Sunday, November 14, 2021

The man who ate 25 eggs per day: What does this case really tell us?

Many readers of this blog have probably heard about the case of the man who ate approximately 25 eggs (20 to 30) per day for over 15 years (probably well over), was almost 90 years old (88) when the case was published in the prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine, and was in surprisingly good health ().

The case was authored by the late Dr. Fred Kern, Jr., a widely published lipid researcher after whom the Kern Lipid Conference is named (). One of Kern’s research interests was bile, a bitter-tasting fluid produced by the liver (and stored in the gallbladder) that helps with the digestion of lipids in the small intestine. He frames the man’s case in terms of a compensatory adaptation tied to bile secretion, arguing that this man was rather unique in his ability to deal with a lethal daily dose of dietary cholesterol.

Kern seemed to believe that dietary cholesterol was harmful, but that this man was somehow “immune” to it. This is ironic, because often this case is presented as evidence against the hypothesis that dietary cholesterol can be harmful. The table below shows the general nutrient content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. The numbers in this and other tables are based on data from Nutritiondata.com (), in some cases triangulated with other data. The 5.3 g of cholesterol in the table (i.e., 5,300 mg) is 1,775 percent the daily value recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences ().



As you can see, the man was on a very low carbohydrate diet with a high daily intake of fat and protein. The man is described as an: “… 88-year-old man who lived in a retirement community [and] complained only of loneliness since his wife's death. He was an articulate, well-educated elderly man, healthy except for an extremely poor memory without other specific neurologic deficits … His general health had been excellent, without notable symptoms. He had mild constipation.”

The description does not suggest inherited high longevity: “His weight had been constant at 82 to 86 kg (height, 1.87 m). He had no history (according to the patient and his personal physician of 15 years) of heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease … The patient had never smoked and never drank excessively. His father died of unknown causes at the age of 40, and his mother died at 76 … He kept a careful record, egg by egg, of the number ingested each day …”

The table below shows the fat content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. With over 14 g of omega-6 fat intake every day, this man was probably close to or in “industrial seed oils territory” (), as far as daily omega-6 fat intake is concerned. And the intake of omega-3 fats, at less than 1 g, was not nearly enough to balance it. However, here is a relevant fact – this man was not consuming any industrial seed oils. He liked his eggs soft-boiled, which is why the numbers in this post refer to boiled eggs.



This man weighed between 82 to 86 kg, which is about 180 to 190 lbs. His height was 1.87 m, or about 6 ft 1 in. Therefore his body mass index varied between approximately 23 and 25, which is in the normal range. In other words, this person was not even close to obese during the many years he consumed 25 eggs or so per day. In the comments section of a previous post, on the sharp increase in obesity since the 1980s (), several readers argued that the sharp increase in obesity was very likely caused by an increase in omega-6 fat consumption.

I am open to the idea that industrialized omega-6 fats played a role in the sharp increase in obesity observed since the 1980s. When it comes to omega-6 fat consumption in general, including that in “more natural” foods (e.g., poultry and eggs), I am more skeptical. Still, it is quite possible that a diet high in omega-6 fats in general is unhealthy primarily if it is devoid of other nutrients. This man’s overall diet might have been protective not because of what he was not eating, but because of what he was eating.

The current debates pitting one diet against another often revolve around the ability of one diet or another to eliminate or reduce the intake of a “bad thing” (e.g., cholesterol, saturated fat, carbohydrates). Perhaps the discussion should be more focused on, or at least not completely ignore, what one diet or another include as protective factors. This would help better explain “odd findings”, such as the lowest-mortality body mass index of 26 in urban populations (). It would also help better explain “surprising cases”; such as this 25-eggs-a-day man’s, vegetarian-vegan “ageless woman” Annette Larkins’s (), and the decidedly carnivore De Vany couple’s ().

The table below shows the vitamin content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. The vitamin K2 content provided by Nutritiondata.com was incorrect; I had to get what seems to be the right number by triangulating values taken from various publications. And here we see something interesting. This man was consuming approximately the equivalent in vitamin K2 that one would get by eating 4 ounces of foie gras () every day. Foie gras, the fatty liver of overfed geese, is the richest known animal source of vitamin K2. This man’s diet was also high in vitamin A, which is believed to act synergistically with vitamin K2 – see Chris Masterjohn’s article on Weston Price’s “activator X” ().



