I’ve been predicting for years that the instigators of arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria would back away from their lousy advice one baby step at a time. That seems to be true of the USDA. In their most recent guidelines, they removed the limits on total fat intake and declared that cholesterol is “no longer a nutrient of concern.” The guidelines are still a steaming pile of nonsense, but slightly less steaming.
The American Heart Association, on the other hand, isn’t stepping backwards. In fact, they just doubled down on arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria. You’ve probably seen headlines like this one from the New York Post:
Coconut oil is worse for your heart than butter and beef, a new study claims.
The thought-to-be healthy oil is 82 percent saturated fat — while butter contains just 63 percent, according to The Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease Advisory.
The artery-clogger is also more likely to send cholesterol levels through the roof than beef, which is 50 percent saturated fat, and pork lard, which contains 39 percent of the “bad” fat, according to the report, which was published Thursday.
Artery-clogger! Cholesterol levels through the roof! Yup, that’s some fine, objective reporting. Like many media outlets, the Post swallowed the AHA’s nonsense hook, line and sinker.
Frank Sacks, lead author of the new study, advised people to boost heart health by cooking with less saturated fats.
I wasn’t surprised to see that Frank Sacks was the lead author. But we’ll come back to him. The immediate question is, why is the American Heart Association doubling down on arterycloggingsaturatedfat! hysteria when so much recent (and recently discovered) research has pointed the other way?
Well, as some mysterious character in a movie once said, follow the money. Yes, the AHA is a charity, but that doesn’t mean we’re talking about pass-the-hat sums. Far from it. According to Forbes Magazine, the AHA’s revenues in fiscal year 2014 were $774 million. And according to Charity Watch, the organization’s CEO was compensated to the tune of $1.3 million in fiscal year 2016.
This is major-league money at stake, folks. And where does it come from? Let’s just say I’m pretty sure the AHA walk-a-thon sponsored by the company where I work didn’t account for much of it.
As I explained in Fat Head, the AHA takes in millions for licensing its Heart Check logo. To qualify for the logo, foods must be low in total fat and very low in saturated fat. (The AHA finally wised up and added a low-sugar requirement as well, which means they’re no longer in the embarrassing position of having the Heart Check logo on boxes of Cocoa Puffs and other sugary junk.)
Corporate sponsors of the AHA are a Who’s Who in Big Pharma and Big Food. Big Pharma, of course, just loves the AHA’s warnings that high cholesterol causes heart disease – because that encourages people to take statins. Big Food loves AHA’s hearty approval of grain-based, low-fat foods – because those are industrial foods.
When I listen to the radio, I occasionally hear a public service announcement in which a mom decides that instead of cooking with butter, she’ll use a “heart-healthy” oil like canola. An announcer chimes in, “You’re a genius!” At the end of the PSA, we’re told the Canola Council is a proud sponsor of the American Heart Association.
Well, of course they are. The AHA tells people to buy their industrial oil to protect their hearts.
So here’s the bottom line: The American Heart Association has painted itself into a corner. No matter what the emerging (and rediscovered) science says, the AHA can never, ever change its position. It can never, ever be an objective observer and reporter of the science.
Take away the donations by the makers of cholesterol-lowering drugs, industrial “vegetable” oils and low-fat grain foods, and there’s no American Heart Association. Its very existence depends on people believing that natural saturated fats will kill them, while industrial oils, processed grains and statin drugs will save them. The bigwigs at the AHA can’t possibly admit they’ve been wrong about saturated fats and cholesterol. That would be financial suicide.
But of course, suicide isn’t the only way to die. A major shift in the public’s beliefs could be just as lethal. That shift is already happening. More and more people are returning to full-fat dairy products. More and more people are buying coconut oil. More and more people are ditching the grain foods. In other words, more and more people are ignoring the American Heart Association’s outdated, lousy advice.
And so – surprise, surprise! – the AHA produces a new analysis that declares they’ve been right along. Yeah, I’m sure the study was the result of an objective search for scientific truth.
Gary Taubes wrote a long critique of the AHA study that I’d encourage you to read. I don’t want to repeat all his points, so here’s the very brief summary: Sacks and the other researchers looked at all the studies on saturated fat and heart disease, and by some eerie coincidence, the only four that met their strict criteria for inclusion just happened to support the notion that saturated fat causes heart disease.
