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The cover of the book "Eat Well and Stay Well" by Ancel and Margaret Keys

Ancel Keys and his wife, Margaret, wrote the revolutionary book, How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way, in 1959.

The Minnesotan behind the Mediterranean Diet

April 13, 2006

Understanding the healthy effects of the Mediterranean diet has its roots in the groundbreaking research of a University of Minnesota pioneer who also helped popularize the benefits of eating lots of vegetables and fish.

Ancel Keys, a University physiologist from 1936 to his retirement in 1972, noticed that in the years following World War II the rate of heart disease was very low in war-damaged, hungry parts of the world--but high and getting higher among prosperous Americans. He conducted a study of 268 Minnesota businessmen that for the first time traced the link between cholesterol, the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products, and heart disease--research that made him famous worldwide as "Mr. Cholesterol."

Then in the 1950s he launched the Seven Countries Study which observed the eating and living patterns of 12,700 men in the U.S., Finland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, Japan, and the Netherlands. Keys and his colleagues showed that heart-attack rates correlated with diet and exercise. Finland, where Keys noticed that farmers and woodcutters buttered their cheese, had the highest rates of illness. Greek and Italian men had the healthiest hearts.

Keys took his research public to show how a better diet could mean a longer, healthier life. He and his wife co-authored How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way and other books that promoted eating more fish, chicken, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, like Southern Europeans do. He traveled the world advocating the Mediterranean diet and a vigorous lifestyle with plenty of exercise.

Keys' ideas were so influential that today we often take them for granted. The Mediterranean diet finally caught on in the 1990s, 40 years after Keys started advocating it. A balanced diet low in saturated fats supplemented with exercise is universally accepted as the best way to avoid heart attacks and high blood pressure. Healthy cookbooks and higher longevity rates around the world can all at least partly be traced back to his work.

Recognizing his pioneering research, Time magazine put Keys on its cover in January 1961. He died in 2004, two months shy of his 101st birthday.