Unscrambling The Egg Debate: The Egg and Heart Health

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Unscrambling The Egg Debate
The Egg and Heart Health

By Lisa A. Davis

When choosing nutritious foods, eggs are a veritable gold mine. They are loaded with hard-to-obtain vitamins and minerals and rich in protein. But for decades, eggs were deemed unhealthy. In fact, they developed such a bad reputation that some people chose not to eat them. The medical community was concerned about their high cholesterol content, which was linked directly to heart and artery disease.

But the much maligned egg has finally been vindicated—scientists recently uncovered evidence that proved that the bad reputation eggs have received for so many years was undeserved. Eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, which is the right kind of cholesterol. While “cholesterol levels in the bloodstream cause a higher risk of heart disease, notes Michael Blaha, MD, MPH, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, the dietary cholesterol  “doesn’t directly turn into blood cholesterol.” “In fact, nearly 90 percent of all blood cholesterol is made in the liver—not from dietary cholesterol,” says Blaha.  “So the dietary cholesterol in eggs doesn’t have much effect on blood cholesterol levels.”

The Science of Cholesterol

Since the real focus of the debate is on cholesterol, it’s important to understand its role in the body. There are two types of cholesterol: dietary cholesterol, as mentioned, which comes from food, and blood cholesterol, which is produced in the liver and found in the bloodstream. Only foods of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, contain dietary cholesterol. According to the American Egg Board, one large egg has about 185 milligrams of cholesterol—all of which is in the yolk. This seems high, especially since the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans limited consumption of dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams per day. Although dietary cholesterol can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, the increase is minimal compared to the effect of the main offenders: saturated fats and trans fats.

Guidelines for High Risk Groups

A daily limit of dietary cholesterol isn’t included in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In fact, it notes that most healthy people can eat up to seven eggs per week—exciting news for egg lovers. However, the medical community disagrees about how many eggs people in higher risk groups should eat. Some physicians recommend that patients with diabetes, heart disease, or high blood cholesterol levels limit their intake of eggs.

“The opinions are mixed in the scientific community, but my recommendation [to limit egg consumption] is based on the Physicians’ Health Study from 2008,” says Bryan H. Curry, MD, interim chief of cardiology at Howard University Hospital. “The conclusion was that two scrambled eggs with salsa and a whole-wheat English muffin is very different from eggs with cheese, sausage, home fries, and buttered toast. More specifically, the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professional Follow-Up Study showed that the risk of heart disease was increased among diabetics who ate one or more eggs a day, and the conclusion was that they limit consumption to three per week.”

Blaha says that higher risk groups need to pay more attention to their diet, but he doesn’t set a limit on eggs. Instead, he recommends overall healthy eating patterns rather than focusing on one specific food. People with risk factors should consult their doctor who can provide advice based on their individual needs.

Preparation of Eggs

When preparing eggs, keep added fats to a minimum. Obviously, poached and hard-boiled eggs, which are cooked in water, are healthier options than an egg fried in butter, which is high in saturated fat.

“There are so many ways to incorporate eggs into your diet,” says Lisa Gonzalez, a nutrition educator at the University of Maryland Extension. “I recommend using low-fat cooking methods and pairing eggs with veggies, low-fat cheese, whole-grain breads or waffles, and salads. These are healthy choices, and they add variety to your diet. After all, if you love eggs, you should find delicious ways to prepare them and really enjoy them.”

Drop the guilt and explore you culinary cravings. At least for now, there is no such thing as a bad egg.