Unscrambling the Confusion about Eggs: Are Eggs Healthy?

It’s time to unscramble the confusion about eggs and whether or not they are healthy! Eggs have received a great deal of criticism over the years; many have argued that these high-cholesterol yolks increase the risk of heart disease. However, with the updated 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, our view of egg health requires a shift. Omelet-ya know all about eggs and why they can be part of a healthy diet. So let’s get crackin’!

Photo credit: foodb.ca

Photo credit: foodb.ca

Why were eggs thought be unhealthy?

The US Dietary Guidelines are updated every five years, representing a scientific evidence-based approach to healthful eating. Prior to the recent update, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommended a cholesterol cap of 300 milligrams per day. Cholesterol is in all animal-source foods. Chicken, fish, eggs, beef, milk, etc. – all contain cholesterol. The only foods that do not contain cholesterol are foods that come from plant sources. Since we are also animals, our bodies make cholesterol as well. Therefore, there is no nutritional need to eat additional sources of cholesterol.

Since the 1960’s, it was thought that cholesterol-rich foods contribute to high cholesterol in the blood, increasing one’s risk of cardiovascular diseases. The hard limit of 300 milligrams of cholesterol has given eggs a really bad rep. One egg contains nearly 200 milligrams of cholesterol. Therefore, after eating two eggs, you have already exceeded the limit! No wonder eggs have been deemed as “unhealthy!” With updated research, the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines now suggests otherwise.

2015 Dietary Guidelines withdraws longstanding warnings about cholesterol

Research has shown that foods rich in cholesterol only marginally contribute to the levels of cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream. In short, eating cholesterol-rich foods does not raise our blood cholesterol levels. Although cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern for overconsumption,” the dietary guideline authors still recommended that “people do not need to obtain cholesterol through diet and should eat as little as possible.”

Foods rich in cholesterol also contain saturated fats. The updated guidelines continue to recommend that saturated fat intake be limited to no more than 10% of one’s daily caloric intake. Saturated fats are linked to the “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which contributes to heart disease. Some experts warned that people with particular problems, such as diabetes or familial hypercholesterolemia, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets. But, those that are generally healthy (physically active and at a normal body weight) could probably be more lenient about consuming cholesterol-rich foods, and therefore can consume eggs without worry.

Health benefits of eggs

I hope I didn’t go huevo-ver your head with all the science-y politics. Now that you understand why eggs were believed to be unhealthy, let’s get into the egg-citing stuff!

There are two parts of an egg: the egg white and the egg yolk. Egg whites are not as nutrient-dense as the yolk; they pretty much only contain protein and water. On the other hand, the egg yolks are one of the most nutrient-dense, antioxidant and vitamin-rich foods in the world! Egg yolks contain calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, and vitamin B12. They also contain fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, and E) along with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, egg yolks contain other nutrients like choline, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Choline is an essential nutrient involved in the brain, nervous system, and cardiovascular function. It may also lead to decreased inflammation, heart disease, and diabetes. Lutein and zeaxanthin both function in keeping eyes healthy and slowing the progression of macular degeneration.

As you can see, egg yolks are full of important nutrients. When looking at the entire egg, the egg yolk contains most of its calories (55 calories) while the egg white only contains 17 calories. This is why you see a lot of people who are trying to lose weight ditch the egg yolk and consume only the egg whites. However, even if weight loss or maintenance is a goal, I recommend eating at least one whole egg, to provide the body with the wonderful nutrients the egg yolk has to offer.

In whole, an egg is a wonderful source of protein and are relatively inexpensive! I also encourage you to purchase vegetarian-fed organic eggs whenever possible (to avoid antibiotics or hormones). Ideally, purchasing eggs from a local farmer where the hens are happy, have plenty of space to roam, and are fed healthy diets, is best. Happier hens are healthier birds, which yield healthier eggs. “Cage-free” and “free-range” does not always mean what you think they do. All farms are different; you need to do your research per egg company/farm to understand what you are really getting.

[Food labeling like “cage-free” or “free-range” is an entirely different topic! Please do your research; I would also be happy to write about this in another post; just let me know!]

Photo credit: healthline.com

Photo credit: healthline.com

How many eggs can I eat?

There is a lot of debate about how many eggs is safe to eat per day. There is no recommendation as to how many eggs one should or can eat daily. However, this amount also depends on what else you are eating in a day. Think about the other sources of saturated fat you are eating. If you eat a lot of foods from animal-sources, you may want to limit your egg consumption, or replace some of those foods with eggs. If you consume mostly a plant-based diet, eat some eggs! No problem. Just remember to limit saturated fat consumption to no more than 10% of your total daily calories.

I am often asked, “Can I eat an egg or two every day?” I usually tell my patients that I recommend a more varied diet; do not eat the same things every day. Switch it up. Sure, today you can have some eggs, but tomorrow, have some oatmeal with fruit or whole grain toast with nut butter. Be sure to vary your diet so that you are consuming a larger variety of nutrients overall.

Lastly, HOW you eat your eggs is another important concern. Eating an omelet with some veggies or having a couple boiled eggs is much different than smothering your eggs in cheese or cooking it in bacon fat or butter.

An egg-cellent diet

Eggs can be a great component to a healthy diet. They are a wonderful source of protein, high in essential nutrients, and are relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, they are so versatile! Scrambled, over easy, sunny side up, hard boiled… the possibilities are endless! When eating eggs, I recommend consuming at least one whole egg (eat the nutrient-rich yolks!) and preparing it simply (no need to add a ton of extra fat). Lastly, make sure to vary your daily meals so that you are consuming an assortment of nutrients each day. Egg on, my friends!