Who was more Paleo? Ancel Keys or Robert Atkins?

Commented on October 29, 2015
Created October 09, 2015 at 7:29 PM

I'll start out with my answer. Neither was Paleo, but both made contributions in the direction of Paleo. Of the two I think Keys contributed more.

My reason for asking such a question is that I just prepared an N=1 comparison of diets and longevities for various people and groups. The best outcomes were Lawrence Ferlinghetti (coffee and poetry), Jack LaLanne (high carbs and exercise), the Okinawans (high carbs and fatty pork) and at the top Ancel Keys at 100 (Med diet).

Not knowing a lot about Ancel Keys I immediately waded into a toxic swamp of HFLC criticism. The origin of this criticism appears to be Robert Atkins, with his heavy critique of the 1960's low fat diets, in the Diet Revolution. Ancel Keys became the very devil due to his study connecting saturated fat with heart disease. A media-driven character assassination of Keys persists down to the present day. Here's a particularly brutal example, courtesy of Dr. Eades


Given Keys contributions to science (whether you like his theories on cholesterol or not), and to the winning of WW2, and as a vetted researcher (instead of a journalist selling HFLC books), is it really helpful to anyone to indulge in vicious ad hominem attacks like this? There's a longevity benefit to being calm and contemplative, confronting opposing ideas with reason rather than with high cortisol manic ranting. Thinking and acting like Ferlinghetti can give you a lot more years.

But as I said earlier, both Atkins and Keys made contributions to what Paleo is.

-Atkins resisted the demonization of fats, from meat in particular. The use of ketosis as a rapid weight loss tool to treat obesity would not have seen the light of day without his efforts.

-In reaction against the unhealthy Nordic "white food" diets (preserved meats, fatty/sugary fried pastries, lots of dairy, and no fresh fruits and vegetables), Keys created the Med Diet, based on his longevity studies. It was not designed to be a weight loss diet, so differs from Atkins. While this diet includes grains, it emphasizes the liberal use of olive oil, so it is not a low fat diet. It avoids added sugar and processed foods, and uses a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. It includes seafood, but other meats are discouraged. Moreover, Keys was a guinea pig for his own diet, eating this diet for 50 years and living it out in Italy.

In the sense of what I set out to do - find the best diet for healthy longevity - Keys is a clear favorite over any other approach. His diet translates easily into a Paleo approach. With the use of sweet potatoes and rice in place of grains, and inclusion of more meat, the Med becomes Paleo.

I visualize a hybrid of Keys Med with Cordain Paleo meat and safe carbs, combined with Cordain/LaLanne exercise and Ferlinghetti contemplation, as the best shot for being healthy at 100. 




on October 29, 2015
at 11:44 PM

Interesting. He also lived his last 20 or so years in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, the coast about 100 miles south of Naples, Italy. It is easier to live longer in a place where it never frosts, 300 sunny days a year, never above 95F, closeness to the sea and its nutrition contributions, and where you have 12-months vegetable and fruit crops. Also strong community bonds, relaxed life, all confounding variables that helped him "figure out" that pasta is good for you.

Medium avatar


on October 29, 2015
at 10:37 PM

I just got a copy of Keys' 1959 book Eat Well and Stay Well. It's about half discussion of general nutrition, half diet plans and recipes. I've just scratched the surface, but discovered a lot already:

-There's a lot in the details. For instance, red meat doesn't appear much as steaks and roasts. But there are a lot of soups, and they are based on high protein stock made from veal knuckles and meaty beef bones. This stock contains 10g beef protein per cup! Grocery store stock contains 10% of that, the rest being "flavor". Keys relies on the old Paleo standby bone broth.

-Desserts are used a lot. But they tend to use a lot of egg whites, some sugar and strong fruit flavors. So they're not calorie bombs.

-Keys is always focused on calories. Maybe this comes from his military rationing background, but it makes the plans look regimented. Nevertheless he stresses extreme variety in meals, with a goal of making eating enjoyable. He stresses the calories in a glass of wine but reminds the reader that it's not medicine and offers all kinds of advice on picking a good bottle.

All in all, lots of nuance in how he got himself to age 100. He obviously enjoyed himself doing his big experiment, and it's a much better read than a nutrition textbook which covers the same trail he blazed.

  • Size75 avatar

    asked by

  • Views
  • Last Activity
    1391D AGO
Frontpage book

Get FREE instant access to our Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!

1 Answers


on October 21, 2015
at 07:45 AM

I'm kind of surprised this question has gone completely unanswered.


Most "Paleo" followers aren't exactly trying to gain more knowledge about nutrition and the history of nutrition in general.


Ancel keys, by far contritubuted more towards the knowledge of nutrition. It's not even a debate. All Dr Atkins did was tried to discredit his reaseach within his fad diet book back in the 70's. His reasearch was that sloppy that he didn't even know anything about the 7 country's study that he was trying to discredit.

Medium avatar


on October 21, 2015
at 12:48 PM

Atkins was trying to solve the overeating problem, and I don't discredit what he did there. But once someone is past obesity there is no ongoing benefit to using his weight loss diet.

Medium avatar


on October 21, 2015
at 02:23 PM

And certainly there are diets far worse than Atkins


You'd be hard pressed to find a diet that could do more liver damage than this. Even Wozniak's IHOP and Outback approach is healthier....

Answer Question

Get FREE instant access to our
Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!