Kern argued that the very high intake of dietary cholesterol led to a sharp increase in bile secretion, as the body tried to “get rid” of cholesterol (which is used in the synthesis of bile). However, the increased bile secretion might have been also been due to the high fat content of this man’s diet, since one of the main functions of bile is digestion of fats. Whatever the case may be, increased bile secretion leads to increased absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and vitamins K2 and A are fat-soluble vitamins that seem to be protective against cardiovascular disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Finally, the table below shows the mineral content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. As you can see, this man consumed 550 percent the officially recommended daily intake of selenium. This intake was slightly lower than the 400 micrograms per day purported to cause selenosis in adults (). Similarly to vitamins K2 and A, selenium seems to be protective against cardiovascular disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases. This man’s diet was also rich in phosphorus, needed for healthy teeth and bones.



Not too many people live to be 88 years of age; many fewer reach that age in fairly good health. The country with the highest average life expectancy in the world at the time of this writing is Japan, with a life expectancy of about 82 years (79 for men, and 86 for women). Those who think that they need a high HDL cholesterol and a low LDL cholesterol to be in good health, and thus live long lives, may be surprised at this man’s lipid profile: “The patient's plasma lipid levels were normal: total cholesterol, 5.18 mmol per liter (200 mg per deciliter); LDL, 3.68 mmol per liter (142 mg per deciliter); and HDL, 1.17 mmol per liter (45 mg per deciliter). The ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol was 3.15.”

If we assume that this man is at least somewhat representative of the human species, and not a major exception as Kern argued, this case tells us that a diet of 25 eggs per day followed by over 15 years may actually be healthy for humans. Such diet has the following features:

- It is very high in dietary cholesterol.

- It involves a high intake of omega-6 fats from animal sources, with none coming from industrial seed oils.

- It involves a high overall intake of fats, including saturated fats.

- It is fairly high in protein, all of which from animal sources.

- It is a very low carbohydrate diet, with no sugar in it.

- It is a nutritious diet, rich in vitamins K2 and A, as well as in selenium and phosphorus.

This man ate 25 eggs per day apparently due to an obsession tied to mental problems. Repeated attempts at changing his behavior were unsuccessful. He said: “Eating these eggs ruins my life, but I can't help it.”

Sunday, October 24, 2021

You can eat a lot during the Holiday Season and gain no body fat, as long as you also eat little


The evolutionary pressures placed by periods of famine shaped the physiology of most animals, including humans, toward a design that favors asymmetric food consumption. That is, most animals are “designed” to alternate between eating little and then a lot.

Often when people hear this argument they point out the obvious. There is no evidence that our ancestors were constantly starving. This is correct, but what these folks seem to forget is that evolution responds to events that alter reproductive success rates (), even if those events are rare.

If an event causes a significant amount of death but occurs only once every year, a population will still evolve traits in response to the event. Food scarcity is one such type of event.

Since evolution is blind to complexity, adaptations to food scarcity can take all shapes and forms, including counterintuitive ones. Complicating this picture is the fact that food does not only provide us with fuel, but also with the sources of important structural components, signaling elements (e.g., hormones), and process catalysts (e.g., enzymes).

In other words, we may have traits that are health-promoting under conditions of food scarcity, but those traits are only likely to benefit our health as long as food scarcity is relatively short-term. Not eating anything for 40 days would be lethal for most people.

By "eating little" I don’t mean necessarily fasting. Given the amounts of mucus and dead cells (from normal cell turnover) passing through the digestive tract, it is very likely that we’ll be always digesting something. So eating very little within a period of 10 hours sends the body a message that is similar to the message sent by eating nothing within the same period of 10 hours.

Most of the empirical research that I've reviewed suggests that eating very little within a period of, say, 10-20 hours and then eating to satisfaction in one single meal will elicit the following responses. Protein phosphorylation underlies many of them.

- Your body will hold on to its most important nutrient reserves when you eat little, using selective autophagy to generate energy (, ). This may have powerful health-promoting properties, including the effect of triggering anti-cancer mechanisms.

