Thursday, June 17, 2010

Good Eats

So, here we are in the land of good food. No, not Italy, although I’ve rarely had bad food in the other parts of Italy, except that cooked for American tourists. I mean our part of Italy, the Cilento. And I don’t just mean ‘good’ in the sense of delicious, although that is certainly true; I mean ‘good’ in every sense of the word. Out of the study of dietary habits in the Cilento have come some of the most revolutionary ideas about human eating habits in the last 200 years. And the hero of that story, at least in America and western Europe, was an unlikely fellow whom I dare say you’ve never heard of. His name was Ancel Keys.

Keys was a certifiable genius. Born in 1904 of teenaged parents who moved to California to seek a better life, Keys received a BA in economics and political science and an MS in Biology from UC Berkeley, a Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and a second doctorate in physiology from Cambridge. At the University of Minnesota he established the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, which he directed for the next 35 years. It was there that he conducted several landmark studies on human metabolism and nutrition. During World War II Keys and his team were called upon to produce lightweight packaged meals that did not require refrigeration, and yet still delivered balanced nutrition, and out of that effort came the famous (and often infamous, at least among the GIs) K-rations, named after Keys. The butt of countless derisory remarks from soldiers, they also had their champions; there is a famous incident in which 10 men survived in a partially submerged P-38 for two weeks with nothing more than a little water and 25 K-rations.

It was in the aftermath of the war that Keys had perhaps an even more profound impact. Keys had done studies on the physiology of starvation diets, both laboratory studies among volunteer conscientious objectors during the war and population studies in the ravaged areas of Europe immediately after the war, especially in southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno. This was the same era as the onset of the Baby Boom, an epoch in America which saw the first generation in human history raised in affluence. But Keys noticed something quite ironic; while growing numbers of his friends and colleagues in Minnesota--doctors, lawyers, university professors--were dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes, the majority of people in those same ravaged areas of Italy were living to a ripe old age. Keys posited a relationship between the consumption of high levels of saturated fats, particularly associated with red meat and full-fat dairy, and the incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Many of Keys’ key conclusions are now controversial and he’s even been accused (posthumously, of course) of fudging his research results, but the basic structure of his work is as solid today as it was fifty years ago. Folks, it ain’t the fat that’s making us fat and ultimately killing us—in the Cilento Keys discovered that 30% of calories were derived from fat, and the figure rises to as much as 70% on the Greek island of Crete, which had the lowest rate of CVD in the Western world. And it ain’t the carbs. It’s the types and quantities of fats and carbs and our habitual lack of exercise—except for the famous American forklift exercise.

One of the seminal works of modern nutritional science was Keys’ Seven Countries Study, which provided the scientific basis for the promotion of the now-famous Mediterranean Diet, which Keys, along with his biologist wife, also popularized in a series of books, most notably How to Eat Right and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way. Keys believed, rightly, in my opinion, that the Cilentan diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, in highly unsaturated vegetables fats, especially olive oil, in proteins derived mainly from legumes, with only moderate intake of animal fats and proteins, and with regular moderate exercise—these were the keys to Cilentan (and Mediterranean) longevity.

So taken was Keys with this beautiful area and its healthful lifestyle that he and his wife bought a house in Pioppi (“The Poplars”), a scenic little seaside town about thirty miles down the coast from Agropoli, and lived there for most of the last 28 years of his life. Keys died at 101. He did not die of cardio-vascular disease.

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