Does the American Heart Association diet reduce heart disease?

If you have a heart attack and land in the hospital where, invariably, you will have a heart procedure. Or, if you get a stent or coronary bypass operation, sometime before your discharge from the hospital, a well-meaning hospital staff dietitian will provide instruction in the American Heart Association (AHA) diet.

Does this diet reduce the risk of heart disease?

The answer depends on where you start. If you begin with a conventional American diet that is enormously influenced by convenience, food manufacturers like Nabisco, General Mills, Quaker Oats, ADM, and Cargill, or food distributors like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, then the American Heart Association diet is indeed an improvement. But just a small one. If LDL cholesterol is the yardstick, the average reduction in LDL is between 10 and 15 mg/dl. This is the same amount of change you’d experience by adding 1 tablespoon of oat bran to your diet. Hardly worth boasting about. HDL, triglycerides, blood glucose, and body weight do not change.

The diet could be substantially better. After all, it’s become common knowledge that other diets, such as the so-called Mediterranean diet, the South Beach Diet, and similar broad projects result in far greater changes than the AHA diet dispensed by your hospital and cardiologist. These diets more effectively reduce LDL, raise HDL, reduce triglycerides, reduce C-reactive protein, reduce blood pressure. Diets like South Beach also yield substantial weight loss and reversal of diabetic tendencies, with the magnitude of benefit dependent on the amount of weight lost.

Why this stubborn adherence to the outdated concepts articulated in the AHA diet? Cardiologists would argue that insufficient data has been generated to permit widespread application of these diets. They also differ on whether they really work. Of course, the majority remain ignorant and dismiss them as fad diets.

A little digging into the financial disclosures of the AHA suggests another, more malignant influence: who is paying the bills? Until recently, drug manufacturers were major contributors to the AHA. However, more recently AHA administrators have become sensitive to the public perception that they might be nothing more than a voice box for the drug industry. They have since limited contributions from the drug companies to 8% of annual charitable revenues.

The drug manufacturers have been replaced by the food industry. In addition to food manufacturers that make the cereals on your grocery shelf, it includes the multi-national conglomerates that produce unimaginable revenues and carry enormous political clout, like ADM and Cargill. Ever wonder how it is that Honey Nut Cheerios received a “Heart Healthy” endorsement from the AHA?

The AHA diet does not provide the answers we’re looking for, not even close. It is a perversion from an organization that has its strings pulled by industry. The answers to health will not come from the AHA, AMA, the American College of Cardiology, the American Hospital Association, and it won’t come from your doctor. It won’t come from a titillating report on the evening news or Good Morning America. It will come from collective and expanding wisdom placed directly into the hands of the public. It will be untainted by the temptation of drug industry dollars. It will not be dirtied by million dollar contributions, or the multi-million dollar behind-closed-doors lobbying of the food manufacturers. It will come from the truth relayed to the healthcare-consuming public. I hope you recognize it when you see it.

If you want a healthy diet for your heart, throw away the pamphlets from the AHA unless you are partial to bread, breakfast cereals, corn, and the supporters of their misguided nutritional advice.