- Food will taste fantastic when you feast, to such an extent that this effect will be much stronger than that associated with any spice ().

- Nutrients will be allocated more effectively when you feast, leading to a lower net gain of body fat ().

- The caloric value of food will be decreased, with a 14 percent decrease being commonly found in the literature ().

- The feast will prevent your body from down-regulating your metabolism via subclinical hypothyroidism (), which often happens when the period in which one eats little extends beyond a certain threshold (e.g., more than one week).

- Your mood will be very cheerful when you feast, potentially improving social relationships. That is, if you don’t become too grouchy during the period in which you eat little.

I recall once participating in a meeting that went from early morning to late afternoon. We had the option of taking a lunch break, or working through lunch and ending the meeting earlier. Not only was I the only person to even consider the second option, some people thought that the idea of skipping lunch was outrageous, with a few implying that they would have headaches and other problems.

When I said that I had had nothing for breakfast, a few thought that I was pushing my luck. One of my colleagues warned me that I might be damaging my health irreparably by doing those things. Well, maybe they were right on both grounds, who knows?

It is my belief that the vast majority of humans will do quite fine if they eat little or nothing for a period of 20 hours. The problem is that they need to be convinced first that they have nothing to worry about. Otherwise they may end up with a headache or worse, entirely due to psychological mechanisms ().

There is no need to eat beyond satiety when you feast. I’d recommend that you just eat to satiety, and don’t force yourself to eat more than that. If you avoid industrialized foods when you feast, that will be even better, because satiety will be achieved faster. One of the main characteristics of industrialized foods is that they promote unnatural overeating; congrats food engineers on a job well done!

If you are relatively lean, satiety will normally be achieved with less food than if you are not. Hunger intensity and duration tends to be generally associated with body weight. Except for dedicated bodybuilders and a few other athletes, body weight gain is much more strongly influenced by body fat gain than by muscle gain.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Dietary protein does not become body fat if you are on a low carbohydrate diet

By definition LC is about dietary carbohydrate restriction. If you are reducing carbohydrates, your proportional intake of protein or fat, or both, will go up. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with a high fat diet, it seems to me that the true advantage of LC may be in how protein is allocated, which appears to contribute to a better body composition.

LC with more animal protein and less fat makes particularly good sense to me. Eating a variety of unprocessed animal foods, as opposed to only muscle meat from grain-fed cattle, will get you that. In simple terms, LC with more protein, achieved in a natural way with unprocessed foods, means more of the following in one's diet: lean meats, seafood and vegetables. Possibly with lean meats and seafood making up more than half of one’s protein intake. Generally speaking, large predatory fish species (e.g., various shark species, including dogfish) are better avoided to reduce exposure to toxic metals.

Organ meats such as beef liver are also high in protein and low in fat, but should be consumed in moderation due to the risk of hypervitaminosis; particularly hypervitaminosis A. Our ancestors ate the animal whole, and organ mass makes up about 10-20 percent of total mass in ruminants. Eating organ meats once a week places you approximately within that range.

In LC liver glycogen is regularly depleted, so the amino acids resulting from the digestion of protein will be primarily used to replenish liver glycogen, to replenish the albumin pool, for oxidation, and various other processes (e.g., tissue repair, hormone production). If you do some moderate weight training, some of those amino acids will be used for muscle repair and potentially growth.

In this sense, the true “metabolic advantage” of LC, so to speak, comes from protein and not fat. “Calories in” still counts, but you get better allocation of nutrients. Moreover, in LC, the calorie value of protein goes down a bit, because your body is using it as a “jack of all trades”, and thus in a less efficient way. This renders protein the least calorie-dense macronutrient, yielding fewer calories per gram than carbohydrates; and significantly fewer calories per gram when compared with dietary fat and alcohol.

Dietary fat is easily stored as body fat after digestion. In LC, it is difficult for the body to store amino acids as body fat. The only path would be conversion to glucose and uptake by body fat cells, but in LC the liver will typically be starving and want all the extra glucose for itself, so that it can feed its ultimate master – the brain. The liver glycogen depletion induced by LC creates a hormonal mix that places the body in fat release mode, making it difficult for fat cells to take up glucose via the GLUT4 transporter protein.

