2024 Award of Meritorious Achievement winner honored for championing nutrition for longer, healthier lives.

Nutrition researcher Alice H Lichtenstein has spent four decades advancing American Heart Association's lifesaving mission.
Nutrition researcher Alice H Lichtenstein has spent four decades advancing American Heart Association's lifesaving mission.

For Alice H Lichtenstein, the path to becoming one of the country's leading nutrition researchers had an unlikely start.

As a child growing up in New York City in the 1960s, she was diagnosed with dyslexia and told a college degree might be out of her reach. Besides, nobody in her family had ever gone to college.

"Expectations were extremely low," said Lichtenstein, a researcher at Tufts University. "My mother thought, well, maybe if I majored in home economics, I would make it through college."

So she enrolled in "home ec" classes at Buffalo State University, but quickly grew bored and transferred to Cornell University where she dove headfirst into nutrition science coursework. It's there she found her true calling.

"I was aware that on my block in Queens, there were a number of fathers who died of heart attacks in their 50s. Becoming more aware of how there might be a relationship between diet and health is what really got me hooked on nutrition."

Lichtenstein went on to earn a science masters at the Pennsylvania State and a science doctorate at Harvard, and embark on a long career exploring the relationship between what we eat and how our body responds. She subsequently received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Eastern Finland (formally Kuopio University). A "grand dame of nutrition," as the Washington Post called her, Lichtenstein has volunteered for the American Heart Association for more than 40 years, starting at the state level and expanding to the national level.

For her service and efforts to help people live longer, healthier lives, Lichtenstein will be honored Thursday, May 2, with the AHA's Meritorious Achievement Award during its national awards ceremony. The online event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Central. The award is given annually to individuals or organizations that have rendered an important service to the association.

Lichtenstein is senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston and the Staney N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy . She's also worn a wide range of hats as an AHA volunteer.

Since 1984, she's helped shape the strategic direction of the organization by serving as a volunteer leader and champion of nutrition science, research and translation. She's engaged with a long list of prestigious committees, including the AHA Nutrition Committee (vice-chair 2000-2003; chair 2003-2006), developing and promoting well-designed nutrition programs that help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease.

She's led or been an author of more than 40 AHA scientific statements, advisories and guidelines, including working group chair of the 2021 AHA Dietary Guidance to Promote Cardiovascular Health Scientific Statement, which emphasizes a heart-healthy diet starting early in life.

She was a member of the writing group for the AHA 2017 Dietary Fat and Cardiovascular Disease Presidential Advisory, and 2023's Food Is Medicine Presidential Advisory, which calls for nutrition interventions and policies to improve health.

Today, she serves as Chair of the Nutrition Publications Committee and is a member of the AHA Nutrition Committee's Ultra-processed Foods Nutrition Committee writing group.

As the science of healthy eating has evolved, including her own research laboratory's work, Lichtenstein has helped to spread the word about evolving findings on fat, cholesterol and sugar, as well as other factors, and their relationship to cardiovascular risk factors. While knowledge of nutrition has improved drastically, she believes there's still a dire need to improve health literacy, especially in schools.

"Unless we educate children, early and often, in the basics concepts of food and nutrition, all our work is going to go for naught," she said.

"There's such a tsunami of misinformation about nutrition on social media that it makes the American Heart Association that much more important, because they're an authoritative source. Whenever I'm asked for credible sources of information, I say, 'Go on the AHA website. there is a vast amount of consumer friendly information."

Lichtenstein said she's optimistic that more and more people are shifting towards a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low and nonfat dairy products, fish and plant sources of protein, with minimal amounts of salt and added sugar. But it might take some additional nudging.

"We've got to make the default option the healthiest option," she said. "If people are served whole wheat buns, whole wheat pasta and pizza crust made with whole wheat, they'd probably eat it."

Four decades after she began volunteering for the AHA, Lichenstein encourages others to donate their time and energy to support the organization's mission.

"It's a terrific opportunity to work with smart, interesting people and broaden your perspective," she said. "And it's a very welcoming environment where your voice is heard and appreciated. When you work with the Heart Association, you really do feel that you're contributing to something positive. It's a win-win situation."