The source for these headlines was a study published on March 19, 2019, in the JAMA Network online. The study followed nearly 30,000 people for more than 17 years, who had completed food questionnaires at baseline. It reported that each additional 300 mg of dietary cholesterol consumed per day was associated with a 17% increased risk of heart disease and that each additional half an egg consumed per day was associated with a 6% increased risk for heart disease.
Does this mean that people should stop eating eggs?
The problems with jumping to that conclusion are too many to count. Most importantly, this study shows a correlation between eating eggs and getting heart disease—but correlation is not the same as causation. It could be that people who eat fewer eggs engage in other healthy behaviors that are the real reason they get less heart disease.
Other authors have written thorough explanations of the problems with nutrition studies like this one as well as the specific problems with this study. I encourage you to read their articles if you want to understand why it’s an illogical leap to tell people to stop eating eggs because of this latest study.
Revisiting the Cholesterol Debate
The question of whether dietary cholesterol contributes to elevated blood cholesterol and whether or not that translates to heart disease has been hotly debated for decades. There is some evidence that the more cholesterol a person eats, the less cholesterol their body creates—naturally adjusting to a healthy balance.
Whereas the American Heart Association and the US Dietary Guidelines had long recommended a limit of 300 mg of cholesterol consumption per day, the 2015 guidelines removed this restriction. The change in the dietary guidelines was based on studies that found no evidence that eating eggs contributed to heart disease and that eating up to 7 eggs a week poses no risk.
What’s more is that we cannot dismiss the risks associated with LOW levels of cholesterol in the blood. Studies have found that low cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of cancer, depression, and suicide.
We need to remember that cholesterol is an essential building block that is used by the body to make cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D, coenzyme Q10, and other essential compounds. If we try to lower our cholesterol too much, we might unwittingly be doing more harm than good.
Why We Should Love Eggs
One of the fundamental concepts we teach at the Nutrition Therapy Institute is the importance of eating nutrient-dense whole foods. Eggs most certainly fall into this category of foods. A single egg provides 13 essential vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and high-quality protein in a mere 70 calories. Consider these five essential nutrients supplied by eggs:
1. Choline. Choline is a nutrient that is critical for healthy brain, muscle, and liver function. One study found that eggs are the most important source of choline in the American diet and that people who eat eggs consume about twice as much choline as people who do not eat eggs.
2. Selenium. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that supports healthy immune and thyroid function. Eggs are considered to be an “excellent source” of selenium, with a single egg providing 22% of your daily recommended intake.
3. Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for the brain, nervous system, and blood cells. Because it is almost exclusively found in animal products, vegetarians (and especially vegans) can be at risk of deficiency. Eggs are one source of vitamin B12 that is suitable for vegetarians.
4. Vitamins A and D. Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble vitamins that are only present in animal foods. Although vitamin A can be synthesized in the body from beta-carotene (found in plant foods), some people are not efficient at making this conversion. An egg provides vitamin A in its preformed version, along with 10% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D.
5. High-Quality Protein. Eggs are a source of complete protein, meaning that they provide the nine essential amino acids we need from our diet. Eggs can be a quick and easy way to get high-quality protein on the run.
The Bottom Line on Eggs
The controversy over dietary cholesterol—including eggs—is not over. The latest study suggests a weak correlation between eating eggs and getting heart disease, but earlier studies found no such association. There are so many factors that influence a person’s risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions that we need to consider a more holistic view.
Eggs are a nutrient-dense food that provide a unique combination of nutrients. Their choline content, alone, is reason to include them regularly in your diet. Of course, the quality of eggs depends on the health of the chickens who make them, so we should seek out pastured, organic, or cage-free eggs whenever possible.
What’s your opinion about eggs? I’d love to hear in the comments below.
Sarah Cook, ND, is an instructor at the Nutrition Therapy Institute