Why The American Heart Association Can’t Admit They’re Wrong

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.


72 thoughts on “Why The American Heart Association Can’t Admit They’re Wrong

  1. Christopher

    I was watching the news (I live in France) and it was about how cholesterol doesn’t affect heart disease (a French scientist/writer wrote a book about it). Glad people are finally finding out the truth about heart disease.

    It’s a start.

    1. EST

      But this is the country that gave us the “French Paradox,” so I would imagine that few people in France believed in the diet-heart theory to begin with.

  2. Marilyn

    @Kevin. Three eggs scrambled into 2 tablespoons of butter, plus some yogurt with stevia, every morning for me. Never had a cigarette in my mouth, so I can’t compare the healthfulness of cigarettes vs. eggs. 🙂

  3. alexd


    It’s a little bit of a stretch to say that the AHA advocates for us to eat sugar full stop. (I admit, they do put their stamp of approval on some questionable sources)

    They did finally acknowledge (about 40 years too late) that too much sugar isn’t good for us. However, that doesn’t stop them from putting their seal of approval on foods that are basically refined flours mixed with sugar.

  4. Scott

    This actually might explain vegan nutjobs for instance DurianRider, he is so convinced that meat and animal products are deadly that any science that says otherwise is wrong it has to be I know eating meat is bad because an animal has to die, he has himself so convinced in his own mind that he’s right, he can’t look at himself in the mirror and see he is really sickly looking. He can’t handle arguments either he feels threatened and can’t bring himself to admit he might be wrong so he results to name calling. Lots of vegans are just like him from the experts like Dr.Campbell and Neal Barnard who truly think animal fat will kill you, to the people in PETA who blow up science labs and harrass people on the street, they don’t see themselves as terrorists, they truly believe they are righteous warriors standing up for someone who can’t speak.

    No doubt. Imagine how difficult it was for someone like Lierre Keith — a dedicated and passionate vegan for 20 years — to admit she’d been wrong all along. But at least she had the maturity to do so.

  5. Paladin13

    I recently caught the end of an interview on Fox News of a doctor (sorry I cannot remember his name) who said the heart has no use for any saturated fat. I almost leaped out of my chair. I wonder how many people watching this crap said to themselves, well I agree with Fox News on a lot of things, so the doctor must be right.

    And he think the heart has uses for Honey Nut Cheerios?

      1. Tom Naughton Post author

        That joke never gets old. The following media organizations have been embarrassed by major articles/news stories that turned out to have been made up out of thin air:

        The Washington Post
        The New York Times
        New York magazine
        CBS News
        NBC News
        The Atlantic
        Rolling Stone

        Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. But no faux news in those media outlets, eh?

  6. Courtney

    What you say seems intelligent and convincing but the ridiculous amount of typos make it difficult to swallow.

    I do’nt knaw what you’rre talkinq abut.

  7. David

    There also was a part of this documentary about the Atkins diet when one critic said how the foods that Dr. Atkins was allowing has been associated with heart disease, cancer, and so forth. He responded,” I am concerned however that the heart association is recommending fruit loops and pop tarts with a seal of approval…and if that’s their recommendation, I don’t want them in my camp!” My last visit with my grandma (who believes in low fat) got frustrated with me for favoring bacon and eggs and not her “heart-healthy” labeled pancakes. She pointed it out and was like “it says heart healthy!!”

    Yup, that’s what the label says. Too bad it’s wrong.

  8. Cathy

    I read the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) a couple of years ago and it was eye opening and humbling. I truly believe it should be mandatory reading for all high school students. And politicians… And Bosses…

    I agree.

  9. Tom A

    Dang you! I cannot read any of your posts without hearing the sound of your voice in my head when doing so. Not sure why I imitate your voice from the documentary…rather disturbing. 😉

    Love the analysis and wit with Fathead and the blog. Keep gettign the word out and Praise the Lard!

    Is that a bit like the episode of Seinfeld where George couldn’t stand to read books because he heard his own voice in his head while reading?

