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ASK THE NUTRITIONIST: Is the cholesterol in eggs unhealthy?

In this week's column, Nonie De Long continues her series that answer the top 10 questions about nutrition
eggs stock
Stock image.

Dear Readers, this week’s column features the fifth of the top 10 nutrition questions I get asked. Tune in over the following weeks for the remainder. If you missed it, the first week I covered soy products and those that are most beneficial for your health.Then I covered nutritional supplements, organic foods and dairy products.

Today we’re going to discuss eggs. Is it best to eat the whites, the yolks, or both? How many eggs a day is safe? What about cholesterol? Keep reading to find out more.

Whites, Yolks, or Whole Eggs?

For the longest time anyone who worked with a personal trainer or dietitian, or anyone who had cholesterol or heart health issues was advised by their doctor to consume only the egg whites. You may have encountered this. Some trainers, dietitians, and doctors still give this advice. The reasoning is that egg yolks contain cholesterol and too much cholesterol is bad. Thus, people should avoid consuming more in egg yolks and consume only the whites, which are a great source of protein.

Seems to make sense, right?

Actually, no. The entire idea is false and based on bad science that was (and is still) passed on. Dietary cholesterol does not actually raise serum cholesterol levels (the cholesterol in your bloodstream). The body makes cholesterol in house - and it’s a tightly regulated system. Consuming cholesterol rich foods does not impact that significantly. Furthermore, cholesterol is not directly related to heart disease risk. Please read that again! Cholesterol is not the boogeyman it was made out to be. It’s actually very important for overall health. You may find this hard to believe, so let’s look at some other sources:

“We should clarify, before anyone has a heart attack from discussing eating egg yolks, that dietary cholesterol DOES NOT raise serum (blood) cholesterol and is NOT in any way correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. This is one of the biggest myths of nutrition (along with the calories in = calories out myth) that continues to circulate, no matter how much contrary evidence exists… Many have experienced a poor lipid panel followed by doctor’s orders to stop eating eggs. Well, researchers have found that when paired with a low carbohydrate diet, WHOLE eggs actually improve lipid panels and decrease the risk of atherogenic heart disease. This is especially true when compared with eating egg whites alone.” Dr. Anthony Gustin

“Many people think that cholesterol is harmful, but the truth is that it’s essential for your body to function. Cholesterol contributes to the membrane structure of every cell in your body. Your body also needs it to make hormones and vitamin D, as well as perform various other important functions. Simply put, you could not survive without it. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but it also absorbs a relatively small amount of cholesterol from certain foods, such as eggs, meat, and full-fat dairy products.” Healthline

“High-quality studies have shown that dietary cholesterol is not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. A lot of research has been conducted on eggs specifically. Eggs are a significant source of dietary cholesterol, but several studies have shown that eating them is not associated with an elevated risk of heart disease. What’s more, eggs may even help improve your lipoprotein profiles, which could lower your risk. One study compared the effects of whole eggs and a yolk-free egg substitute on cholesterol levels. People who ate three whole eggs per day experienced a greater increase in HDL particles and a greater decrease in LDL particles than those who consumed an equivalent amount of egg substitute.” Healthline

The exception to this rule seems to be diabetic patients. In those with diabetes there have been some studies that suggest cholesterol is related to heart disease risk. However, studies that look more closely at this suggest more study is needed because it’s quite likely that insulin resistance creates a problem with cholesterol metabolism. What this means is that insulin is the problem, not cholesterol:

“...insulin sensitivity could influence HDL metabolism and cholesterol transport. Riemens and colleagues found that people with lower insulin sensitivity had increased levels of plasma cholesterol, very low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol, compared with those with higher insulin sensitivity… These findings suggest a biological mechanism for possible adverse effects of insulin resistance on risk of coronary heart disease in diabetic populations through cholesterol metabolism. Nonetheless, this subgroup finding of a positive association between egg consumption and coronary heart disease risk was based on a small number of studies and thus needs to be replicated in further studies.” BMJ

Given all this, there is no bonafide reason to fear eggs, and a lot of good reasons to include them in your diet.

Eggs, A Nutritional Powerhouse:

How an egg is produced affects the nutrient density, as with all food. The following nutrition information is for commercially prepared eggs and may be greater if eggs are of superior quality, like those from home grown or free range, natural fed birds.

B Vitamins:

Egg yolks contain thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12. These B vitamins are especially important for energy production and the health of the nervous system. For vegetarians and those who eschew red meat, eggs are a great source of B vitamins.

Fat Soluble Vitamins:

Egg yolks are also a good source of the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E, and K, which have an incredible impact on health.

Vitamin A is important for the health of our eyes, our skin, our bones, our reproductive system, and our immune system. It’s a natural anti-viral.

Vitamin D is so important for our health our bodies make it when exposed to sunlight. In Canada most people are deficient in cold months, so eggs are particularly important at that time. For more about vitamin D, go here.

Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that helps reduce aging and degeneration in the body. It’s important for healthy skin and healing, and for reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Vitamin K is important for dental and bone health, for kidney health, and for wound healing. Without it and vitamin D our bodies can’t turn calcium into bone.

Easily Absorbed Complete Protein:

Whole eggs provide the highest ranked protein on the biological value scale. This means they are the most easily absorbed form of complete amino acids of all foods. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein in the body and are used to build muscle and many other tissues. All cell walls require amino acids, as do all enzymes. They are required abundantly by the body for both a strong structure and proper function. As we age we tend to absorb less of the protein we consume, so eggs remain an important food throughout the lifespan. The nutrients in the yolks of eggs help us better absorb and utilize the proteins the whites contain.

Minerals:

Minerals are particularly important for good health and are lacking in many commercial foods today. However, eggs remain a good source of a variety of minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and zinc.

Essential Fatty Acids:

Egg yolks are packed with good fats. They contain abundant DHA Omega 3’s (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA Omega 6’s (arachidonic acid). These are fats that you have to get from your diet because the body can’t make them. That’s why they’re called essential. Additionally, eggs contain CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). This is a fat that is associated with weight loss and lean body mass, as well as heightened immune function. It’s just another benefit to eating whole eggs.

Choline:

Have you heard of choline? This is an incredible powerhouse of a nutrient - especially important for brain and nervous system health. It’s essential for neurotransmitter function, for cell membrane regulation (what goes in and out of cells), muscle movement, including regulating heartbeat, and cell structure and messaging. It’s essential for a healthy memory, good brain function, and healthy liver function. It’s known to reduce inflammation in the body and thus reduce disease risk. And egg yolks are one of the best sources of it!

For these reasons eggs are an important food group that I don’t recommend clients avoid.

Pro Tips:

If you take fat soluble vitamins like essential fatty acids or cod liver oil or vitamins A, D, E, or K, taking them with a meal that contains eggs will help you absorb the nutrients better!

If you leave your yolk runny the vitamin content will be higher, as high heat cooking damages vitamins!

If you want to try a new egg recipe that’s easy and can be made ahead for a nice lunch or breakfast all week, try these Low Carb Egg Muffins. They can be made with ham, salami, or anykind of bacon and served hot and fresh or cold sliced on a crisp salad. I love mine with steamed asparagus pieces and feta or with goat cheese and sauteed mushrooms.

I hope this is helpful. Tune in next for a deep dive on red meat. How much should we eat and should we eschew the fatty cuts? As always, if you have a question for the column, you can write to me at nonienutritionista@gmail.com. If you want clinical care know more about what I do, you can find me online at hopenotdope.ca.

Namaste!
Nonie Nutritionista

 



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