The strategy is clear now. The American Heart Association, terrified that the Wisdom of Crowds effect is causing more and more people to reject their arterycloggingsaturatedfat! nonsense, has decided to leverage what Josef Stalin referred to as useful idiots — i.e., people who can be counted on to swallow and spread the party’s propaganda.
Step one: produce a Presidential Advisory Report that concludes we were right all along about the dangers of saturated fats.
Step two: do interviews with media types who have been on the anti-fat bandwagon for years … because if we were right all along, it means they were right all along too. They’ll dutifully promote the message without asking pesky questions.
For decades, one of the biggest cheerleaders for the low-fat diet has been Jane Brody of the New York Times. Gary Taubes mentioned her several times in Good Calories, Bad Calories. I wrote a post about her battle with “high” cholesterol back in 2009. You can read the post for the full details, but these quotes capture Ms. Brody’s apparent immunity to cognitive dissonance:
Ms. Brody’s cholesterol panic began when a routine test revealed her total cholesterol to be 222. (So much for a low-fat diet keeping cholesterol down.) Since she just knows that a “heart healthy” level should be below 200, Ms. Brody dutifully stopped eating cheese and went on a diet to lose a few pounds.
But – horrors! – when she underwent another test a few months later, her cholesterol had risen to 236, and her LDL had gone up, not down. Now, you’d think someone with a functioning brain would pause at this point and wonder if perhaps the whole low-fat diet theory is load of bologna. But not Ms. Brody. After all, she’s been telling her readers for decades to cut the fat, cut the fat, cut the fat.
So she cut the fat. She stopped eating red meat, switched to low-fat ice cream, took fish oil, and increased her fiber intake. In other words, she did just about everything she’s been telling her readers they must do to prevent heart disease.
And boy, what wondrous results! Her next test revealed that her cholesterol had risen to 248, and her LDL was up yet again.
If this were a horror movie, we’d all be screaming at the screen, “Don’t go through that door, you freakin’ idiot! Everyone who went through that door ended up hanging on a meat hook!”
But Ms. Brody went through the door. Mere paragraphs after recounting how her low-fat diet failed utterly to bring down her cholesterol, she reminded her readers how important it is to exercise more and cut the saturated fat from their diets. She even informed us that a former roommate lowered her cholesterol by becoming a vegetarian. (“See, this diet made my cholesterol worse, but I know someone who had good results, so you should do exactly what didn’t work for me. Okay?”)
Finally, Ms. Brody reported that despite having some reservations, she began taking a cholesterol-lowering drug. And lo and behold, her cholesterol went down! (At this point in the story, you are allowed to scream, “Of course your cholesterol went down! That’s why it’s called a cholesterol-lowering drug!”)
Perfect example of the phenomenon described in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Her own experience demonstrated that restricting saturated fat (which she believes is good for the heart) caused her cholesterol to shoot up (which she believes is bad for the heart). That’s the point where a person blessed with a healthy capacity for skepticism would question the entire theory. But Brody can’t question the theory because she’s been a very public promoter of it. So she dutifully took a statin and declared victory over the cholesterol monster.
Yup, if I were the American Heart Association and needed a useful idiot to explain why we were right all along, that’s who I’d choose. So let’s look at some quotes from the useful idiot’s article, which appeared recently in the New York Times.
The media love contrarian man-bites-dog stories that purport to debunk long-established beliefs and advice. Among the most popular on the health front are reports that saturated fats do not cause heart disease and that the vegetable oils we’ve been encouraged to use instead may actually promote it.
Ah, I see. The belief that saturated fats aren’t the problem is just a man-bites-dog story … instead of, say, the result of new research. Or of countless people learning through experience that low-fat diets didn’t work for them. (Hey, Ms. Brody, remember what happened to your cholesterol numbers when you kept cutting the saturated fat from your diet?)
So before you succumb to wishful thinking that you can eat well-marbled steaks, pork ribs and full-fat dairy products with abandon, you’d be wise to consider the findings of what is probably the most comprehensive, commercially untainted review of the dietary fat literature yet published. They are found in a 26-page advisory prepared for the American Heart Association and published last June by a team of experts led by Dr. Frank M. Sacks.
Ms. Brody thinks the American Heart Association produced the most commercially untainted review yet? You mean the organization whose very existence depends on generous support from the makers of low-fat foods? The organization that will dry up and blow away the day after the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory dies?
Pardon me while I go laugh my @$$ off for several minutes …
… Okay, I’m back. Let’s continue:
As documented in the new advisory, misleading conclusions that saturated fats do not affect the risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular diseases have largely resulted from studies that were done in good faith but failed to take into account what people who avoided saturated fats ate in their place.