  10. frank weir

    What about the role played by corporate support to the AHA and other organizations? If Kelloggs is giving you a huge sum of money for your activities, are you going to rush out and tell the world how dangerous carb-loaded Kelloggs cereals are and then shut down your operations since your budget just disappeared? Many folks don’t realize that corporations now fund much of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the very groups the FDA is supposedly keeping an eye on for the protection of the public. The government was happy to free up revenue for its very demanding defense spending budget.

    Of course. Follow the money.

  11. Celia Hogan

    Read the books The Cholesterol Myth and Wheat Belly!! I have been off of all wheat for 6 months. Amazing the information in these 2 great books relating to this article.

  12. Michael Barker

    I think Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” has a lot to say here. It basically states that scientific inquiry is done inside a paradigm. Once enough significant “Black Swans” show up, this paradigm is forced to shift. Till that point is reached, all data is viewed and ordered through that paradigm.

    There is no thing as “just data”. Its very nature is determined. What should or should not be considered data? What’s the criterion? The paradigm determines this. If the paradigm is wrong it should create anomalies which I can’t explain but how many is enough?

    For every study you cite, there are ten studies that probably contradict it. This is where Kuhn loses a bit of relevance. His analysis assumes that all motives are pure in this process and does not take into account that, at least in medical science, most research is funded by parties with financial interests and they will publish results which will further those interests.

    It can be far more subtle than this. I publish a blog at http://ketosisprone.blogspot.com/. It deals with Ketosis Prone Type 2 diabetes. This form of diabetes seems to break all the rules. The most noticeable being that fat and the gaining of weight seems to be protective and is the best predictor of outcomes.

    The quality of the science is not in question but no one knows this research. Why? It appears largely in people of color around the world. This isn’t to say that lack of general knowledge about it is racist but that, until recently, most studies of metabolism was based largely on western European stock with the added understanding that the data derived was widely applicable.

    I, however, am immersed in Ketosis Prone Type 2 data and what it tells me is that diabesity has little or nothing to do with eating too much or lack of exercise. You see, I’ve had a paradigm shift.

    I agree. I read Kuhn’s book and found it instructive.

  13. Tlm

    I would encourage you to look up the criteria on what the AHA uses to recommend foods…I didn’t see Honey Nut Cheerios anywhere on their list or white bread or juices loaded with sugar. Sounds like you’re just trying to give your movie more recognition by trying to make a reputable organization look bad to fit your agenda…check it out straight from AHA’s website. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Whats-New-with-the-Heart-Check-Mark_UCM_433241_Article.jsp#mainContent

    I would encourage you to walk down the aisles of a grocery store and look for their label on products instead of going by what they put on their web site.

    Certainly you don’t think I faked that AHA label on the box of Cocoa Puffs?

  14. Alexandra M

    I don’t know how to share a photo, but when I went for a colonoscopy, right next to the check-in desk was a larger-than-life (and quite hideous) statue of a man made entirely out of boxes of “heart healthy” processed foods – chocolate Cheerios, instant oatmeal, pasta, crackers, etc. Of course MY first though was, “Good, they’re finally getting the message out!” Then I realized that the horrible thing was meant to be a representation of what we SHOULD be eating. And this was at a surgical center associated with a large hospital, so we must assume that it has the organization’s imprimatur. 🙁

    Lately I’ve also been spending time at a large cancer hospital. I usually bring my own food, but one day I had to go to the cafeteria and ended up standing in line for some fried eggs, and was sad to see so many morbidly obese nurses ordering egg white omelets with giant whole grain bagels.

    The last time my diabetic father-in-law was in the hospital, they served him pancakes with syrup for breakfast. Then an obese dietician stopped by to tell him to eat plenty of carbs with his meals.

  15. Stephen Williams

    Insurance agencies allow a discount if employers offer healthy food items. Since the pop-tart is AHA approved, business’s save money by carrying 29-34 grams a sugar for breakfast. Healthy? Or killing us all?

  16. Evin

    Not to mention that if the AHA, CSPI, and others admit their advice was wrong, they are opening themselves up to a flurry of lawsuits.


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