Put to a vote, American Idol style, “dietary demon” would probably come out on top, even though “perfect food” is closer to the truth. Let’s unscramble the egg facts and myths first.
Fact: An egg is a good source of nutrients. For about 15 cents, you get 6 grams of protein, some healthful unsaturated fats, and a smattering of vitamins and minerals
. Eggs are also a good source of choline, which has been linked with preserving memory, and lutein and zeaxanthin, which may protect against vision loss
Fact: Eggs have a lot of cholesterol. The average large egg contains 212 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol. As foods go, that’s quite a bit, rivaled only by single servings of liver, shrimp, and duck meat.
Myth: All of that cholesterol goes straight to your bloodstream and then into your arteries. Not so. In the average person (we’ll come back to this later), only a small amount of the cholesterol in food passes directly into the blood. The liver makes most of the cholesterol that circulates in the bloodstream, largely in response to saturated and trans fats in the diet. Studies dating back to a classic 1950 experiment carried out by pioneering Harvard cardiologist Paul Dudley White and colleagues show that the amount of cholesterol in food generally has a small impact on cholesterol in the blood.
Myth: Eating eggs is bad for your heart. The only large study to look at the impact of egg consumption on heart disease
— not on cholesterol levels or other intermediaries — found no connection between the two. In this study of nearly 120,000 initially healthy men and women, those who ate one or more eggs a day were no more likely to have had a heart attack
or stroke or to have died of cardiovascular disease
over a 14-year study period than those who ate fewer than one egg per week. In people with diabetes
, though, egg-a-day eaters were a bit more likely to have developed heart disease than those who ate eggs rarely.
Eggs’ reputation as good food took a tumble in the 1960s when researchers first made the connection between heart disease and high cholesterol
levels in the blood. The American Heart Association (AHA) and other influential groups set an upper limit for daily cholesterol intake at 300 mg a day (200 mg if you have heart disease) and warned Americans to avoid eating egg yolks. The warning on egg consumption was based on the logical — but incorrect — assumption that cholesterol in food translated directly into cholesterol levels in the blood.
Eggs’ fall from grace may be ending. In 2000, the AHA eased up on eggs. Instead of specifically recommending that we avoid or limit eggs to a certain number per week, the association’s dietary guidelines focused on limiting foods high in saturated fat and keeping cholesterol intake under 300 mg a day. The AHA acknowledges that you can hit this target “even with periodic consumption of eggs and shellfish.”
Eggs and you
Guidelines, unfortunately, aren’t aimed at the individual. That’s a problem when it comes to dietary cholesterol in general and eggs in particular. In many people, cholesterol in food barely affects the amount of cholesterol in the blood. In some, though, it has a substantial effect.
The trouble is there’s no easy way to tell if you are a “responder” or a “nonresponder” to dietary cholesterol. You could, of course, have your cholesterol checked after staying away from eggs for a month or so, then eat an egg a day for a few weeks and have your cholesterol checked again.
That’s overkill for most people with normal levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol. If you enjoy eggs, eating one a day should be okay, especially if you compensate in other ways:
Weed out other bad actors. Cutting back even further on saturated and trans fats will have noticeable and positive effects on your cholesterol.
Skip around. If a single fried egg looks too lonely on your plate, or a one-egg vegetable omelet doesn’t fill you up, have two eggs one day and none the next.
Keep tabs. Have your cholesterol checked in two or three months to see if it has changed.
No yolking. All of an egg’s cholesterol is in the yolk. If you are making scrambled eggs, use one whole egg and just the white from another. When baking, you can sometimes substitute two egg whites for one egg. Most grocery stores carry pourable egg whites or yolk-free egg substitutes.
Do you need eggs in your diet? Not at all — you can get along just fine without them. But they are an excellent source of complete protein, have other healthful nutrients, are easy to fix and easy to chew, and don’t cost much.