The world of nutrition is no stranger to controversy or confusion. One of the foods I get asked about the most from clients and students is eggs. Are eggs good for you? Are they bad? Should you eat the yolk or the whites? How many are safe to eat per week?
Eggs are an incredibly nutritious food and if you can tolerate them, they can be a wonderful and versatile part of your diet. So why is everyone afraid of them?
The Cholesterol Factor
Cholesterol is the main concern people have about eggs and I’d like to address it right off the bat, before getting into more details about why eggs can be considered part of a healthy diet.
Eggs have been eaten for thousands of years by many cultures as a staple food. Our societal fear about them is quite recent, and that is due to the demonization of fat and cholesterol that begin in the 20th century. The egg’s status quickly devolved from a superfood to a cholesterol-ridden fiend that boosted our risk of heart disease and stroke. Research in recent decades, however, has shown that we shouldn’t be afraid of fat.
Our bodies need cholesterol to function – it plays a role in cell structure, hormone production, Vitamin D production and digestion. Most of our cholesterol is actually made by our bodies – we manufacture about 80% of it, while only about 20% is derived from what we eat. That means our internal environment, and all of the multi-factored diet and lifestyle choices we make beyond cholesterol-containing foods – plays a far larger role in cholesterol production.
What’s more, cholesterol that is found in whole foods isn’t dangerous; rather, it’s the oxidized cholesterol that can negatively impact our health by contributing to plaque buildup, cell toxicity, gene mutation and cancer. That oxidized cholesterol comes from a lot of processed foods and fried foods, especially those that are fried in vegetable oils (although the vegetable oils themselves, don’t contain cholesterol). Also, endogenously produced cholesterol (cholesterol made in our body) can become oxidized when antioxidant reserves are low or depleted.
The cholesterol in eggs isn’t going to worsen our health or negatively affect the cardiovascular system, and there has been a number of recent research that bears this out. For example:
- A four year study of nearly half a million adults found that people who had 1 egg a day had an 18% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 28% lower risk of haemorrhagic stroke death compared to those who didn’t eat eggs.
- A study of participants who ate eggs daily for 12 weeks found that eggs increased HDL cholesterol levels and lowered overall total cholesterol. HDL cholesterol helps to shuttle other types of cholesterol so it can be removed from our bodies.
- A meta-analysis of egg-intake studies concluded that eating 1 egg a day was associated with a reduced risk of strokes.
- This study states that eggs have very little impact on LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk compared to other diet and lifestyle factors.
- A 6-week study of egg consumption found that eggs did not raise cholesterol levels or negatively affect blood vessel function.
- In a hospital based study, those who ate at least 2 eggs a week had a lower risk of stroke (77%) compared to those participants who ate 1 egg per week.
The Egg’s Nutrient Profile
Whole, fresh eggs have a rich array of nutrients that can benefit our health. Some of these nutrients include:
- Protein. The average large egg has about 6 grams of protein. Protein is essential for healing and repair, muscle growth and development, digestion, brain and nervous system health, hormone production, skin, and energy and metabolism.
- Choline. This B vitamin helps to emulsify fats and cholesterol, helps structure our cell membranes, and is essential for the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that contributes to brain and nervous system functions like memory, mood and muscle control. One study found that egg eaters were more likely to meet their body’s choline needs than those who didn’t.
- Omega 3s. These fats are highly anti-inflammatory and are beneficial to brain health, cardiovascular health, joint health, skin health and eye health.
- Lecithin. This fat helps with memory, brain development, improves heart health and helps with the production of bile.
- Vitamin D. Sometimes called the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D is involved with immunity, bone/dental health, brain health, supports cardiovascular health and has anti-cancer properties.
- Vitamin A. An antioxidant vitamin that is beneficial to our skin, immunity and vision, and supports mucus membranes.
- Iron. This mineral helps us form hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body, plus it helps with protein metabolism, energy production and enzymes.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids support eye health and vision, have anti-inflammatory effects, and can help prevent age-related cataracts and macular degeneration. Some evidence indicates we are better able to absorb them from whole eggs as opposed to supplements.
More Health Benefits of Eggs
In addition to the benefits and studies I’ve mentioned above, eggs have been shown to:
- Improve vision. A study where participants had a daily drink that included lutein-enriched egg yolks found that the drink boosted visual acuity and lutein plasma concentrations.
- Reduce inflammation. Egg consumption can influence inflammatory pathways in a wide variety of inflammatory diseases and injuries.
- Reduce diabetes risk. A study that followed 2,332 men for close to 20 years found that higher egg consumption was associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.
- Reduce risk of Metabolic Syndrome. According to this large analysis, higher egg consumption (more than 7 per week) was linked to a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes obesity, elevated blood sugar levels and hypertension.
- Inhibit colon cancer cells. A study of egg yolks found that they can help inhibit colon cancer cell proliferation.
- Increase the absorption of Vitamin E. Whole cooked eggs added to salads can boost our absorption of Vitamin E.
- Benefit brain health. In this study, egg intake was associated with better performance on psychological tests.
Eat the Whole Egg!
It’s common for people to discard the yolks and only eat the whites. You’re missing out on a lot of the nutritional benefits if you do this, as many of the egg’s nutrients are concentrated in the yolk. Whole egg consumption is linked to better lipoprotein profiles, while whole egg consumption after exercise can lead to better stimulation of protein synthesis.
The omega 3 fats in eggs are found in the yolks. In order to get the full value of these fats, eggs should be cooked at as low a temperature as possible. Omega 3s are very unstable and get destroyed when exposed to high heats. Therefore, in order from best to worst, eggs should be eaten soft-boiled, poached, hard-boiled, lightly fried, then scrambled. Stay away from fried and scrambled eggs due to the high cooking temperatures.
Who Should Avoid Eggs?
For most healthy individuals, eggs can be a beneficial part of the diet. However, if you have an egg intolerance or allergy, of course you’re better off avoiding them. Egg allergies are one of the most common in children – check out this post about food introduction and babies.
Another issue with egg consumption is safety. Eggs and egg products can contain salmonella, leading to foodborne illnesses. They can also contain residues of veterinary drugs. That’s why it’s important to source eggs from a farmer you trust, which I’ll get into in the next section.
How to Choose the Best Eggs
Like any animal products we consume, I believe it’s crucial to choose eggs that come from chickens who have been humanely treated and raised – this not only affects the animal’s wellbeing, but also impacts the nutritional value of the product (we eat what our animals eat).
Conventionally produced eggs (which I call pseudo-eggs) tell a much different story than organic eggs. Firstly, pseudo-eggs come from ‘pseudo-chickens’ which are fed and raised in the interest of our dollar, not our health. Fast and big is the way. Chickens are kept indoors in unsanitary conditions. Being territorial animals that need their space, chickens will peck each other to death in a tight space. As a solution, their beaks are snipped at birth.
Instead of eating eggs from pseudo chickens, I recommend eggs that are:
This will yield a tastier and more nutritious egg.
Eggs are a delicious superfood that we can have as part of a complete diet. Even though they have received some bad press over the years, eggs are good for you and I hope you will begin to eat them without fear!