Recently two meta-analysis papers were published addressing the findings from population studies of the association between egg intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease.12 Unfortunately the authors of these two review papers reached contradictory conclusions regarding the dangers of egg intake which is likely to lead to unnecessary public confusion. The authors of the most recent meta-analysis paper reviewed studies on coronary heart disease, heart failure, diabetes and all cardiovascular diseases (CVD) combined and concluded:
Our study suggests that there is a dose-response positive association between egg consumption and the risk of CVD and diabetes.
In contrast to this conclusion, the authors of the earlier meta-analysis paper limited their review to studies that specifically addressed coronary heart disease and stroke and concluded:
Higher consumption of eggs (up to one egg per day) is not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke. The increased risk of coronary heart disease among diabetic patients and reduced risk of hemorrhagic stroke associated with higher egg consumption in subgroup analyses warrant further studies.
The second meta-analysis paper is problematic in part because the authors failed to consider the relevant findings from dozens of rigorously controlled feeding experiments on humans and thousands of experiments on animals, including nonhuman primates that strongly support the recommendations to limit the intake of eggs and cholesterol [reviewed previously]. This paper is also problematic in part because the authors failed to consider many other relevant findings from prospective cohort studies which suggest that egg and cholesterol intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, heart failure, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.
Firstly, the association between egg intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease is meaningless without considering suitable substitutes for eggs. As a lower intake of eggs implies a higher intake of other foods in order to maintain caloric balance, the effect that egg intake has on coronary heart disease depends on which foods eggs are substituted for. For example, data from the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest studies included in these meta-analyses suggested that replacing one serving of nuts, but not red meat and dairy with one serving of eggs per day is associated with a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease.3 The authors of both meta-analyses failed to address this factor despite the fact that the importance of evaluating suitable food alternatives has been strongly emphasized by many prominent diet-heart researchers.4 The findings from these meta-analyses should therefore be interpreted with caution as eggs may have been primarily compared to processed foods and other animal foods which make up the majority of caloric intake in developed nations.45
Eggs, Cholesterol and Diabetics
The authors of the most recent meta-analysis paper found that among diabetics, frequent egg intake was associated with a 83% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, whereas the authors of the earlier meta-analysis paper found that frequent intake was associated with a 54% increased risk of coronary heart disease. The authors of the most recent meta-analysis paper excluded one, while the authors of the earlier meta-analysis paper excluded two additional cohort studies that found that among diabetics, high compared to low intake of eggs was associated with an approximately five-fold increased risk of cardiovascular disease.67 These additional studies had they been addressed by these authors would have potentially strengthened the association between egg intake and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in diabetics.
The authors of the most recent meta-analysis found that frequent egg intake was associated with a 68% increased risk of type II diabetes, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, the authors of the earlier meta-analysis largely failed to address this evidence. A literature search I performed produced papers from 5 separate prospective cohort studies addressing egg intake and the risk of developing type II diabetes, including two additional studies that were not addressed in both meta-analyses papers.891011 In addition, I also found one additional cohort study addressing egg intake and the risk of developing gestational diabetes.12 All except one smaller cohort found a statistically significant association after adjusting for potential confounders. These cohorts also found suggestive evidence that the increased risk persisted regardless of whether eggs were consumed in the presence of a higher or lower carbohydrate diet, and that the association was even stronger when repeated measurements of egg intake were considered.9 In addition, these cohorts also found suggestive evidence that the increased risk could partly be explained by the dietary cholesterol and protein content of eggs, and that substituting eggs with carbohydrate-rich foods, especially fiber-rich bread and cereals significantly decreases the risk of developing type II diabetes.891112
In the one cohort that did not find a statistically significant association, average egg intake was relatively low and there was suggestive evidence of an increased risk when a follow-up measurement of egg intake was used to update exposure overtime.10 In addition to these findings, a paper from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study also found suggestive evidence that egg intake is associated with an increased risk of type II diabetes.13 Furthermore, papers from an additional 5 cohort studies found that dietary cholesterol was associated with a significantly increased risk of developing either type II diabetes or gestational diabetes.141516
Overall findings from 12 prospective cohort studies with 265,675 participants and 14,497 cases of type II diabetes and gestational diabetes strongly implies that egg and cholesterol intake are significant risk factors in the development of diabetes. In addition to the findings from cohort studies, 4 cross-sectional studies found that egg or cholesterol intake was associated with between a nearly two-fold and greater than four-fold increased risk of developing type II diabetes and gestational diabetes.12171819 Also consistent with these findings, in the Adventist Health Study 2 it was observed that vegans had a lower risk of developing type II diabetes compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians, and especially non-vegetarians.20
One cohort included in these meta-analyses that used repeated egg intake measurements to update exposure over time found that in diabetics, intake of at least 7 eggs compared to less than 1 egg per week was associated with a two-fold increased risk of all-cause mortality, whereas another cohort that did not use repeated measurements found suggestive evidence of a 30% increased risk of all-cause mortality.2122 The authors of the first study stated:
…among male physicians with diabetes, any egg consumption is associated with a greater risk of all-cause mortality, and there was suggestive evidence for a greater risk of MI [heart attack] and stroke.
