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The Princeton Longevity Center Medical News

Time To Put Eggs Back On The Breakfast Menu

By: David A Fein, MD
Medical Director

The poor egg.  Much maligned as a breakfast food too often associated with bacon or sausage.  Too high in cholesterol to be safely eaten.  Yet almost every day, I end up telling a patient that I would much prefer that he or she have two eggs and coffee for breakfast in place of a muffin and orange juice.  For many people, the effects of a large carbohydrate load, such as they get from the muffin and juice, are clearly a bigger risk to their health than the cholesterol they get from eggs.  A study recently published in The European Journal of Nutrition now provides even more evidence that the link between egg intake and cholesterol levels is even less important than we thought. 

A single large egg has about 80 calories with about 6.5 grams of protein and only a trace amount of carbohydrates.  The fat content of an egg is 5.8 grams of fat of which about 25% is saturated fat.  The average cholesterol content of an egg is about 215 mg, all of which is in the yolk. 

Most current recommendations suggest that healthy people should limit their cholesterol intake to about 300 mg per day.  Those with known heart disease are usually advised to keep their cholesterol intake below 200 mg per day.  Under those guidelines it might be possible for a healthy person to have one egg in the morning and remain within the 300 mg limit by almost completely avoiding cholesterol for the rest of the day.  For someone aiming for a 200 mg limit, even just one egg blows the cholesterol budget for the whole day.  The result has been the marketing of a variety of egg substitutes and the rise of the egg white omelet, a menu item associated with just enough deprivation to feel virtuous and healthy.

In the recent study, researchers at the University of Surrey gave overweight but otherwise healthy volunteers 2 eggs per day for 12 weeks.  They simultaneously put them on a reduced calorie diet.  A control group followed the same weight loss diet but avoided eggs entirely.

Both groups lost 7-9 lbs over 12 weeks.  And both groups had a drop in their blood cholesterol levels. According to lead researcher Dr Bruce Griffin, at 6 and 12 weeks cholesterol levels were either unchanged or had gone down, particularly the LDL cholesterol, despite the egg group having increased their dietary cholesterol intake to about 4 times that of the control group.  Quoted on PhysOrg.com, Dr Griffin stated, "There is no convincing evidence to link an increased intake of dietary cholesterol or eggs with coronary heart disease through raised blood cholesterol. Indeed, eggs make a nutritional contribution to a healthy, calorie-restricted diet. We have shown that when two eggs a day are eaten by people who are actively losing weight on a calorie-restricted diet, blood cholesterol can still be reduced."

Dietary intake of cholesterol is likely to be a minor contributor to blood cholesterol levels.  Most of the cholesterol in your blood is produced internally by the liver and is not from the diet.  Other dietary and environmental factors can influence the amount of cholesterol the liver produces.  Cholesterol levels are likely to be affected more by a high intake of saturated or trans fats, lack of exercise, smoking and other factors than by dietary levels of cholesterol.

Beyond the effects on blood cholesterol levels, there is mounting evidence that cholesterol levels alone are relatively poor predictors of the risk of developing coronary artery disease (see our earlier newsletter “I Don’t Want To Know” on the myth of the connection between cholesterol and heart disease)

Staying healthy and minimizing cardiovascular risk is about much more than limiting cholesterol intake.  Eggs turn out to be a neat package high in protein, low in saturated fat and low in calories.  Substituting high carbohydrate or high fat foods to avoid eating eggs because of the cholesterol content of the egg yolk may actually be more dangerous.  Eating egg white omelets to avoid the yolk very likely results in a bit less pleasure, a little less guilt and practically no reduction in heart risk. 

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