If you’re a sympathetic sort, you could almost feel sorry for people who work for the American Heart Association, the British Heart Foundation, the Australian Heart Foundation, etc. They’ve been promoting anti-fat hysteria for more than 40 years now, people have dutifully cut back on their saturated fat intake and consumed more “heart-healthy” grains, and yet our societies are witnessing record rates of obesity and diabetes. Even if these organization believe their advice is correct, I don’t see how they could feel successful in their missions.
But of course, their advice isn’t correct.
I’m not a big fan of observational studies, but since the American Heart Association likes to cite them as evidence, here’s a conclusion several observational studies have reached: when people replace saturated fats with refined carbohydrates, their rate of heart disease goes up, not down. Clinical studies show that refined carbohydrates raise triglycerides, and high triglycerides at at least associated with heart disease, if not an actual cause. And yet for decades now, the AHA has been putting its stamp of approval on products like the ones shown below.
Let’s look at the (ahem) nutrition in some of these heart-protecting foods. In a serving size that provides just 118 calories (boy, that’ll get you through the morning, won’t it?), Honey Nut Cheerios contain 23 grams of refined carbohydrates. Almost 10 of those grams are pure sugar. A cup of West Soy vanilla soy milk contains 21 grams of carbohydrates, including 10 grams of sugar. The instant oatmeal contains 31 carbohydrates including 12 grams of sugar, and the V-8 fusion juice may as well be a Coca-Cola: 25 grams of sugar in one cup.
So well-meaning people filling their grocery carts with products bearing the American Heart Association’s seal of approval could easily end up on a diet high in refined starches and sugars and think they’re doing their hearts a favor. I’m sure many have.
Meanwhile, more and more studies are suggesting that the whole arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory was wrong. I just posted on one of those last week.
So image you’re a dedicated member of the American Heart Association. Evidence is piling up that the advice your organization has been handing out since the 1960s not only didn’t help, it probably caused actual harm. What can you do?
Well, you could call a press conference or take out ads in national newspapers and announce that you’ve been wrong all along, but that would likely spell the end of your organization. It would also mean looking yourself in the mirror and saying, “Oh my god … have I been promoting foods that turned people into fat diabetics? Have kids been diagnosed with ADHD and sent to special-ed classes because I told their parents Honey Nut Cheerios are a heart-healthy food? Have I told people to eat foods that sent their triglycerides through the roof and caused their bodies to produce small LDL particles? Has my advice killed people?”
Nope. You won’t do that. You probably can’t do that.
I’ve mentioned the excellent book Mistake Were Made (but not by me) several times. It covers a range of ideas, but here are three of the most important points:
- Once we’ve taken a public position, it’s very difficult to admit we were wrong.
- Psychologically, most of us need to believe we’re both good people and good decision-makers.
- We are quite capable of fooling ourselves into believing things that simply aren’t true, even if that means ignoring clear evidence.
The book provides interesting (and unfortunately common) examples of those points in action. What happens when, say, a woman marries a guy who turns out to be an abusive creep? She runs out and gets a divorce, right?
Nope. Odds are she’ll spend years with the guy before dumping him, if she dumps him at all. Think about the three points above. When you get married, you’ve made a dramatic public statement: this is the one. It would be embarrassing to admit to your family and friends a year later that your marriage was a huge mistake – telling them, in effect, that in making perhaps the most important decision of your life, you chose badly. (I broke off an engagement in my early 30s, so I know all about that one.)
So the abused wife can, against all evidence, convince herself that her husband is actually a decent guy. Sure, he’s abusive, but it’s not really his fault. He’s just under a lot of stress, you see. It’s because other people treat him badly. It may even be her fault for aggravating him. And he’s nice to her once or twice per month, and that’s the real him, you see. He just needs more time and few breaks, and he’ll be nice all the time.
Another example the book gives is police and prosecutors who arrest an innocent man and send him to prison, only to see him exonerated years later by DNA evidence. You’d expect the prosecutors to say to themselves, “Wow, that’s horrible. We put an innocent guy away.” You’d also be wrong. Despite the large number of people who have been exonerated by new evidence, it’s exceedingly rare for a prosecutor to admit he or she put the wrong man in prison. As the authors recount, most prosecutors are still convinced – despite the evidence – that the guy they put away was guilty.
Once again, we’re talking about people who took a very public position (ladies and gentlemen, this is guy who committed the crime) and who need to think of themselves as good people (I’m the good guy because I put away bad guys.) To protect themselves psychologically, they can explain away the evidence that they were wrong. The alternative is to look in the mirror and admit they ruined an innocent person’s life, not to mention his family’s life.
As the authors note, people who insist they were right all along even when the evidence says they’re wrong aren’t usually lying. To lie, you have to know what you’re saying isn’t true. These people truly believe they’re right. That pesky new DNA evidence was probably planted, you see. The lab made a mistake. The guy committed the murder, but the DNA that doesn’t match his was left behind by an accomplice we didn’t know about. The guy we put in prison is guilty, damnit. Never mind the fact that the DNA left behind on the victim doesn’t match. You have to look at the totality of the evidence.
The American Heart Association and its sister organizations have been spreading arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria for decades – in effect, prosecuting the innocent. They’ve recommended processed vegetables oils instead of animal fats. They’ve taken very public positions warning people away from high-fat foods and promoting breads, cereals, pastas, juices, and other foods low in fat but high in carbohydrates. And of course, they think of themselves as the good guys.
So no, they’re not going to admit they were wrong. They’re not going admit their advice may have killed people. They’re incapable of believing that. They’re going to show up in media articles and TV shows and blogs and insist they were right all along. Never mind that latest study, they’ll insist. You have to look at the totality of the evidence.
Actually, no, we don’t have to look at the totality of the evidence. We just need to examine some key evidence that falsifies their theories. I’ll cover that in my next post.