D. Mark Hegsted
David Mark Hegsted (March 25, 1914 – June 16, 2009) was an American nutritionist who studied the connections between food consumption and heart disease. His work included studies that showed that consumption of saturated fats led to increases in harmful cholesterol, leading to the development of dietary guidelines intended to help Americans achieve better health through improved food choices. After his death, researchers uncovered his connections to research funded by the sugar industry in which Hegsted played down connections between sugar consumption and heart disease, focusing on saturated fats as the culprit.
Hegsted was born on March 25, 1914 in Rexburg, Idaho. He graduated in 1936 from the University of Idaho and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy in biochemistry in 1940 from the University of Wisconsin. He came to the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1942, after spending a year at Abbott Laboratories as a research chemist. He was named as a professor of nutrition in 1962 and remained at Harvard until 1978.
Research performed by Hegsted in the early 1960s studied the relationships between changes in diet and serum levels of cholesterol. The "Hegsted equation" he developed showed that cholesterol and saturated fats from sources such as eggs and meat in the diet raised harmful cholesterol levels, monounsaturated fats had little effect and polyunsaturated fats from sources such as nuts and seeds lowered levels. Results from these studies were published in 1965 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, to what was described by The New York Times as "great acclaim". In combination with research performed independently by Ancel Keys, these results led to recommendations advocating decreased dietary consumption of saturated fats. In 1967, Hegsted and two other Harvard scientists took, without attribution, $6,500 (nearly $50,000 in 2016 equivalent dollars) from the Sugar Association to produce a review of industry-selected research. The resulting paper in the New England Journal of Medicine "minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat [as primarily causing heart problems]". The paper helped to shape nutrition guidance for decades away from even considering the dangers to the heart of sugar and its role in obesity in the human diet.
Hegsted's efforts to encourage the United States Department of Agriculture to inform the public about changes in diet included his involvement in drafting Dietary Goals for the United States, a 1977 report from the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs that suggested that increased consumption of fruits, grains and vegetables could help cut the risk of heart attacks and other diseases. It was the predecessor of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans updated twice each decade by the federal government.
In 1978, he was hired by the Department of Agriculture as Administrator of Human Nutrition, serving in that post until 1982. He was hired by Harvard Medical School in 1982 as Associate Director for Research at the New England Regional Primate Research Center.
Hegsted was elected as a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. The author of over 400 published papers and other works, he served as editor of Nutrition Reviews from 1968 until 1978. He served on bodies advising the National Institutes of Health and the National Research Council in the United States, and internationally to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
A resident of Westwood, Massachusetts, Hegsted died there at age 95 on June 16, 2009. He was survived by a son, three grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. He was widowed in 1998 at the death of his wife, Maxine Scow Hegsted.
- Pearce, Jeremy. "D. Mark Hegsted, 95, Harvard Nutritionist, Is Dead", The New York Times, July 8, 2009. Accessed July 9, 2009.
- Roache, Christina. "D. Mark Hegsted, National Force in Science of Human Nutrition, Dies", Harvard School of Public Health press release dated June 19, 2009. Accessed July 9, 2009.
- O'Connor, Anahad, "How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat", The New York Times, September 12, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2016. The article referenced a study published by C.E. Kearns, L.A. Schmidt and Stanton Glantz, (Glantz a professor of medicine at UCSF), in JAMA Internal Medicine in September, 2016. “They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” Glantz was quoted as saying in the Times. The sugar-industry facilitator of the 1967 project was John Hickson. Another Harvard scientist who participated in 1967 was Frederick J. Stare, the chairman of the university’s nutrition department. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote in support of the 2016 JAMA article that there was “compelling evidence” that the sugar industry initiated research “expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.” The Sugar Association responded to the 2016 JAMA publication saying standards of disclosure and conflict of interest were less stringent in the 1960s and that "most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research .... We’re disappointed to see a journal of JAMA’s stature being drawn into this trend.”