If you’re like me, you grew up fearful of eggs. Full of cholesterol. And saturated fat. A direct, powerful cause of heart disease.
But an egg also delivers 6 grams of complete protein, loads of B vitamins, zinc and choline. At around 75 calories, eggs even provide omega 3 fatty acids, calcium and antioxidants. All important for general health.
So which is it? Are they good or bad for you?
Let’s start with cholesterol. A large egg delivers around 180 mg of it. In the past, dietary guidelines advised limiting cholesterol intake to 300 mg per day, 200 mg if you already had heart disease. That recommendation is now gone, with no specific limits placed on cholesterol intake. Why the change? Because it came to be recognized that, rather than coming from the food we eat, most of the cholesterol floating inside our bloodstream is actually manufactured by the liver. Turns out the relationship between food and blood cholesterol is much more complex and more dependent on the intake of saturated and trans fats as well as simple/processed carbohydrates – rather than cholesterol per se.
That doesn’t mean eating high cholesterol foods, like eggs, with wild abandon is now OK. It just means that when it comes to blood cholesterol, it’s the overall quality (and quantity) of the food that matters, rather than the level of one single nutrient.
How about saturated fat? A diet low in saturated fat and zero trans fats has been shown to yield significant cardiovascular health benefits. In fact, strict vegan diets that eliminate saturated and trans fats altogether have been documented to even REVERSE heart disease. So minimizing saturated fats is a good idea. The American Heart Association advises keeping saturated fat to under 6% of calories. So for a 2000 calorie diet, that’s under 120 calories or less than 13 grams of saturated fat per day. A single egg contains around 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
Put that all together, and eggs certainly seem to fit with a heart-healthy diet. And extensive research looking at egg consumption and heart disease, much of it coming from Harvard, seems to back that up. Which is why, the doctors at Harvard Medical School conclude that based on what we know today, “for most people, an egg a day does not increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, or any other type of cardiovascular disease.”
But there’s more to health than heart disease. And this is where it gets tricky.
The choline in egg yolks just might be a double-edged sword. Choline is a water-soluble nutrient that is related to B vitamins. It supports brain function and helps keep metabolism active. It’s recognized as an essential nutrient but recommended daily intakes have not been agreed upon. Eggs are an especially rich choline source – with one egg supplying as much choline as 6 ounces of chicken.
Choline is also a driver of TMAO production. And if you read our TMAO blog, you know TMAO is a bad actor, enigmatic of the complex relationship between our gut bacteria, food and health. TMAO has not only been found to promote blood clot formation, it’s also been linked to a heightened risk of cancer development and more aggressive cancer progression.
In omnivores, TMAO levels have been shown to spike after eating eggs. However, other research has documented blunted TMAO responses in vegans fed animal foods (because the makeup of their gut bacteria is different).
Complex? You bet.
So how do I put all of this together?
Eggs might be fine from a heart disease perspective, but intake should still be limited for overall health - especially in people who also eat other animal-based foods.
And what do I do? I try to follow a whole food plant-based diet. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m getting better. I eat Step One Foods every day. And I limit my egg consumption to at most 2 eggs per week.
This week, I’m planning to have those two eggs on Easter Sunday.