The answer is no. The AHA is not trying to kill us. But its dietary advice is consistently confusing and occasionally wrong, and health reporters in New Orleans may end up as collateral damage.
Just take a look at what’s being served in the press room at the big American Heart Association meeting going on now in New Orleans. Breakfast this morning included low-fat cream cheese, margarine, and preserves.
You won’t find much saturated fat. But there’s plenty of sugar around.
And don’t think about putting whole milk or half-and-half into your coffee:
So what’s the problem here? It’s important to remember that in its earlier dietary advice the AHA played a big role in elevating margarine and other trans fat products over butter and saturated fats, though they now are completely against them. So the presence of margarine and low-fat cream cheese is a sign of the long lingering effect of the AHA’s past bad advice.
The AHA continues to label saturated fats as “bad”– see the AHA poster at the bottom of this post and you won’t find butter or whole milk or half-and-half in the press room. This decision, the food services people told me, came directly from the AHA. The food service employees were specifically ordered not to serve half-and-half during this meeting. (A kind food services employee surreptitiously smuggled out a few half-and-half containers stowed away in the back for the duration of the meeting.) The main point here is that there is considerable scientific controversy about this topic, and many nutrition experts now believe that saturated fats pose no danger at all, and may even be beneficial.
And then there’s the sugar. Many believe the big jump in sugar consumption was an inevitable consequence of the war against saturated fat. More recently the AHA has focused some of its attention on the dangers of sugar, and it is supporting efforts to tax sugared soda. So it seems a bit crazy to me that the press room bans whole milk and butter but has sugary deserts. (Please note that I am not suggesting that the AHA ban deserts.)
(I’m also told by confidential sources within the AHA– for now I’ll just refer to them as “Deep Stent”– that there is a secret resistance network active at AHA headquarters in Dallas involving furtive smuggling of half-and-half and butter into the building.)
Look (below) at this recent AHA statement on fats. Note that meat, cheese, butter, and other saturated fats are labelled as “bad.” (Note also that the chart is dead wrong that saturated fats lower “good” cholesterol. Along with exercise saturated fats raise HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, though there’s a lot of controversy right now about that term.) I think charts like these do far more harm than the presence of half-and-half in coffee.
I invited the American Heart Association to respond to this post. I spoke with Robert Eckel (University of Colorado), a past president of the AHA and a key figure in nutrition research and guidelines. He wanted to emphasize three points:
- It is far more important to focus on overall dietary patterns instead of individual foods.
- Saturated fats increase the level of LDL cholesterol, though he agreed that they also raise HDL levels.
- Added sugar is a big problem.
I really don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I’ve been working with the AHA communications team for nearly 30 years and they have never been anything but unfailingly helpful, responsive, kind, and hospitable. Further, despite the occasional low-fat muffin or stick of margarine, the food is about as good as it gets in press rooms and the price, of course, is unbeatable.
Don’t miss this followup story:
- Recipe For Disaster: The New US Dietary Guidelines
- BMJ Paper Criticizes Proposed US Dietary Guidelines
- New US Guidelines Will Lift Limits On Dietary Cholesterol
- Studies Provide Little Support For Guidelines On Dietary Fats And Supplements
- Why Guidelines Are Bad For Science
- How Sweet: Sugar Industry Made Fat the Villain
- New Analysis Of Old Study Delivers Another Blow To Traditional Diet Advice
- The American Heart Association’s Strong Stance Against Science
- You Say Potato, I Say Worthless Epidemiology