Excess amino acids are oxidized for energy. This may be why many people feel a slight surge of energy after a high-protein meal. (A related effect is associated with alcohol consumption, which is often masked by the relaxing effect also associated with alcohol consumption.) Amino acid oxidation is not associated with cancer. Neither is fat oxidation. But glucose oxidation is; this is known as the Warburg effect.

A high-protein LC approach will not work very well for athletes who deplete major amounts of muscle glycogen as part of their daily training regimens. These folks will invariably need more carbohydrates to keep their performance levels up. Ultimately this is a numbers game. The protein-to-glucose conversion rate is about 2-to-1. If an athlete depletes 300 g of muscle glycogen per day, he or she will need about 600 g of protein to replenish that based only on protein. This is too high an intake of protein by any standard.

A recreational exerciser who depletes 60 g of glycogen 3 times per week can easily replenish that muscle glycogen with dietary protein. Someone who exercises with weights for 40 minutes 3 times per week will deplete about that much glycogen each time. Contrary to popular belief, muscle glycogen is only minimally replenished postprandially (i.e., after meals) based on dietary sources. Liver glycogen replenishment is prioritized postprandially. Muscle glycogen is replenished over several days, primarily based on liver glycogen. It is one fast-filling tank replenishing another slow-filling one.

Recreational exercisers who are normoglycemic and who do LC intermittently tend to increase the size of their liver glycogen tank over time, via compensatory adaptation, and also use more fat (and ketones, which are byproducts of fat metabolism) as sources of energy. Somewhat paradoxically, these folks benefit from regular high carbohydrate intake days (e.g., once a week, or on exercise days), since their liver glycogen tanks will typically store more glycogen. If they keep their liver and muscle glycogen tanks half empty all the time, compensatory adaptation suggests that both their liver and muscle glycogen tanks will over time become smaller, and that their muscles will store more fat.

One way or another, with the exception of those with major liver insulin resistance, dietary protein does not become body fat if you are on a LC diet.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The China Study one more time: Are raw plant foods giving people cancer?

In this previous post I analyzed some data from the China Study that included counties where there were cases of schistosomiasis infection. Following one of Denise Minger’s suggestions, I removed all those counties from the data. I was left with 29 counties, a much smaller sample size. I then ran a multivariate analysis using WarpPLS (warppls.com), like in the previous post, but this time I used an algorithm that identifies nonlinear relationships between variables.

Below is the model with the results. (Click on it to enlarge. Use the "CRTL" and "+" keys to zoom in, and CRTL" and "-" to zoom out.) As in the previous post, the arrows explore associations between variables. The variables are shown within ovals. The meaning of each variable is the following: aprotein = animal protein consumption; pprotein = plant protein consumption; cholest = total cholesterol; crcancer = colorectal cancer.


What is total cholesterol doing at the right part of the graph? It is there because I am analyzing the associations between animal protein and plant protein consumption with colorectal cancer, controlling for the possible confounding effect of total cholesterol.

I am not hypothesizing anything regarding total cholesterol, even though this variable is shown as pointing at colorectal cancer. I am just controlling for it. This is the type of thing one can do in multivariate analyzes. This is how you “control for the effect of a variable” in an analysis like this.

ins Since the sample is fairly small, we end up with nonsignificant beta coefficients that would normally be statistically significant with a larger sample. But it helps that we are using nonparametric statistics, because they are still robust in the presence of small samples, and deviations from normality. Also the nonlinear algorithm is more sensitive to relationships that do not fit a classic linear pattern. We can summarize the findings as follows:

- As animal protein consumption increases, plant protein consumption decreases significantly (beta=-0.36; P<0.01). This is to be expected and helpful in the analysis, as it differentiates somewhat animal from plant protein consumers. Those folks who got more of their protein from animal foods tended to get significantly less protein from plant foods.

- As animal protein consumption increases, colorectal cancer decreases, but not in a statistically significant way (beta=-0.31; P=0.10). The beta here is certainly high, and the likelihood that the relationship is real is 90 percent, even with such a small sample.

- As plant protein consumption increases, colorectal cancer increases significantly (beta=0.47; P<0.01). The small sample size was not enough to make this association nonsignificant. The reason is that the distribution pattern of the data here is very indicative of a real association, which is reflected in the low P value.

