Avoid eggs at all costs! They’re loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat too! Have a bagel or cereal with skim milk instead. Or, if you absolutely can’t live without eggs, have some flavorless egg whites! All of these options are very, very low in fat and virtually cholesterol-free. And, that’s got to be good for you, right?
According to the latest scientific studies, this may not be the whole story.
Back in the day, eggs were considered nutritional villains for fear that they’d increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. After all, how can any food that contains over 60% of the recommended daily allowance of cholesterol be healthy?
To answer that, it’s imperative that we view eggs as a whole food. For starters, eggs are a good source of many essential macro and micronutrients including choline, protein, selenium and vitamin B12. Also, eggs only contain about 60 - 70 calories, are virtually carb-free and possess a glycemic load of zero. Egg yolk, the proposed “unhealthy” part of eggs, is rich in antioxidant carotenoids such as lutein, which has long been linked to ocular health. What’s more, it is phospholipids in the yolk, which assists the body in absorbing fat-soluble antioxidants and nutrients when eaten at the same time as other nutritious foods.
In the sections to follow, I’ll present in detail the most current findings about eggs in relation to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. But before I do, I want to address the still controversial cholesterol issue. Simply put, the latest batch of studies generally reveal that dietary cholesterol isn’t the threat it was once thought to be. Why? In part because the liver produces less cholesterol when more dietary cholesterol is consumed. It’s also worth noting that dietary eggs tend to improve cholesterol profiles in such a way as to increase the “good” HDL fractions while lowering the small dense variety of LDL “bad” cholesterol.
Ultimately, carefully controlled scientific studies tell us that eating up to three eggs daily yields positive shifts relating to various cardiometabolic risk factors. Lastly, diets which tend to be higher in naturally occurring cholesterol and fat, i.e. the Paleolithic diet, consistently outperform low cholesterol, low-fat diets in diabetics, heart patients and overweight individuals.
Eggs and Type 2 Diabetes
Does frequent egg intake increase diabetes incidence and its associated risks? A few recent studies have attempted to examine the link between egg consumption and incident type 2 diabetes (T2D). One specific study found a 38% lower risk of T2D in a group of 2,332 middle aged men who ate the highest amount of eggs in their typical diet. In an even larger 5 year study involving over 53,000 men and women, the results failed to find any correlation between the number of eggs eaten and T2D prominence.
Two additional trials looked at the effects of adding eggs to the diets of diabetic patients. One determined that there was no difference in cardiovascular risk based on high vs. low egg intake. The other actually found that eating an egg at breakfast had a positive influence on diabetic health markers, than oatmeal. Specifically, the added egg reduced a marker of inflammation (TNF-a) and liver stress (AST). Metabolic syndrome, or MetS, a condition which shares risk factors relating to both diabetes and heart disease has also been shown to respond well to daily egg supplementation. A study published in the July 2014 issue of Nutrients reveals that adding three eggs per day to a low carbohydrate diet beneficially alters cholesterol balance and inflammation in those with MetS.
Eggs and Cardiovascular Disease
So, eggs may not be a culprit in diabetes. But, what about cardiovascular disease? For starters, a population study from 2014 investigated the possible connection between dietary eggs and coronary-artery calcium (one of the many players in heart disease) in which no association was found. Another group of researchers turned the spotlight on eggs and endothelial function, a measure of blood vessel contraction and relaxation. In this case, adding two eggs to the breakfasts of patients with coronary artery disease likewise showed no harmful changes to various biomarkers including blood pressure, body weight, cholesterol or flow-mediated dilatation.
This lack of effect on lipid levels has been borne out in other research as well. In fact, one such experiment discovered that the daily inclusion of 1 1/2 egg yolks (without egg whites) had no impact on LDL (“bad”) cholesterol whatsoever.
Eggs and Its Effect on Weight
Do eggs contribute to weight gain? It’s easy to lump eggs in with a variety of calorie dense breakfast items. If you have a few sunny side up eggs with a side of bacon, a tall stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup and orange juice, you may very well gain weight. However, it may not entirely be the fault of the eggs.
The reality is that eggs might actually have an opposite effect on weight, helping individuals regulate their weight. A number of studies report that eating eggs aids with healthier post-meal blood sugar, insulin and hunger regulation. The mechanism involved here seems to be an alteration in two key hormones which moderate appetite - peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). The bottom line is that eggs tend to support weight loss and/or weight maintenance if you eat them in place of carbohydrate-rich menu options.
While eggs aren’t a threat with respect to diabetes, heart disease and weight gain, I think it’s time to also dig a little deeper as to the type of eggs one is consuming. The relative health benefits of eggs can be magnified if you choose eggs that are fed and raised in smarter ways. Chickens that are granted adequate space to roam, fresh air, sunlight and diets rich in healthful foods such as flax and hemp seeds, probiotics and red seaweed produce healthier eggs. This translates into better health implications for the humans who consume them and a more humane life for the chickens.
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
Second Photo Credit: gabriel12/Shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: apolonia/Shutterstock.com.