For example, in a study of 252 British men who had suffered heart attacks, following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet reduced cholesterol levels by a meager 5 percent and had virtually no effect on future heart attacks. The carbohydrates they ate were mainly refined, low-fiber flours and sugars that promote weight gain and diabetes, two leading risk factors for heart disease.
In North America and Europe, the team noted, the effect of lowering saturated fat was essentially negated by people’s consumption of more “refined grains, fruit juice, sweet desserts and snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages, and other foods” that hardly promote good health.
Wait … you mean when people cut back on saturated fat, they consumed more refined grains, fruit juices and sugars? Boy, I don’t know how people could have gotten the AHA’s advice so very wrong.
Yes, it’s true: the AHA has finally stopped putting its logo on sugar-laden cereals and other sugary foods. Only took them a few decades. But let’s think about this …
The AHA jumped on the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! bandwagon after Ancel Keys joined the organization’s board. Keys, as you probably know, waged a very bitter and very personal war of words against British researcher John Yudkin throughout the 1970s. Why? Because Yudkin insisted it was sugar causing heart disease, not saturated fat. Keys replied over and over, in paper after paper, No, damnit, the problem isn’t sugar, it’s saturated fat!
Here’s a quote from Keys himself:
It is clear that Yudkin has no theoretical basis or experimental evidence to support his claim for a major influence of dietary sucrose in the etiology of CHD; his claim that men who have CHD are excessive sugar eaters is nowhere confirmed but is disproved by many studies superior in methodology and/or magnitude to his own; and his “evidence” from population statistics and time trends will not bear up under the most elementary critical examination.
There you have it. The man who steered the American Heart Association onto its anti-saturated-fat path insisted that sugar doesn’t cause heart disease and the very idea had already been disproved.
So now that cutting back on saturated fat has failed to reduce heart disease in several clinical studies, how does Dr. Frank Sucks … er, Sacks and the American Heart Association explain away the embarrassing results? Like this:
Uh, yeah, but … uh … ya see … uh, that only happened because when people cut back on the saturated fat, they ate more sugar.
In an interview, Dr. Sacks said the advice derived from the best research “is pretty straightforward: consume few saturated fats like butter, full-fat dairy, beef and pork fat, and coconut, palm and palm kernel oils and replace them with natural vegetable oils high in polyunsaturates – corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, peanut, walnut and grapeseed oils.” Also healthful are canola and olive oil, rich in both monounsaturates and polyunsaturates.
The “best” research, of course, consists of the four studies Dr. Sucks managed to cherry-pick that support the AHA’s position. He somehow found methodological problems with all the others.
And as for this part:
… replace them with natural vegetable oils high in polyunsaturates – corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, peanut, walnut and grapeseed oils.
If you can explain to me how it’s natural for humans to consume oils from corn and soybeans, I’m all ears. Silly me, I tend to think the natural fats are the ones that don’t require industrial processing.
As for coconut oil, Dr. Sacks said, “It’s the nutritional fat du jour but it has not been proven to be healthful.”
Ah, I see. Dr. Sucks only recommends foods that have been proven to be healthy. I guess that explains this paragraph in Brody’s article:
Alas, the advisory team noted, there have been no trials to date testing the cardiovascular benefits of replacing dietary fat with “healthful nutrient-dense carbohydrates and fiber-rich foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes that are now recommended in dietary guidelines.”
No trials proving the cardiovascular benefits of replacing dietary fat with whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes … and yet that’s exactly what the American Heart Association tells us to do. And Ms. Brody echoes that advice in her article:
In other words, if you are truly concerned about preserving good health over all, focus on a Mediterranean-style diet heavy on plant foods and unsaturated vegetable oils, with whole grains like brown rice and bulgur, fruits and vegetables as the main sources of carbohydrates.
Fortunately, useful idiots in the media no longer shape public opinion as effectively as they once did. Here are few choice comments on Brody’s article left by readers:
I sport climb with guys in their sixties and seventies who are as fit as super-heroes. They, to the man, get their nutrition information from Youtube and not their doctor. This article’s laundry list of failed studies and misleading conclusions by the experts is the reason why.
I really can’t sit here and read any more AHA fraud articles about health. I find it impossible to believe NYT can’t write any other articles about the consumption of fats without citing these people who rampantly skew data.
Yes, Dr. Sacks, well over 70 years old, ignored literally hundreds of studies over the last 50 years in this latest diatribe to go back to the incorrect studies of the 1960s. News flash: In the 50 years since, science has advanced! Turns out fats are actually generally good for you, not bad for you. And saturated fats are basically neutral. This is what hundreds of better, more modern studies say.
The comments are much more informed on the subject than the author.
Indeed they are. That’s why the author is a useful idiot. I suspect we’ll hear from more useful idiots as the AHA continues trying to save itself from the inevitable.