One egg, two egg, good egg, bad egg. No single food comes close to being studied or stirring up so much controversy. Eggs are the Jekyll and Hyde of foods: the nutrient rich egg white surrounding what many people believe to be a disease-causing egg yolk. Eggs are the food we love, and also the food we love to hate.
For years, even decades, we’ve been told that eggs are bad for us. Early studies have warned us that eating eggs may lead to early death, and this seems to be more so for people with diabetes. Dietary guidelines told us not to eat too much cholesterol. Eggs are high in cholesterol and too much cholesterol can lead to a heart attack and even kill us.
It’s true, having high amounts of cholesterol in our blood increases the chances of getting heart disease. This has been known for as far back as the 1950’s when it was reported that populations with higher blood cholesterol got more heart disease. But the link between how much cholesterol you eat and how much gets in your blood isn’t quite so clear.
For most of us, the amount of cholesterol in our diet only has a small effect on the cholesterol in our blood. Where things get muddied is that many foods high in cholesterol are high in saturated fat (think of cheese, bacon). When it comes to cholesterol in the blood, saturated fat in our diet is worse than cholesterol. Eggs actually have very little saturated fat.
In recent years, numerous studies have shown that eggs have no impact on your chance of getting heart disease or dying early. Eggs can also be a part of weight loss programs without affecting cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar. And the latest US Dietary Guidelines no longer have a limit on how much cholesterol to eat.
Not all are convinced that eggs are okay, though. Prominent neurologist, Dr. David Spence, holds the view we should avoid eggs at all cost and has likened eating eggs as nearly as dangerous as smoking.
Now eggs are again back in the spotlight. A single study has come out saying that eggs will kill us again; each additional egg per day will result in a 16% increase chance of dying over a 17 year period.
So why are eggs bad for us now? Have eggs changed? Are we humans genetically different now than before? The obvious answer is no to both.
A lot of it comes down to how difficult it is to do diet studies. Most studies are done by asking people what they ate over the past week or even up to the past year. After that, the researchers wait for years to pass to see who gets heart disease (or dies) and compares their diets to the people who didn’t.
There are a lot of problems with these types of association studies. Could it be that a person who eats eggs is more, or less, likely to have a healthy diet? If so, then eating eggs could be an indicator of something else that is good or bad in one’s diet (maybe it’s the bacon or the French toast). Also, measuring a person’s diet by asking them what they ate, is not all that accurate (albeit the easiest way to measure diet).
These types of studies can’t provide a definite answer, and they usually end up leading to more questions. However, when similar studies show the same thing, then we can be more confident in the result. Most of the evidence that physical activity is good for us comes from these types of association studies. The key difference is the physical activity studies are all in agreement, so no real controversy.
But eggs especially, seem to have a special place in the food debate. Maybe because, despite their cholesterol content, they’re nutrient rich. They’re also cheap and easy to eat. Eggs come in discrete, natural packing, are all roughly the same size, and we usually consume them in whole amounts (When was the last time you cracked open an egg and only had half of one, saving the other half for another day?). This makes it easier for us to remember how many eggs we’ve had (and easier to study).
So where does that leave us with planning our morning breakfasts?
Right now the evidence showing eggs are good isn’t much better than the evidence that eggs are bad (although there tends to be more studies supporting eggs as harmless, in case anyone is keeping score). Given the challenges of diet studies, we may never get a clear answer, and it will likely be left to each of us to decide for ourselves.
That being said, the worrying ingredient in eggs, cholesterol, seems not to be as big of a health concern for most people. Add to that the nutritional benefits eggs have (excellent source of protein, little saturated fat, low calorie, numerous vitamins) at a cheap cost, I still plan to keep them in my diet.
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