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D. Mark Hegsted, 95, Harvard Nutritionist, Is Dead
By JEREMY PEARCE
Published: July 8, 2009
D. Mark Hegsted, a Harvard nutritionist whose studies of fats and their role in promoting heart disease led federal officials in the 1970s to issue influential guidelines intended to improve the food choices of average Americans, died on June 16 in Westwood, Mass. He was 95.
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George Tames/The New York Times
D. Mark Hegsted in 1979.
In the early 1960s, Dr. Hegsted experimented with dietary changes and their effects on levels of harmful cholesterol in the bloodstream. He and others investigated the role of saturated fats derived from meat, eggs and other sources, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and dietary cholesterol. The researchers developed a mathematical model, known as the Hegsted equation, to predict the effect of fats consumed in food on an individual’s serum cholesterol.
The equation showed that saturated fats and dietary cholesterol raised the levels of harmful cholesterol; that polyunsaturated fats found in foods like seeds and nuts actually lowered the total cholesterol level; and that monounsaturated fats were probably not a factor in either direction. The results were published to acclaim in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1965.
After an independent line of research, another scientist, Ancel B. Keys, made much the same finding and went on to advocate a change of dietary standards that would markedly reduce consumption of saturated fats.
Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, said the Hegsted equation was still used and remained a “very reliable index, and an elegant and not overly complicated approach” to the study of serum cholesterol.
In the 1970s, Dr. Hegsted used his research when he was appointed to lead an effort within the Department of Agriculture to prepare a general food advisory for the public. In 1977, he helped draft “Dietary Goals for the United States,” a report issued by the Senate after it held hearings on the national diet. The report, also known as the McGovern report after George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who was chairman of the Senate committee, recommended a lighter diet rich in fruits, grains and vegetables as a way to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart attacks and other chronic diseases. It is considered a precursor of the more detailed “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” a federal review of nutrition and health that is published every five years.
From 1978 to 1982, Dr. Hegsted was administrator of the human nutrition unit at the Department of Agriculture and opened the department’s Human Nutrition Center.
David Mark Hegsted was born in Rexburg, Idaho. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1940.
Dr. Hegsted joined Harvard as an instructor in nutrition in 1942. He was named a professor of nutrition there in 1962 and remained until moving to the Agriculture Department. In 1982, he returned to Harvard as associate director for research of the New England Regional Primate Research Center.
Dr. Hegsted lived in Westwood and is survived by a son, Eric, of Whitehorse, Yukon; two sisters, Beth Parkinson of Ogden, Utah, and Helen Pratt of St. George, Utah; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Dr. Hegsted said Americans faced as large a problem from the volume of meals they ate as from the foods themselves.
“Certainly, being hungry is worse than being fat,” he said in 1979. “Although there are many ways to criticize our diet, we are very fortunate people, compared to most, and that ought to be emphasized.”