Remember, these results are not confounded by schistosomiasis infection, because we are only looking at counties where there were no cases of schistosomiasis infection. These results are not confounded by total cholesterol either, because we controlled for that possible confounding effect. Now, control variable or not, you would be correct to point out that the association between total cholesterol and colorectal cancer is high (beta=0.58; P=0.01). So let us take a look at the shape of that association:


Does this graph remind you of the one on this post; the one with several U curves? Yes. And why is that? Maybe it reflects a tendency among the folks who had low cholesterol to have more cancer because the body needs cholesterol to fight disease, and cancer is a disease. And maybe it reflects a tendency among the folks who have high total cholesterol to do so because total cholesterol (and particularly its main component, LDL cholesterol) is in part a marker of disease, and cancer is often a culmination of various metabolic disorders (e.g., the metabolic syndrome) that are nothing but one disease after another.

To believe that total cholesterol causes colorectal cancer is nonsensical because total cholesterol is generally increased by consumption of animal products, of which animal protein consumption is a proxy. (In this reduced dataset, the linear univariate correlation between animal protein consumption and total cholesterol is a significant and positive 0.36.) And animal protein consumption seems to be protective again colorectal cancer in this dataset (negative association on the model graph).

Now comes the part that I find the most ironic about this whole discussion in the blogosphere that has been going on recently about the China Study; and the answer to the question posed in the title of this post: Are raw plant foods giving people cancer? If you think that the answer is “yes”, think again. The variable that is strongly associated with colorectal cancer is plant protein consumption.

Do fruits, veggies, and other plant foods that can be consumed raw have a lot of protein?

With a few exceptions, like nuts, they do not. Most raw plant foods have trace amounts of protein, especially when compared with foods made from refined grains and seeds (e.g., wheat grains, soybean seeds). So the contribution of raw fruits and veggies in general could not have influenced much the variable plant protein consumption. To put this in perspective, the average plant protein consumption per day in this dataset was 63 g; even if they were eating 30 bananas a day, the study participants would not get half that much protein from bananas.

Refined foods made from grains and seeds are made from those plant parts that the plants absolutely do not “want” animals to eat. They are the plants’ “children” or “children’s nutritional reserves”, so to speak. This is why they are packed with nutrients, including protein and carbohydrates, but also often toxic and/or unpalatable to animals (including humans) when eaten raw.

But humans are so smart; they learned how to industrially refine grains and seeds for consumption. The resulting human-engineered products (usually engineered to sell as many units as possible, not to make you healthy) normally taste delicious, so you tend to eat a lot of them. They also tend to raise blood sugar to abnormally high levels, because industrial refining makes their high carbohydrate content easily digestible. Refined foods made from grains and seeds also tend to cause leaky gut problems, and autoimmune disorders like celiac disease. Yep, we humans are really smart.

Thanks again to Dr. Campbell and his colleagues for collecting and compiling the China Study data, and to Ms. Minger for making the data available in easily downloadable format and for doing some superb analyses herself.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

What is a reasonable vitamin D level?

The figure and table below are from Vieth (1999); one of the most widely cited articles on vitamin D. The figure shows the gradual increase in blood concentrations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin, or 25(OH)D, following the start of daily vitamin D3 supplementation of 10,000 IU/day. The table shows the average levels for people living and/or working in sun-rich environments; vitamin D3 is produced by the skin based on sun exposure.


25(OH)D is also referred to as calcidiol. It is a pre-hormone that is produced by the liver based on vitamin D3. To convert from nmol/L to ng/mL, divide by 2.496. The figure suggests that levels start to plateau at around 1 month after the beginning of supplementation, reaching a point of saturation after 2-3 months. Without supplementation or sunlight exposure, levels should go down at a comparable rate. The maximum average level shown on the table is 163 nmol/L (65 ng/mL), and refers to a sample of lifeguards.

From the figure we can infer that people on average will plateau at approximately 130 nmol/L, after months of 10,000 IU/d supplementation. That is 52 ng/mL. Assuming a normal distribution with a standard deviation of about 20 percent of the range of average levels, we can expect about 68 percent of those taking that level of supplementation to be in the 42 to 63 ng/mL range.

