Eating Eggs as Bad as Smoking?
As a nutritionist specializing in heart health, I frequently get asked “is eating the whole egg bad?” And my answer has always been that eggs can fit into a healthy heart diet as research has shown that egg yolks don’t have the cholesterol raising effect that we once thought. But just last week, the news headlines read “study shows eating eggs is just as bad as smoking in speeding up heart disease.” What???
This study suggests not only that egg ingestion increases the risk of heart disease, but also that the association is as strong as that for cigarettes. Researchers at Western University in Canada surveyed 1,200 patients about their egg and cigarette consumption and used ultrasound to measure the plaque in their arteries. They then concluded in the study, which was published in the journal Atherosclerosis, that people who ate more eggs over time had more plaque in their arteries, and equated eating eggs to smoking cigarettes.
“Bad Egg” study
The word “study” sounds so scientific, the results must accurate – right? Nope! This particular study is being criticized as being flawed in many areas, including that it depending on the participants ability to remember what they ate (we know how well that works!) and didn’t take into account any other dietary or behavioral factors beyond egg intake and smoking. The study did not control for exercise habits, waist circumference, intake of saturated fat, alcohol or foods commonly eaten with eggs like high-fat meats and other high-fat side dishes.
In defense of eggs
The Egg Nutrition Center and National Egg Board issued their response to this study by saying “These findings are surprising and contradict more than 40 years of research demonstrating that healthy adults can enjoy eggs without significantly impacting their risk of heart disease. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognize eggs as a nutrient-dense food that can be part of a healthful diet,” says Mitch Kanter, PhD, Executive Director of the Egg Nutrition Center. The Atherosclerosis study is an observational study that can only suggest potential relationships not determine actual cause-and-effect conclusions.
Many other health experts agree that the study was flawed, depending too much on the participant’s self- reporting and not adequately addressing other dietary and lifestyle factors. For another critique on this study check out this link “Eggs Worse than Smoking?” written by Chris Mohr, PhD, RD
Egg nutrition 101
An average whole egg has 72 calories, 6.3 gm fat, 1.6 gm saturated fat, 186 gm cholesterol and a slew of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In the past we believed that eggs had 274 mg of cholesterol, we now know it is less (maybe chickens eat healthier?) Check out this comprehensive chart comparing the nutritional values of eggs, and egg whites.
So how much cholesterol should you eat a day?
The American Heart Association recommends:
- If you are healthy, it’s recommended that you limit your dietary cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams (mg) a day.
- If you have cardiovascular disease, diabetes or a high low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) blood cholesterol level, you should limit your dietary cholesterol to less than 200 mg a day
My take on this egg debate
In light of the fact that this was a flawed study and that years of research in the past have shown eggs have health benefits and can fit into a heart healthy diet (consumed in moderation of course!), I would hold off tossing out your cartons of eggs until further research proves otherwise. Here are some tips:
1. The majority of studies have shown that eggs can fit into a healthy diet. The key is moderation. The effect of the cholesterol found in eggs on blood cholesterol will vary from individual to individual.
2. If you have an increased risk of heart disease or have high cholesterol, you will need to pay attention to your total cholesterol intake and follow the AHA Guidelines. If you really want to have an egg a day, make sure the rest of your diet for that day is low in cholesterol. One egg has ~ 185 mg of cholesterol and your goal is 200 mg a day.
3. Keep in mind that your total cholesterol is not the only important blood lipid number and consuming foods rich in cholesterol is not the only culprit! Saturated fat and added sugars may have an even more deleterious effect on blood lipids.
- Saturated fat (found in whole milk dairy and fatty meat) tends to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol more than consuming foods rich in cholesterol (found in
egg yolks and shrimp)
- Added sugar and high glycemic index carbs (includes most processed carbs) can raise triglycerides and lower HDL (good ) cholesterol.
4. So if you want to enjoy that egg – avoid the fatty sides, like the greasy home fries, cheese added to your omelet and buttered white roll. Instead opt for veggies in the omelet and whole grain toast.
5. And heart health isn’t just about blood lipid levels. It’s also about maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar, consuming adequate fiber, fruits and veggies, heart healthy fats, controlling blood pressure, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, etc
6. If you are an egg-a-holic and are concerned about your cholesterol intake, try egg substitutes, egg whites or mixing one whole egg with several whites.
For more info on:
Diet and heart disease, download my FREE comprehensive guide Dietary Tips to Lower Heart Disease!
Eggs and health, check out this comprehensive article written by an RD.