Monday, February 20, 2012

The “pork paradox”? National pork consumption and obesity

In my previous post () I discussed some country data linking pork consumption and health, analyzed with WarpPLS (). One of the datasets used, the most complete, contained data from () for the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States. That previous post also addressed a study by Bridges (), based on country-level data, suggesting that pork consumption may cause liver disease.

In this post we continue that analysis, but with a much more complex model containing the following country variables: wealth (PPP-adjusted GNP/person), pork consumption (lbs/person/year), alcohol consumption (liters/person/year), obesity (% of population), and life expectancy (years). The model and results, generated by WarpPLS, are shown on the figure below. (See notes at the end of this post.) These results are only for direct effects.

WarpPLS also calculates total effects, which are the effects of each variable on any other variable to which it is linked directly and/or indirectly. Two variables may be linked indirectly, through various paths, even if they are not linked directly (i.e., have an arrow directly connecting them). Another set of outputs generated by the software are effect sizes, which are calculated as Cohen’s f-squared coefficients. The figure below shows the total effects table. The values underlined in red are for total effects that are both statistically significant and also above the effect size threshold recommended by Cohen to be considered relevant (f-squared > 0.02).

As I predicted in my previous post, wealth is positively associated with pork consumption. So is alcohol consumption, and more strongly than wealth; which is consistent with a study by Jeanneret and colleagues showing a strong association between alcohol consumption and protein rich diets (). The inclusion of wealth in the model, compared with the model without wealth in the previous post, renders the direct and total effects of alcohol and pork consumption on life expectancy statistically indistinguishable from zero. (This often happens when a confounder is added to a model.)

Pork consumption is negatively associated with obesity, which is interesting. So is alcohol consumption, but much less strongly than pork consumption. This does not mean that if you eat 20 doughnuts every day, together with 1 lb of pork, you are not going to become obese. What this does suggest is that maybe countries where pork is consumed more heavily are somewhat more resistant to obesity. Here it should be noted that pork is very popular in Asian countries, which are becoming increasingly wealthy, but without the widespread obesity that we see in the USA.

But it is not the inclusion of Asian countries in the dataset that paints such a positive picture for pork consumption vis-à-vis obesity, and even weakens the association between wealth and obesity so much as to make it statistically non-significant. Denmark is a wealthy country that has very low levels of obesity. And it happens to have the highest level of pork consumption in the whole dataset: 142.6 lbs/person/year. So we are not talking about an “Asian paradox” here.

More like a “pork paradox”.

Finally, as far as life expectancy is concerned, the key factors seem to be wealth and obesity. Wealth has a major positive effect on life expectancy, while obesity has a much weaker negative effect. Well, access to sanitation, medical services, and other amenities of civilization, still trumps obesity in terms of prolonging life; however miserable life may turn out to be. The competing effects of these two variables (i.e., wealth and obesity) were taken into consideration, or controlled for, in the calculation of total effects and effect sizes.

The fact that pork consumption is negatively associated with obesity goes somewhat against the idea that pork is inherently unhealthy; even though pork certainly can cause disease if not properly prepared and/or cooked, which is true for many other plant and animal foods. The possible connection with liver problems, alluded to in the previous post, is particularly suspicious in light of these results. Liver diseases often impair that organ’s ability to make glycogen based on carbohydrates and protein; that is, liver diseases frequently lead to liver insulin resistance. And obesity frequently follows from liver insulin resistance.

Given that pork consumption appears to be negatively associated with obesity, it would be surprising if it was causing widespread liver disease, unless its relationship with liver disease was found to be nonlinear. (Alcohol consumption seems to be nonlinearly associated with liver disease.) Still, most studies that suggest the existence of a causal link between pork consumption and liver disease, like Bridges’s (), hint at a linear and dose-dependent relationship.


- Country-level data is inherently problematic, particularly when simple models are used (e.g., a model with only two variables). There are just too many possible confounders that may lead to the appearance of causal associations.

- More complex models ameliorate the above situation somewhat, but bump into another problem associated with country-level data – small sample sizes. We used data from 18 countries in this analysis, which is more than in the Bridges study. Still, the effective sample size here (N=18) is awfully small.

- There were some missing values in this dataset, which were handled by WarpPLS employing the most widely used approach in these cases – i.e., by replacing the missing values with the mean of each column. The percentages of missing values per variable (i.e., column) were: alcohol consumption: 27.78%; life expectancy: 5.56%; and obesity: 33.33%.