This might be the range most of us should expect to be in at an intake of 10,000 IU/d. This is the equivalent to the body’s own natural production through sun exposure.

Approximately 32 percent of the population can be expected to be outside this range. A person who is two standard deviations (SDs) above the mean (i.e., average) would be at around 73 ng/mL. Three SDs above the mean would be 83 ng/mL. Two SDs below the mean would be 31 ng/mL.

There are other factors that may affect levels. For example, being overweight tends to reduce them. Excess cortisol production, from stress, may also reduce them.

Supplementing beyond 10,000 IU/d to reach levels much higher than those in the range of 42 to 63 ng/mL may not be optimal. Interestingly, one cannot overdose through sun exposure, and the idea that people do not produce vitamin D3 after 40 years of age is a myth.

One would be taking in about 14,000 IU/d of vitamin D3 by combining sun exposure with a supplemental dose of 4,000 IU/d. Clear signs of toxicity may not occur until one reaches 50,000 IU/d. Still, one may develop other complications, such as kidney stones, at levels significantly above 10,000 IU/d.

In an earlier post by Chris Masterjohn (the link no longer works), which made a different argument, somewhat similar conclusions were reached. Chris pointed out that there is a point of saturation above which the liver is unable to properly hydroxylate vitamin D3 to produce 25(OH)D.

How likely it is that a person will develop complications like kidney stones at levels above 10,000 IU/d, and what the danger threshold level could be, are hard to guess. Kidney stone incidence is a sensitive measure of possible problems; but it is, by itself, an unreliable measure. The reason is that it is caused by factors that are correlated with high levels of vitamin D, where those levels may not be the problem.

There is some evidence that kidney stones are associated with living in sunny regions. This is not, in my view, due to high levels of vitamin D3 production from sunlight. Kidney stones are also associated with chronic dehydration, and populations living in sunny regions may be at a higher than average risk of chronic dehydration. This is particularly true for sunny regions that are also very hot and/or dry.

Reference

Vieth, R. (1999). Vitamin D supplementation, 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations, and safety. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(5), 842-856.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Blood glucose control before age 55 may increase your chances of living beyond 90

I have recently read an interesting study by Yashin and colleagues (2009) at Duke University’s Center for Population Health and Aging. (The full reference to the article, and a link, are at the end of this post.) This study is a gem with some rough edges, and some interesting implications.

The study uses data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS). The FHS, which started in the late 1940s, recruited 5209 healthy participants (2336 males and 2873 females), aged 28 to 62, in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. At the time of Yashin and colleagues’ article publication, there were 993 surviving participants.

I rearranged figure 2 from the Yashin and colleagues article so that the two graphs (for females and males) appeared one beside the other. The result is shown below (click on it to enlarge); the caption at the bottom-right corner refers to both graphs. The figure shows the age-related trajectory of blood glucose levels, grouped by lifespan (LS), starting at age 40.


As you can see from the figure above, blood glucose levels increase with age, even for long-lived individuals (LS > 90). The increases follow a U-curve (a.k.a. J-curve) pattern; the beginning of the right side of a U curve, to be more precise. The main difference in the trajectories of the blood glucose levels is that as lifespan increases, so does the width of the U curve. In other words, in long-lived people, blood glucose increases slowly with age; particularly up to 55 years of age, when it starts increasing more rapidly.

Now, here is one of the rough edges of this study. The authors do not provide standard deviations. You can ignore the error bars around the points on the graph; they are not standard deviations. They are standard errors, which are much lower than the corresponding standard deviations. Standard errors are calculated by dividing the standard deviations by the square root of the sample sizes for each trajectory point (which the authors do not provide either), so they go up with age since progressively smaller numbers of individuals reach advanced ages.

So, no need to worry if your blood glucose levels are higher than those shown on the vertical axes of the graphs. (I will comment more on those numbers below.) Not everybody who lived beyond 90 had a blood glucose of around 80 mg/dl at age 40. I wouldn't be surprised if about 2/3 of the long-lived participants had blood glucose levels in the range of 65 to 95 at that age.