Keep that in mind the next time some idiot nutritionist claims (as I once saw on TV) that “thousands of studies” have proven that saturated fat causes heart disease. Even the people who most want that to be true can only come up with four. And those four are flawed studies, as Taubes points out in his critique.
The name Frank Sacks jumped out at me right away when I saw him listed as the lead author. I’ve written about his studies before. In fact, I wrote my very first post about a study in which Sacks declared that a low-carb diet was no more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet.
Just one little problem. His definition of “low carb” was 35% of calories. If you’re consuming 2000 calories per day, that’s 175 carbs per day. Just like Dr. Atkins recommended, eh? Anyone remotely familiar with low-carb diets knows that the idea is to start at less than 50 grams per day to drastically reduce insulin levels. In other words, Sacks decided to test a “low carb” diet that wasn’t actually a low-carb diet so he could say low-carb diets don’t offer any particular benefits for weight loss.
Later, Sacks pulled the same stunt again … only this time the “low carb” diet was 40% of calories. Once again, just like Dr. Atkins recommended, eh?
Sacks was also the lead author on a salt-restriction study I poked fun at in my Science For Smart People speech. He had one group of people eat a “typical” diet full of processed junk, and another group eat a Mediterranean “healthy” diet. Then over a period of weeks, he reduced their sodium intake by 75%.
The results were not impressive. In the “healthy” group, the drastic reduction in sodium shifted the average blood pressure from 127/81 to … wait for it … 124/79. That’s right, a measly three-point drop –after cutting sodium by 75%. Not exactly the slam-dunk the anti-salt warriors (including Sacks) were hoping to produce.
But heck, no problem. Sacks simply compared people on the high-salt junk diet to people on the low-salt Mediterranean diet and found a 12-point difference in blood pressure. That’s like comparing the livers of people on a high-whiskey, high-salt diet to the livers of people on a low-whiskey, low-salt diet and declaring that reducing salt clearly prevents liver damage.
Here’s what Sacks wrote in the study:
The reduction of sodium intake to levels below the current recommendation of 100 mmol per day and the DASH diet both lower blood pressure substantially … Long term-health benefits will depend on the ability of people to make long-lasting dietary changes and the increased availability of low-sodium foods.
Would that be your conclusion if reducing sodium intake by 75% produced a measly three-point drop in blood pressure? I sincerely hope not.
So let’s just say I haven’t been impressed with the scientific integrity of Dr. Frank Sacks. Some researchers use the tools of science to seek the truth, while others use those tools to design studies that will tell them what they want to hear. And if the studies don’t tell them what they want to hear, they hear it anyway.
When the “we were right about saturated fat all along!” study hit the news, I went looking to see if Sacks had any previous affiliation with the American Heart Association. Yup, he sure did. Here are some quotes from a biography:
Dr. Sacks was Chair of the Design Committee of the DASH study, and Chair of the Steering Committee for the DASH-Sodium trial. These multicenter National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute trials found major beneficial additive effects of low salt and a dietary pattern rich in fruits and vegetables on blood pressure.
For crying out loud! Once again, how does a three-point drop in blood pressure count as a “major beneficial effect” of a low-salt diet?! It was clear from the study data that the benefit was in dumping processed junk foods, not restricting salt. Liar, liar, pants on fire. Anyway …
He is Past Chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee, which advises the AHA on nutrition policy.
Got that? Dr. Sacks was head of the AHA’s nutrition committee. That means he was one of the people pushing the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory all along.
So here’s the situation: with more researchers and more common folks rejecting the belief that saturated fats cause heart disease, the American Heart Association basically said, “Hey, Frank! Go conduct a fine, objective, strict-criteria study to determine if the theories you’ve been promoting for years are actually correct. And hey, if it turns out you were partly responsible for us giving out bad dietary advice to millions of people, no problem. It’s not like admitting we got it all wrong would sink us financially or anything.”
That’s the backdrop. In my next post, we’ll look at the (ahem) “science” behind the AHA’s announcement that they were right all along.