Eggs have become the prime example of why eating is so difficult in our modern day and age. For years health experts told us that eggs are bad. Now more recently you may have heard that eggs can be part of a healthy diet.
What’s the truth? Should you be feeding your family eggs or not?
Let’s figure this out once and for all.
Eggs Are High in Cholesterol
It’s true. No other food in nature contains as much cholesterol as an egg.
And that is the reason for the controversy. As you can see on the nutrition label below, a single egg is VERY high in cholesterol:
For years healthy eating guidelines told us to limit our intake of cholesterol to 300 milligrams per day. Two eggs provide more than that.
Food manufacturers were more than happy to create cholesterol free liquid egg products and sell them to us.
In the past 10 years we (nutritional professionals and researchers) have learned that cholesterol in eggs isn’t as bad as we once thought. Part of the confusion comes from our annual doctors visit and the lab values they look at.
Is the Cholesterol in Eggs Bad for Our Health?
Every year when we go to the doctor for our annual physical we have our labs checked. Blood cholesterol is one of the markers our doctor looks at.
If our “bad” cholesterol is too high our doctor prescribes a medication to lower it. It is more or less proven (yet somehow still controversial) that higher blood cholesterol levels are a marker for heart disease risk. And we know that lowering blood cholesterol, especially in people who have had a heart attack is very effective at reducing the risk of another one.
For the longest time nutrition guidance told us that eating too much cholesterol raises the cholesterol in your blood.
Intuitively that made sense; eat too much cholesterol, blood cholesterol levels go up. Too much cholesterol in your blood is bad. The simple solution was to put foods high in cholesterol on the naughty list.
If only it were that easy. Without boring you with a biochemistry lesson every cell in our body MAKES all the cholesterol it needs. That bad and good cholesterol in your blood is made by your body.
We only absorb cholesterol from food when our body needs to supplement what we are able to make naturally.
To simplify and repeat: we could eat zero cholesterol for the rest of our lives and our body would be perfectly fine (kind of, we’d probably be limiting a lot of other foods and that wouldn’t be so great for our health).
We make cholesterol regardless of how much we eat. Our bodies only absorbs what it needs. Blood cholesterol levels are not related to how much cholesterol you eat.
What Do the Dietary Guidelines Say About Cholesterol?
Don’t believe me? In 2015 the dietary guidelines, published by the US government every five years, removed the recommendation to limit daily consumption of cholesterol to 300 mg per day.
They continue to recommend limiting intake of cholesterol containing foods. Animal foods including milk, meat, and cheese contain cholesterol but more importantly these foods are also high in saturated fat which is known to contribute to heart disease risk.
Let me summarize what we’ve learned so far.
For many years eggs were singled out because of their high cholesterol content. Researchers now understand that cholesterol from food has little to no impact on our health. Since most foods that contain cholesterol are also high in saturated fat, the blanket recommendation has been updated.
We should limit daily cholesterol intake so that we can also limit intake of saturated fat. Eggs, at least in moderate amounts, i.e. two or three in a day are not excessively high in saturated fat, three eggs would provide about 25% of your total daily saturated fat needs. It turns out the very high cholesterol content of eggs is not the problem it was once made out to be.
How Research on Egg Consumption Is Conducted
Why do we continue to see headlines that say eggs are bad? To understand that it will be helpful to briefly discuss and understand the field of research. There are two different types of nutrition studies that generally conducted; those that look for causation (smoking causes cancer) and those that find correlation (people who eat healthy live longer). Sure people who eat healthy generally do better health wise but is healthy eating proven to guarantee (i.e. cause) a long healthy life? No, this is just a correlation.
The evidence against eggs falls into the correlation bucket. Researchers followed groups of people for a long time and asked what they eat once a year. They then looked for relationships between what they ate and what illnesses they developed, adjusting for as many factors as they can like smoking and exercise habits. Think of all the forms in which eggs come in your diet. Are they scrambled on Sunday morning, an ingredient in cake or other baked goods or part of a breakfast sandwich on the way to work. Context matters. This is why some studies find that people who eat more eggs die sooner or get more heart disease and others studies find no relationship. It is an imperfect way to conduct nutrition science but it is the best we can do. (1)
Unfortunately when conflicting results are reported on the nightly news it makes us more confused. Now I hope you understand why. It is almost impossible to control everything a group of people ate for years on end and only change one variable like how many eggs they consume per week. This would help determine causation but will never be done, the cost alone makes it prohibitive never mind finding enough people to participate.
Conclusion – Yes, Eggs Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet
What’s the final word? At the end of the day, context matters. If your diet is unhealthy and most of the eggs you eat are in “McMuffin” form they will probably be a net negative for your health. These eggs would come with a lot of saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. But if you eat them scrambled with a little olive oil or even a little butter on Sunday mornings or like a hard boiled egg twice a week, enjoy them. And eat the whole egg. While the yolk contains the cholesterol and fat it is also where most of the vitamins are found, the white is mostly protein. Egg whites do not contain cholesterol, which is why they were so heavily marketed in the past.
Most importantly remember that dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol are two very different things. Eggs should be treated like almost any other component of a healthy diet; a regular member of rotation but not something you eat in excess. And if you really want eggs to be part of a healthy diet, try buying Pasture Raised eggs on your next trip to the store.
1 – If you are diabetic there IS some older research suggesting that eating eggs more than once per week could be harmful and increase the risk of diabetes, though again this falls in the correlation bucket. Should you avoid eggs all together if you are worried about diabetes? No, my advice remains about the same. Be mindful of the form in which you eat eggs and stick to consuming them about once per week in the context of a generally healthy diet.