Here is another rough edge. It is pretty clear that the authors’ main independent variable (i.e., health predictor) in this study is average blood glucose, which they refer to simply as “blood glucose”. However, the measure of blood glucose in the FHS is a very rough estimation of average blood glucose, because they measured blood glucose levels at random times during the day. These measurements, when averaged, are closer to fasting blood glucose levels than to average blood glucose levels.

A more reliable measure of average blood glucose levels is that of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c). Blood glucose glycates (i.e., sticks to, like most sugary substances) hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. Since red blood cells are relatively long-lived, with a turnover of about 3 months, HbA1c (given in percentages) is a good indicator of average blood glucose levels (if you don’t suffer from anemia or a few other blood abnormalities). Based on HbA1c, one can then estimate his or her average blood glucose level for the previous 3 months before the test, using one of the following equations, depending on whether the measurement is in mg/dl or mmol/l.

    Average blood glucose (mg/dl) = 28.7 × HbA1c − 46.7

    Average blood glucose (mmol/l) = 1.59 × HbA1c − 2.59

The table below, from Wikipedia, shows average blood glucose levels corresponding to various HbA1c values. As you can see, they are generally higher than the corresponding fasting blood glucose levels would normally be (the latter is what the values on the vertical axes of the graphs above from Yashin and colleagues’ study roughly measure). This is to be expected, because blood glucose levels vary a lot during the day, and are often transitorily high in response to food intake and fluctuations in various hormones. Growth hormone, cortisol and noradrenaline are examples of hormones that increase blood glucose. Only one hormone effectively decreases blood glucose levels, insulin, by stimulating glucose uptake and storage as glycogen and fat.


Nevertheless, one can reasonably expect fasting blood glucose levels to have been highly correlated with average blood glucose levels in the sample. So, in my opinion, the graphs above showing age-related blood glucose trajectories are still valid, in terms of their overall shape, but the values on the vertical axes should have been measured differently, perhaps using the formulas above.

Ironically, those who achieve low average blood glucose levels (measured based on HbA1c) by adopting a low carbohydrate diet (one of the most effective ways) frequently have somewhat high fasting blood glucose levels because of physiological (or benign) insulin resistance. Their body is primed to burn fat for energy, not glucose. Thus when growth hormone levels spike in the morning, so do blood glucose levels, as muscle cells are in glucose rejection mode. This is a benign version of the dawn effect (a.k.a. dawn phenomenon), which happens with quite a few low carbohydrate dieters, particularly with those who are deep in ketosis at dawn.

Yashin and colleagues also modeled relative risk of death based on blood glucose levels, using a fairly sophisticated mathematical model that takes into consideration U-curve relationships. What they found is intuitively appealing, and is illustrated by the two graphs at the bottom of the figure below. The graphs show how the relative risks (e.g., 1.05, on the topmost dashed line on the both graphs) associated with various ranges of blood glucose levels vary with age, for both females and males.


What the graphs above are telling us is that once you reach old age, controlling for blood sugar levels is not as effective as doing it earlier, because you are more likely to die from what the authors refer to as “other causes”. For example, at the age of 90, having a blood glucose of 150 mg/dl (corrected for the measurement problem noted earlier, this would be perhaps 165 mg/dl, from HbA1c values) is likely to increase your risk of death by only 5 percent. The graphs account for the facts that: (a) blood glucose levels naturally increase with age, and (b) fewer people survive as age progresses. So having that level of blood glucose at age 60 would significantly increase relative risk of death at that age; this is not shown on the graph, but can be inferred.

Here is a final rough edge of this study. From what I could gather from the underlying equations, the relative risks shown above do not account for the effect of high blood glucose levels earlier in life on relative risk of death later in life. This is a problem, even though it does not completely invalidate the conclusion above. As noted by several people (including Gary Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories), many of the diseases associated with high blood sugar levels (e.g., cancer) often take as much as 20 years of high blood sugar levels to develop. So the relative risks shown above underestimate the effect of high blood glucose levels earlier in life.

Do the long-lived participants have some natural protection against accelerated increases in blood sugar levels, or was it their diet and lifestyle that protected them? This question cannot be answered based on the study.

