Hold the yolk! The issue with these recommendations from the AHA is that it assumes that increased consumption of dietary cholesterol (from eggs and other animal sources) means an increase in blood cholesterol levels. Higher blood cholesterol levels means higher risk of hardening arteries and heart disease. Assume this and it would make sense to limit your intake of eggs.
However, this is not actually the case. Research has shown consistently that dietary cholesterol has a much smaller impact on blood cholesterol levels. That’s because your body produces a majority of the cholesterol found in your blood, approximately 1000-2000 mg per day on its own (way more cholesterol than what a few eggs provide!). This process is tightly regulated, such that when the body senses you are not getting enough cholesterol, it makes more; when you consume more, it makes less. It works like a thermostat in that sense, which is largely determined by your genes, exercise, and stress. Dietary sources of cholesterol play a surprisingly small role.
Cholesterol has gotten such a bad rap over the years but it actually plays some vital roles in the body, which is why nature created a way in which the body would ensure its production. Cholesterol is found in every cell membrane (outer coating), it’s used to make bile acids that help to break down fats in the small intestine, and it is the major building block of all our hormones.
If all this is true, why do people demonize eggs and tell you to avoid them?
Egg controversy stems around the old assumption that eating the yolks will raise blood cholesterol, which will cause an increase in artery and heart disease. And even though research has disproven this theory, the medical community is slow to reverse its recommendations. The only instance where dietary cholesterol seems to effect heart disease risk are in Diabetics and people with a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. In populations without these conditions, controlled human trials have shown that eating up to three eggs per day was associated with reductions in bad cholesterol, increases in good cholesterol, and even reductions in insulin resistence, which is the precursor to developing Diabetes.
So bottom line, unless you already have Diabetes or a rare genetic disorder, eating a few eggs every day is not bad for you.
In fact, eating whole eggs could actually be very good for you. Eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich foods on earth. Although the whites are mostly protein and water, the yolk is where the nutrition-punch lies. Yolks contain a majority of the calcium, iron, phosphorus, B1, B5, B6, folate, and B12 of the egg. The yolk also contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, as well as the omega-3 fats, great for heart health. Yolks are also rich in special compounds: choline, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Choline is the backbone of the chemical messenger called acetylcholine, which is vital for cardiovascular and brain function. Increased choline consumption has been shown to decrease inflammatory conditions like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, Diabetes, and more.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are the main antioxidants found in egg yolks and are concentrated in the eyes, protecting them from age-related macular degeneration and the harmful effects of ultraviolet light.
So people who toss the yolk are missing out on so many important nutrients with a whole host of health benefits.
But is there ever a time to ditch the yolk or even the entire egg?
There probably is - for some people, but not all.
For those with Diabetes or familial hypercholesterolemia, as discussed earlier, it’s probably best not to consume three eggs every day. For athletes involved in weight-class sports, every calorie counts. When trying to cut weight/fat, removing the egg yolk helps to cut back on calories while at the same time keeping protein high, which helps preserve muscle mass. Another consideration to keep in mind is people with allergies to eggs. After cow’s milk, eggs are the second most common allergy in children and are seen commonly as a sensitivity reaction in adults. This is due to the protein found in the egg white, which is associated with immediate symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes, as well as delayed reactions such as digestive complaints, eczema, and asthma. For these people, it may be best to avoid eggs for a period of time, eat sparingly, or avoid completely, depending on the severity of the allergy/sensitivity.
In the end, for most people, eggs won’t increase blood cholesterol levels or your risk of heart disease. That being said, there is no need to go nuts and consume them every day – I certainly don’t. And that’s not because I’m afraid of eggs, but rather because I rarely eat the same thing every day to ensure that I get a variety of nutrients and decrease the risk of developing food sensitivities.
When choosing eggs, opt for free-range, organic eggs when possible. Farmers markets are great places to buy quality eggs, and when you crack one open you will see the difference – the yolks tend to be bright orange, rather than pale yellow, which means more lutein, zeaxanthin, and carotenoids, and usually better flavor too.
Bottom line: eggs can be a nutrient-rich, healthy addition to most people’s diet. So enjoy in moderation, feel free to try my delicious Egg-cellent Pea & Bacon Frittata recipe, or ask for a hardboiled egg on your next nutritious salad from The Salad Bar Maastricht.
- Dr. Crystal