The Nation's Health + Nutrition

Nutrition: Mediterranean diet vs. American Heart Association Diet

In 1994, the Lyon Heart Study demonstrated a 50-70% reduction in coronary events in participants who followed a diet rich in vegetables, olive oil, fish, nuts, red wine, and enjoyed meals as a family activity. Various other studies have documented similar phenomena with less metabolic syndrome, better lipid patterns, less obesity with the Mediterranean lifestyle.

There are two fundamental differences between the Mediterranean diet and the diet advocated by the American Heart Association (AHA) for people with heart disease: the Mediterranean diet uses olive oil more liberally, such that fat calories can reach 40% of total; and, unlike the AHA diet, processed foods are not a part of the Mediterranean diet. Greeks, for instance, are far less likely to eat Count Chocula cereal for breakfast, or snack on Healthy Choice Premium Caramel Swirl Sandwich (ice cream sandwiches) or Malt-O-Meal Honey Nut Scooters. All three of these foods on listed on the AHA Heart-Check Mark heart-healthy program.

In other words, remove all the processed foods, and the AHA diet pretty closely resembles the Mediterranean diet. There are differences but they tend to be relatively small. If the only major difference is the presence of processed foods, wouldn't you therefore expect the AHA to embrace the Mediterranean diet?

Here's what their official stand on the Mediterranean diet states:

Does a Mediterranean-style diet follow American Heart Association dietary recommendations?

Mediterranean-style diets are often close to our dietary recommendations, but they don’t follow them exactly. In general, the diets of Mediterranean peoples contain a relatively high percentage of calories from fat. This is thought to contribute to the increasing obesity in these countries, which is becoming a concern.

The AHA is actually lukewarm towards the diet that was the first to show a dramatic decrease in heart attack and death. Why?

The answer is obvious, once cast in this light. To wholeheartedly endorse the Mediterranean diet might be seen as an indirect rejection of American processed foods. You know, the foods that have caused an extraordinary and unprecedented epidemic of obesity in the U.S., the foods that are manufactured by ConAgra, General Mills, Kelloggs--all also major financial contributors to the AHA, according to the AHA Annual Report.

I tell my patients: If you want heart disease, follow the American Heart Association diet. In my view, it is a diet founded on politics and money, not on health. How else could Cocoa Puffs be regarded as heart healthy?

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