Sensationalism at its finest: the egg-smoking study

ImageFor the past week, in my nutrition counselling practice, I have been inundated with questions about the wisdom of eating eggs. Why? As you likely know, eggs have been slammed in the media during the past week as a result of a so-called scientific study from the University of Western Ontario.  The investigation, which was published in the reputable journal, Atherosclerosis, equated the risks of eating eggs on artery health to that of smoking.

I feel like throwing eggs at the people who conducted this study.

It’s too bad that scientifically their research is in no way worthy of the attention it’s received all over the world.
First a few details on what the scientists found.  They assessed plaque in the carotid arteries of more than 1,200 subjects by performing ultrasounds and then looking at the associations with egg consumption and smoking. The subjects filled out questionnaires as to how many eggs they consumed per week and how much they smoked over many decades.

This raises a red flag right off the bat. Can you tell me how many eggs you consumed per week 10 years ago? How about 20 years ago? So how reliable are the answers?

There are a number of risk factors for elevated blood cholesterol readings and cardiovascular disease such as saturated fat intake, waist circumference and exercise. The authors did not evaluate even one of these other factors (and acknowledge this important omission). So in other words, in addition to their eggs, the study subjects could have been eating bacon, sausages and buttered toast and who knows what else on a daily basis.

In the University of Western Ontario press release, Dr. David Spence, the lead researcher on the study states, “It has been known for a long time that a high cholesterol intake increases the risk of cardiovascular events, and egg yolks have a very high cholesterol content.”  If a high cholesterol intake is so bad, then why didn’t the researchers look at total cholesterol consumption outside of eggs?

Interestingly, the blood cholesterol profiles of the egg eaters were actually better than the other group.

How this study was ever published in a peer-reviewed journal has baffled many health experts given these fundamental design flaws.

Many experts have also criticized the media for its sensational headlines about the study but in fact, the sensationalism originates with the university press office: the claim “Research finds egg yolks almost as bad as smoking,” an obvious and misleading  attention getter,  came from the press release itself.  (And FYI, this is the same group that gave us the release, “KFC’s Double Down or an egg – what’s worse?”  Egg fear mongering much?)

In fact, eggs can offer a bounty of  perks: they can help to regulate your appetite and offer nutrients for eye health. For more on eggs, check out my previous post.

Has this impacted your egg eating? What do you usually eat for breakfast?

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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9 Comments on “Sensationalism at its finest: the egg-smoking study”

  1. Ramona Rea
    August 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Good critique. Also important to mention that all of the subjects in the study had already had an incident, eg, heart attack or mini-stroke. So there were no healthy normal people in the study.

  2. August 22, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Thanks for your feedback and your comment, Ramona! Yes, I agree with you that this is important to point out.

  3. Kim
    August 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Awesome – thank you! When I read the original article I thought HUH? How irresponsible to make such a claim! Smoking causes so many different (cancer for one!) health issues how can anyone claim that eggs are worse for you? If you live a clean and healthly lifestyle, eggs are a wonderful addition to your diet.

  4. August 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Thanks for your comments and feedback, Kim! I think a lot of people, including myself, though HUH when they first heard about the study. But it didn’t take long after reading the details to see how poorly designed the study was. I have to say that I am still baffled as to how and why these scientists would do this.

  5. August 22, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    So my question is not why was this study published, but backing up to ask instead why was this study even funded as poorly designed as it was? Who funded the study?

    • August 23, 2012 at 9:08 am #

      That’s a good question, Diana! I checked into it and the study was funded by donations to the Stroke Prevention & Atherosclerosis Research Centre (SPARC). It’s always disturbing when donations are used in such a way. The data base used was funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. Maybe these organizations should be asked about how their money is spent.

  6. Susan Groves
    August 31, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Rosie as always well thought out and well written. I saw the newspaper articles about the study but did not have a chance to read the journal. It makes me wonder why a peer reviewed journal would publish a paper of this quality. Really without looking at all the factors which affect plaque development the study isn’t worth the paper it is printed on (a cliche but an appropriate one in this case). And like Diana I too wonder who approved the design for this study – defining all the potential contributing factors and accounting for them is part of study design 101.

    • September 1, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks for your feedback, Susan! Yes, I continue to wonder how this study could have been published with such a study design. One concerning factor is that when you just read the abstract, you cannot see that the most of the factors that impact plaque development were not assessed. So if you read the press release from the university, its headlines and the abstract only and consider the scientists, you might not realize that this is science at its worst.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Update on the egg-smoking study: The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario responds | Enlightened Eater - September 12, 2012

    […] an update to my criticism of the egg-smoking study:  In the comments section, dietitian and author, Diana Dyer, asked “So my question is not why […]

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