Oh the mighty egg. It is one of the most common, cost effective, protein rich, versatile foods. It also might be the most controversial food of all time. Throughout history, eggs have been either the dietary hero or villain.
Before we dive into the current stance on eggs, let’s look at what they have to offer.
NUTRITION BENEFITS OF EGGS
Due to their macro make up of protein and fat; a single egg has 5 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein. It is a very filling and satisfying food. This makes it a great option for those trying to lose weight. Research has shown consuming eggs in the morning can promote weight loss over consuming carbohydrate-rich foods.
Most of an egg’s protein comes from the whites, however, these whites are low in all other nutrients that make eggs special. The yolk is where the magic is, including vital, health-promoting micronutrients that are hard to find in other foods like vitamin D and choline. Vitamin D might sound like no big deal, but deficiency is a real risk for many adults due to the limited food sources containing this substance and heavy use of sunscreen which blocks your skin’s natural ability to produce vitamin D through its absorption of UVB from the sun. Antioxidants that protect eye health and potentially prevent cataracts are also found in eggs.
Beyond their nutritional profile, eggs are one of the most versatile foods out there. The hashtag ‘#putaneggonit’ has more than 100,000 posts on Instagram because you can literally put an egg on (or in) anything: pizza, ramen, burgers, salads, pasta, quiche, muffins, you name it. This versatility makes it consumable for a large swath of the population, with little cooking skill and for any meal of the day.
THE DARK SIDE OF EGGS
With all those positive attributes, eggs have a (potential) dark side. These ‘good versus bad’ characteristics have led to a multi-decade scientific battle over whether this food is health-promoting or health-sacrificing. Eggs happen to be one of the most common food allergens, especially in children. For this reason, eggs tend to be called out frequently in foods and many maintain a hyper-awareness of eggs in the food system.
Beyond allergy, eggs are most debated for their fat and cholesterol content. In the ‘90s, fat became feared, and the egg, specifically the yolk, off limits. Egg whites popped up on menus and in cartons to purchase without having to deal with the fat-laden yolk. However, as mentioned above, the yolk is where the vitamins and minerals are concentrated. It is also where the cholesterol hides.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance essential for hormone production and other vital functions. Your body makes some and you get some from foods. There is a point at which cholesterol has a negative impact on health, specifically heart health. For a long time, avoiding egg yolks was considered best for the heart. After a long period of thinking this way, the FDA removed limits on cholesterol, also removing the stigma carried from consuming foods like eggs. This action came after numerous studies found dietary cholesterol intake was not linked to poor health outcomes in cardiovascular disease or coronary heart disease. Consuming pasture-raised eggs or those with added omegas has even been shown to help improve ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. It seems the cholesterol link is much more involved. Simply consuming external cholesterol sources doesn’t necessarily lead to higher internal levels.
THE LATEST STUDY
Eggs continued on in this positive health spotlight until just recently when a large-scale study declared egg consumption was linked to higher all-cause mortality — basically stating the more eggs you eat the more your chances of passing from any health condition increased. Studies like this, with big claims and flashy headlines, tend to make news.
While this research sampled a large population over a long time period, there were flaws. First, the risk associated was low and while eggs were found to provide a risk, the study’s figures show they didn’t pose the highest health risk of all foods recalled. Second, while the study aimed to control for variables, it notes that confounding was probable (meaning there was likely influence from variables not looked at, such as pre-existing conditions, gender or lifestyle factors).
Finally, the study relied on dietary recall, which is generally accepted when asking someone what they ate in the past 24 hours, but try recalling all the foods you’ve consumed in the past year. That’s where things get tricky and extremely vague, which doesn’t make for accurate reporting and results. Eggs are a common food and can be overestimated in a recall while less commonly consumed sources of dietary cholesterol, like shrimp, might be underreported.
This is the most recent, but far from the only study to find eggs to be detrimental to health. Research done in 2012 found consuming eggs was just as bad for you as smoking. Again, it’s a catchy, startling headline that captured attention. However, this study also failed to account for factors like total diet and exercise, two associations that play a major role in health outcomes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, the few studies villainizing eggs are not enough to take away from many others suggesting eggs can be a healthful food for most people. Nutritional research is extremely difficult to carry out due to the large amount of potentially influential variables like environment, total diet, genetics, gender, exercise, etc., that cannot be controlled for outside a laboratory environment.
More research can be done in the area to help put this debate to rest, but in the meantime, there is no need to go egg-free. Just like any food ingredient, it is best not to overdo it and to aim for balance and variety among all foods. Aim to consume eggs occasionally and in healthful ways such as a veggie omelet or poached eggs over sweet potatoes with salsa. Limit eggs being consumed in less healthful ways such as in custards, fried rice, pastries or deviled eggs. As long as eggs are consumed as part of a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes and other colorful whole foods, alongside an active lifestyle, there is no need to villainize them.