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October 2, 2017

Why is the AHA Promoting a Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dairy, and Egg Centered Diet?

by Anne Paddock

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and the American Heart Association (AHA) professes to be on a mission “to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular disease and stroke.” While this disease takes many forms, the primary concern of most people is atherosclerosis:  “a big word for a big problem: fatty deposits that can clog arteries. These buildups are called plaque. They’re made of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood)” according to the AHA. In addition, the AHA writes:

As plaque builds up, an artery wall gets thicker. This narrows the opening, reducing blood flow and the supply of oxygen to cells.

The type of artery affected and where the plaque develops varies with each person. Plaque may partially or totally block blood flow through a large or medium-sized artery in the heart, brain, pelvis, legs, arms or kidneys. When this happens, various diseases may result. These include:

  • coronary heart disease (plaque in arteries in or leading to the heart),
  • angina (chest pain from reduced blood flow in arteries supplying the heart muscle),
  • carotid artery disease (plaque in neck arteries that supply blood to the brain),
  • peripheral artery disease (PAD; plaque in arteries of the extremities, especially the legs) and
  • chronic kidney disease

Where plaque occurs, two things can happen. One is that a piece of plaque may break off and be carried by the bloodstream until it gets stuck. The other is that a blood clot (thrombus) may form on the plaque’s surface.  If either of these things happen, the artery can be blocked and blood flow cut off.

If the blocked artery supplies the heart or brain, a heart attack or stroke occurs. If an artery supplying oxygen to the extremities (often the legs) is blocked, gangrene can result. Gangrene is tissue death.

So, what causes atherosclerosis?  Depending on who you believe, it can be elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, cigarette smoking, high blood pressure – all of which are influenced by or are lifestyle choices, including diet.

The AHA website has a “Healthy Living” “Eat Smart” section that provides “Recipes.” Viewers can browse by course (i.e.appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, salads, desserts, etc), by lifestyle with the choices being slow cooker, quick and easy, vegetarian, kid-friendly, budget friendly, or BBQ and grilling” (note there is no vegan or plant-based lifestyle choice), or ingredients including poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, and nuts.  In trying to understand what foods are being promoted by the AHA, I used the search button and found the following number of recipes:

  • Beef:  33 recipes
  • Steak: 14 recipes
  • Chicken: 79 recipes
  • Pork:  27 recipes
  • Eggs: 24 recipes
  • Bacon: 4 recipes
  • Vegetables:  291 recipes

Learning that the AHA has 291 recipes listed under vegetables led me to take a closer look. I clicked on the link, looked at all 291 recipes, and learned that 232 of the 291 (or 80% of the recipes) had meat, poultry, pork, seafood, dairy, or eggs in them.

Given that foods from plants (i.e. fruit, vegetables, rice, grains, nuts, seeds) don’t have cholesterol and are rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, why isn’t the AHA promoting a whole grain, low-fat diet to prevent or reverse heart disease? or, at least offering a lifestyle choice for plant-based or vegan living? That’s the $800 million dollar (about how much the AHA raises annually) question.

Among the possible answers:

  • The AHA depends primarily on contributions and most contributions are made by people who eat animal products so they may not want to risk alienating their donor base;
  • When faced with elevated cholesterol, most people choose to take a statin instead of making dietary changes;
  • Most Americans like meat, poultry, pork, seafood, dairy, and eggs and don’t want to give them up so telling people not to eat these items may alienate them from the AHA;
  • The statin industry is a $35 billion industry in the United States and the pharmaceutical companies don’t want to see people change their diets or their market will disappear;
  • Most doctors in the United States are not given a strong education in nutrition so they don’t know the power of dietary choices and therefore don’t promote a plant-based or vegan lifestyle to prevent or reverse heart disease;
  • The Standard American Diet is heavy on meat, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, dairy, sugar, sodium, and processed foods. It is very hard for people to change their diet so promoting a plant-based diet may alienate people;
  • The AHA may be receiving funding from the animal livestock, dairy, egg, pharmaceutical and/or businesses/organizations supporting these industries; and
  • The employees of the AHA may be following a diet that includes animal products. It’s hard to promote a diet that you yourself don’t follow (“do what I say, not what I do” generally doesn’t work).

Whatever the reason is, the AHA should be leading the way in preventing and reversing heart disease and one of the ways to do this is to promote a whole grain, low-fat plant-based diet, and they are simply not doing it. Instead of 80% of the vegetable recipes containing meat, poultry, pork, seafood, dairy, or eggs, 20% of the recipes could contain animal ingredients (although none would the ideal) and 80% contain plant-based ingredients.

Kim Allen Campbell, MD, the past president of the American College of Cardiology – one of the most well-respected medical organizations in the country – promoted and still promotes patients to switch to a vegan or plant-based diet.  He, himself became a vegan in 2003 after seeing his LDL climb to high levels despite a diet that primarily consisted of chicken and fish with no skin, no red meat, and no fried food. He thought his diet was healthy because it was low fat but it wasn’t low cholesterol. When he switched to a plant-based diet, his LDL plummeted.  Campbell recognizes that effects can vary from person to person although eliminating animal products (that are notoriously high in cholesterol) and switching to a whole grain low-fat plant-based diet will reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar in most people. So, if the past President of the American College of Cardiology is promoting a vegan diet, shouldn’t the AHA get on board?

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