An additional study found that in diabetics, an increment of one egg per day was associated with a greater than three-fold increased risk of all-cause mortality.6
According to the International Diabetes Federation, globally approximately 183 million people, or half of those who have diabetes have not been diagnosed. Even in high-income countries about one-third of people with diabetes have not been diagnosed.23 Given this data and the data that egg and cholesterol intake is associated with a significantly increased risk of developing diabetes, and that in diabetics egg intake is associated with a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, there is likely a significantly greater number of people at risk than suggested by the authors of these recent meta-analyses.
Eggs, Cholesterol and Non-Diabetics
The Nurses’ Health Study found that an increment of cholesterol equivalent to one medium size egg per day was associated with a 17% increased risk of all-cause mortality, consistent with the findings from several other studies.242526 Another study included in these meta-analyses found that in non-diabetics, intake of at least 7 eggs compared to less than 1 egg per week was associated with a 22% increased risk of all-cause mortality.21 Also, another cohort from Japan found that frequent egg intake was associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality in women, consistent with the findings from the Adventists Mortality Study.2728 In addition, a cohort of elderly found suggestive evidence that egg intake was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality, and that substituting eggs with fruits, vegetables and grains significantly decreases risk.29
The authors of the most recent meta-analysis paper found that in largely non-diabetic populations that frequent egg intake was associated with 19% increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to all other sources of calories combined, which is predominantly processed foods and other animal foods. The authors of the earlier meta-analysis that did not reach this conclusion suggested that their findings are relevant for total cardiovascular disease but failed to address the findings from prospective cohort studies regarding the risk for heart failure. For example, two cohort studies which were included in the most recent meta-analyses found that intake of at least 7 eggs compared to less than 1 egg per week was associated with an approximately 30% increased risk of heart failure.3031
Another potential important finding that has contributed to the knowledge of the dangers of eggs are the results from studies that were carried out on populations with a low habitual cholesterol intake, such as vegetarian populations. The authors of the most recent meta-analysis paper excluded one, while the authors of the earlier meta-analysis paper excluded two cohort studies that were carried out on largely vegetarian populations. Frequent consumption of eggs was associated with a more than 2.5 increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease in the Oxford Vegetarian Study and also an increased risk in females in the Adventists Mortality Study.2832 The characteristics of the participants in these studies differ from that of most other studies, not only because of the their lower habitual intake of dietary cholesterol, but also because of their lower rates of obesity and typically healthier overall diet. Therefore separately analyzing egg intake in this subgroup of the population may be of significant importance. The authors of a paper from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study cited in these meta-analyses described the potential importance of addressing egg intake in people with very low habitual cholesterol intake and how their study may have been inadequate to test this hypothesis: 33
One potential alternative explanation for the null finding is that background dietary cholesterol may be so high in the usual Western diet that adding somewhat more has little further effect on blood cholesterol. In a randomized trial, Sacks et al found that adding 1 egg per day to the usual diet of 17 lactovegetarians whose habitual cholesterol intake was very low (97 mg/d) significantly increased LDL cholesterol level by 12%. In our analyses, differences in non-egg cholesterol intake did not appear to be an explanation for the null association between egg consumption and risk of CHD. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that egg consumption may increase the risk among participants with very low background cholesterol intake.
