medical establishment, money started pouring in to conduct studies to “prove” the hypothesis. Meanwhile, countless renowned individuals within the medical profession recognized the flaws.One such was Dr. Russell Smith, an American experimental psychologist. He published two thorough reviews of the existing scientific data of Key’s hypothesis with more than 3,000 references. He is quoted as saying, “The currant campaign to convince every American to change his or her diet and, in many cases to initiate drug ‘therapy’ for life is based on fabrications, erroneous interpretations, and/or gross exaggerations of findings and, very importantly, the ignoring of massive amounts of unsupportive does not seem possible that objective scientists without vested interests could ever interpret the literature as supportive...It is depressing to know that billions of dollars and a highly sophisticated medical research system are being wasted chasing windmills.”[3]

Unfortunately, money was the prevailing factor in the hypothesis’s survival, despite the misconstrued data, and by the 1960’s the American Heart Association was encouraging the substitution of vegetable fats for animal fats. This meant processed and cheap products like margarine and canola oil became the staples in many homes. Also, packaged foods were made with less fat and marketed “heart healthy.” However, food didn’t taste as good in this denatured state, thus, the sugar industry happily supplied refined white sugar to supplement.

What has happened to our health? Heart disease, cancer, and diabetes have all continued to rise--not decrease as Ancel Keys presumed. If you refer back to my articles on blood sugar handling and fatty acids, you will remember a crucial role of fats is managing inflammation and blood sugar levels. It is now evident that with the increase of processed fats and sugar, and the decrease of quality fats in our diets, the consequence has been heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Ancel Keys, and the studies conducted to prove his theory, looked for a quick answer to the sudden increase in heart disease rather than understanding the changes which occurred in our food industry leading up to that day. I do believe our culture as a whole has stopped demonizing healthy fats, however, there is still confusion as to the root cause of these health issues. I hope this detective work through history has highly enriched your understanding and ability to reason for yourself which foods are nourishing for your body! Looking ahead, I will share some profound studies conducted by two doctors in the 1900’s who understood this link between processed foods and disease.




[3] Smith RL. Diet, blood cholesterol and coronary heart disease: a critical review of the literature. Vector Enterprises. Vol. 2. 1991


If you have questions or comments for Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Maria Adam, email her at or call her at (607) 661-8221.

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