Historical Events

Jolliffe begins Anti-Coronary Club and has men eat less red meat and more vegetable oil, but prudent dieters didn't live longer.

An early and celebrated trial was called the Anti-Coronary Club, launched by Norman Jolliffe, director of the New York City Health Department, in 1957. Jolliffe was a well-regarded authority in his day, the author of a popular diet book called Reduce and Stay Reduced on the Prudent Diet, which even President Eisenhower had used. Jolliffe had also read Keys’s work, and decided to test these ideas over a sustained period. He signed up eleven hundred men to his Anti-Coronary Club and instructed them to reduce their consumption of red meat, such as beef, lamb, or pork, to no more than four times a week (which would be considered a lot by today’s standards!) while consuming as much fish and poultry as they liked. Eggs and dairy were limited. The men also drank at least two tablespoons of polyunsaturated vegetable oil a day. Overall, the diet was about 30 percent fat, but the ratio of polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils, mostly) to saturated fats was four times greater than what Americans regularly ate. Jolliffe also recruited a control group to eat normal American fare, with an estimated 40 percent fat, although he failed to record the diet of the controls.

“Diet Linked to Cut in Heart Attacks,” reported the New York Times in 1962, when the coronary trial results started to come out: they showed that men who stayed on the diet saw a drop in both cholesterol and blood pressure and lost weight. Their risk for heart disease appeared to be slamming into reverse, an outcome that looked like a reassuring condemnation of saturated fats. But then, a decade into the trial, investigators began to find “somewhat unusual” results: twenty-six members of the diet club had died during the trial, compared to only six men from the controls. Eight members of the club had died of heart attacks, but not one of the controls. In the discussion section of the final report, the authors (who no longer included Jolliffe, because he had died of a heart attack in 1961) emphasized the improved risk factors among the men in the diet club but ignored what those risk factors had blatantly failed to predict: their higher death rate. That result was buried in the study report. The authors avoided the very question that mattered most: Would someone live longer on a “prudent” diet? The answer from the Anti-Coronary Club was clearly no.

The Anti-Coronary Club trial, despite its scientific weaknesses, became one of the foundational studies for the idea that a diet low in saturated fat will protect against heart disease.

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