As it is well documented that cholesterol intake has a much greater effect of raising serum cholesterol when baseline intake is very low, this may in part explain why egg and cholesterol intake was more strongly associated with coronary heart disease in studies on largely vegetarian populations.3435 Another explanation for a possibly stronger association in vegetarian populations is that egg intake may have a greater effect in leaner people, and it has been well documented that vegetarians are generally leaner than their omnivorous counterparts [reviewed previously]. This hypothesis is supported by several dietary experiments which found that dietary cholesterol had a greater effect of raising serum cholesterol among leaner compared to overweight participants.3637 This hypothesis is also supported by the findings from the Chicago Western Electric Study which found that while dietary cholesterol was associated with a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease in lean men over and above the adverse effects it has on serum cholesterol, increased intake had little appreciable effect on men with a greater BMI and body fatness.38 Another explanation for these findings is that vegetarians may choose healthier substitutes for eggs, such as nuts which was associated with a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease compared to eggs in the Nurses’ Health Study.3
It was found in a sub-analysis based on 4 cohorts included in the earlier meta-analyses that egg intake was associated with an 18% non-significant increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease. The addition of the mortality findings from the two largely vegetarian cohorts that were excluded from this meta-analysis would have likely strengthened this association.2832 This suggests that similar to saturated fat intake, egg intake may increase the risk of fatal coronary heart disease more than non-fatal coronary heart disease [reviewed previously]. The lack of a significant association likely reflects the fact that eggs were not compared to healthy foods, and also likely due to misclassification of participants into ranges of usual dietary intake as the result of measurement error [reviewed previously].
In the video below Dr. Michael Gregor addresses recent research on choline when consumed from eggs and other animal foods and the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Carnitine, Choline, Cancer and Cholesterol: The TMAO Connection
Egg Intake and Stroke
In regards to a sub-group analysis of 5 cohort studies, the authors of the earlier meta-analysis suggested that egg intake was associated with a lower risk of hemorrhagic stroke. The authors suggested that the inverse association between egg intake and hemorrhagic stroke is supported by findings of an inverse association between serum cholesterol and hemorrhagic stroke in several cohort studies. However, in the largest cohort study the authors cited, the inverse association was confined to participants with elevated blood pressure.39 A similar interaction between blood pressure and serum cholesterol and hemorrhagic stroke was observed in much larger cohort studies in both Asian and Western populations that the authors of this meta-analysis conveniently failed to cite.4041 In a meta-analysis of 61 cohort studies it was found that among participants with near optimal systolic blood pressure (<125 mmHg), lower serum cholesterol was actually associated with a significantly lower risk of hemorrhagic, ischemic and total stroke mortality [reviewed previously]. Furthermore, most mammalian species have very low LDL levels (mean value of 42 mg/dl in 18 species), and there is very scant evidence that these animals are at high risk of having a stroke.42
This data demonstrates that continued emphasis should be placed on lowering both LDL cholesterol and blood pressure which have been proven in hundreds of randomized controlled trials to lower not only the risk of cardiovascular disease, but also all-cause mortality.4344 Increasing the intake of eggs after achieving a near optimal blood pressure is unlikely to reduce the risk of hemorrhagic stroke and will likely increase the risk of dying of any cause.
Unwarranted Mediocre Health Recommendations
The conclusions of the earlier meta-analysis are misleading and inconsistent with the body of literature. What is more concerning is that these findings will likely be used in marketing campaigns to confuse the general population, of which the great majority are already at risk of cardiovascular disease. The most recent meta-analysis paper while being overall informative and more clearly demonstrating the dangers of eggs for both diabetics and non-diabetics, the authors still failed to address many important findings that have been addressed in this series of posts. A greater emphasis on the effects of replacing eggs with other suitable foods is required, and the available evidence suggests a significant benefit of replacing eggs with whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.31129 As Spence and colleagues pointed out in regards to recent controversy surrounding dietary cholesterol and eggs:45
…the only ones who could eat egg yolk regularly with impunity would be those who expect to die prematurely from nonvascular causes.