Assuming that their diet and lifestyle protected them, it is reasonable to argue that: (a) if you start controlling your average blood sugar levels well before you reach the age of 55, you may significantly increase your chances of living beyond the age of 90; (b) it is likely that your blood glucose levels will go up with age, but if you can manage to slow down that progression, you will increase your chances of living a longer and healthier life; (c) you should focus your control on reliable measures of average blood glucose levels, such as HbA1c, not fasting blood glucose levels (postprandial glucose levels are also a good option, because they contribute a lot to HbA1c increases); and (d) it is never too late to start controlling your blood glucose levels, but the more you wait, the bigger is the risk.

References:

Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories: Challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control, and disease. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Yashin, A.I., Ukraintseva, S.V., Arbeev, K.G., Akushevich, I., Arbeeva, L.S., & Kulminski, A.M. (2009). Maintaining physiological state for exceptional survival: What is the normal level of blood glucose and does it change with age? Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 130(9), 611-618.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Friedewald and Iranian equations: Fasting triglycerides can seriously distort calculated LDL

Standard lipid profiles provide LDL cholesterol measures based on equations that usually have the following as their inputs (or independent variables): total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Yes, LDL cholesterol is not measured directly in standard lipid profile tests! This is indeed surprising, since cholesterol-lowering drugs with negative side effects are usually prescribed based on estimated (or "fictitious") LDL cholesterol levels.

The most common of these equations is the Friedewald equation. Through the Friedewald equation, LDL cholesterol is calculated as follows (where TC = total cholesterol, and TG = triglycerides). The inputs and result are in mg/dl.

    LDL = TC – HDL – TG / 5

Here is one of the problems with the Friedewald equation. Let us assume that an individual has the following lipid profile numbers: TC = 200, HDL = 50, and TG = 150. The calculated LDL will be 120. Let us assume that this same individual reduces triglycerides to 50, from the previous 150, keeping all of the other measures constant with except of HDL, which goes up a bit to compensate for the small loss in total cholesterol associated with the decrease in triglycerides (there is always some loss, because the main carrier of triglycerides, VLDL, also carries some cholesterol). This would normally be seen as an improvement. However, the calculated LDL will now be 140, and a doctor will tell this person to consider taking statins!

There is evidence that, for individuals with low fasting triglycerides, a more precise equation is one that has come to be known as the “Iranian equation”. The equation has been proposed by Iranian researchers in an article published in the Archives of Iranian Medicine (Ahmadi et al., 2008), hence its nickname. Through the Iranian equation, LDL is calculated as follows. Again, the inputs and result are in mg/dl.

    LDL = TC / 1.19 + TG / 1.9 – HDL / 1.1 – 38

The Iranian equation is based on linear regression modeling, which is a good sign, although I would have liked it even better if it was based on nonlinear regression modeling. The reason is that relationships between variables describing health-related phenomena are often nonlinear, leading to biased linear estimations. With a good nonlinear analysis algorithm, a linear relationship will also be captured; that is, the “curve” that describes the relationship will default to a line if the relationship is truly linear (see: warppls.com).

Anyway, an online calculator that implements both equations (Friedewald and Iranian) is linked here; it was the top Google hit on a search for “Iranian equation LDL” at the time of this post’s writing.

As you will see if you try it, the online calculator linked above is useful in showing the difference in calculated LDL cholesterol, using both equations, when fasting triglycerides are very low (e.g., below 50).

The Iranian equation yields high values of LDL cholesterol when triglycerides are high; much higher than those generated by the Friedewald equation. If those are not overestimations (and there is some evidence that, if they are, it is not by much), they describe an alarming metabolic pattern, because high triglycerides are associated with small-dense LDL particles. These particles are the most potentially atherogenic of the LDL particles, in the presence of other factors such as chronic inflammation.

In other words, the Iranian equation gives a clearer idea than the Friedewald equation about the negative health effects of high triglycerides. You need a large number of small-dense LDL particles to carry a high amount of LDL cholesterol.

An even more precise measure of LDL particle configuration is the VAP test; this post has a discussion of a sample VAP test report.

Reference:

Ahmadi SA, Boroumand MA, Gohari-Moghaddam K, Tajik P, Dibaj SM. (2008). The impact of low serum triglyceride on LDL-cholesterol estimation. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 11(3), 318-21.