Monday, August 20, 2012

The 2012 Atherosclerosis egg study: Plaque decreased as LDL increased with consumption of 2.3 eggs per week or more

A new study by David Spence and colleagues, published online in July 2012 in the journal Atherosclerosis (), has been gaining increasing media attention (e.g., ). The article is titled: “Egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque”. As the title implies, the study focuses on egg yolk consumption and its association with carotid artery plaque buildup.

The study argues that “regular consumption of egg yolk should be avoided by persons at risk of cardiovascular disease”. It hints at egg yolks being unhealthy in general, possibly even more so than cigarettes. Solid critiques have already been posted on blogs by Mark Sisson, Chris Masterjohn, and Zoe Harcombe (, , ), among others.

These critiques present valid arguments for why the key findings of the study cannot be accepted, especially the finding that eggs are more dangerous to one’s health than cigarettes. This post is a bit different. It uses the data reported in the study to show that it (the data) suggests that egg consumption is actually health-promoting.

I used the numbers in Table 2 of the article to conduct a test that is rarely if ever conducted in health studies – a moderating effect test. I left out the “egg-yolk years” variable used by the authors, and focused on weekly egg consumption (see Chris’s critique). My analysis, using WarpPLS (), had to be done only visually, because using values from Table 2 meant that I had access only to data on a few variables organized in quintiles. That is, my analysis here using aggregate data is an N=5 analysis; a small sample indeed. The full-text article is not available publicly; Zoe was kind enough to include the data from Table 2 in her critique post.

Below is the model that I used for the moderating effect test. It allowed me to look into the effect that the variable EggsWk (number of eggs consumed per week) had on the association between LDL (LDL cholesterol) and Plaque (carotid plaque). This type of effect, namely a moderating effect, is confusing to many people, because it is essentially the effect that a variable has on the effect of another variable on a third. Still, being confusing does not mean being less important. I should note that this type of effect is similar to a type of conditional association tested via Bayesian statistics – if one eats more eggs, what is the association between having a high LDL cholesterol and plaque buildup?

You can see what is happening visually on the graph below. The plot on the left side is for low weekly egg consumption. In it, the association between LDL cholesterol and plaque is positive – eating fewer eggs, plaque and LDL increase together. The plot on the right side is for high weekly egg consumption. In this second plot, the association between LDL cholesterol and plaque is negative – eating more eggs, plaque decreases as LDL increases. And what is the turning point? It is about 2.3 eggs per week.

So the “evil” particle, the LDL, is playing tricks with us; but thankfully the wonderful eggs come to the rescue, right? Well, it looks a bit like it, but maybe other foods would have a similar effect. In part because of the moderating effect discussed above, the multivariate association between LDL cholesterol and plaque was overall negative. This multivariate association was estimated controlling for the moderating effect of weekly egg consumption. You can see this on the plot below.

The highest amount of plaque is at the far left of the plot. It is associated with the lowest LDL cholesterol quintile. (So much for eggs causing plaque via LDL cholesterol eh!?) What is happening here? Maybe egg consumption above a certain level shifts the size of the LDL particles from small to large, making the potentially atherogenic ones harmless. (Saturated fat consumption, in the context of a nutritious diet in lean individuals, seems to have a similar effect.) Maybe eggs contain nutrients that promote overall health, leading LDL particles to "behave" and do what they are supposed to do. Maybe it is a combination of these and other effects.