CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — K. Dun Gifford, president and founder of Boston-based Oldways and a leading advocate of whole grains, died suddenly May 9. He was 71 years old.

While Mr. Gifford became a familiar name in grain-based foods later in life, he earlier had a rich political and business career.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1966, Mr. Gifford served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy before moving on to a brief, yet eventful career on Capitol Hill that included jobs as a special assistant to the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He worked as a legislative assistant to Senator Edward Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, drafting speeches and numerous pieces of legislation, before becoming a national campaign coordinator in the ill-fated presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

In June of 1968, Mr. Gifford was with Senator Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles and witnessed the senator’s assassination. After helping subdue the assailant, Sirhan Sirhan, Mr. Gifford accompanied the senator to the hospital. The death of Mr. Kennedy had a profound impact on his later decision to dedicate his life to public service.

While politics gave Mr. Gifford the belief in the power to create positive change, the restaurant business of the 1970s fueled a different fire. He spent more than a decade in different facets of the restaurant business from investor and co-owner to manager in a variety of establishments, including the Ritz-Carlton hotel and The Harvest in Harvard Square. He even founded a food business (Kilvert & Forbes) with U.S. Senator John Kerry.

During this time he became acquainted with two individuals he said had a powerful impact on his life and America’s eating habits — the late renowned chef Julia Child and the late trailblazing winemaker Robert Mondavi. Ms. Child and Mr. Mondavi founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1981 and Mr. Gifford later served as chairman of the institute.

In 1990, Mr. Gifford created the Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit education organization created in response to the growing prevalence of fast food, and which advocated reviving the old ways of cooking and eating real food. Oldways was a major force behind the rise in popularity of the Mediterranean diet in the United States.

Oldways has conducted 50 conferences around the world, highlighting the advantages of local dietary habits. In addition to Mediterranean nations such as France, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Greece, Oldways focused on China, Morocco, Thailand, Mexico, India, Brazil, Australia and Argentina.

In 2003, Mr. Gifford was instrumental in forming the Whole Grains Council, whose Whole Grain Stamp (launched in 2005) has played a key role in the advancement of whole grains consumption around the world. As of April 2010, the Whole Grain Stamp is now on almost 3,500 different products in 20 countries: the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Panama, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Consumers saw the Stamp on grocery shelves more than a billion times during 2009, according to the Whole Grains Council.

In an interview last summer with Milling & Baking News, Mr. Gifford called breaking bread “one of the great joys of being human,” and said his next challenge would be looking to Western Europe and Asia for ways to move the needle on better eating.

“We have to build coalitions with other groups and they’re going to be sensitive about it, but we’ll try,” he said at the time. “And I think if I can do that, it is a good kind of capstone.”

Survivors include his three sons, Dun Jr., Portland, Ore., Arnold Porter, Cambridge, Mass., and Clarence Hamilton, New York; a daughter, Caroline Ames, Newfane, Vt.; five grandchildren; two brothers and a sister. He also leaves his partner and colleague, Sara Baer-Sinnott of Exeter, N.H.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, May 14 at St. John’s Memorial Chapel, Episcopal Divinity School, 99 Brattle St., Cambridge. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Oldways, 266 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02116; the Nantucket Land Council, Inc., P.O. Box 502, Nantucket, MA 02554; or the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 13, Nantucket, MA 02554.