Most dietitians like to say there are no bad foods, only poor judgment about how often you include certain items in your diet. The egg is exhibit A.
“The egg has been unfairly blamed as a bad food and as the reason why seemingly everybody has high cholesterol,” said Elizabeth Ward, nutrition counselor at the Harvard Community Health Plan in Boston. “Somehow people don’t worry as much about eating ice cream or slathering cheese on a burger, but there is huge concern about a teeny-tiny egg.”
“The egg is the gold standard,” said Gail Frank, professor of nutrition at California State University-Long Beach. The white is nature’s highest-quality protein, she says: It has a complete set of essential amino acids for the body. The yolk has all other nutrients, along with about 6 grams of fat (about 2 grams are the saturated variety).
Ward mentioned research conducted by Wanda Howell, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona. Howell’s review of studies over the last 28 years showed that dietary cholesterol has a minimal effect on blood cholesterol levels. She concluded that consumption of dietary cholesterol is associated with only about 20 percent of any increase in blood serum totals and in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the destructive kind that clogs arteries. Saturated fats mostly account for the other 80 percent.
So for individuals with healthful cholesterol levels, it may be less the number of eggs in a diet and more the method of preparation.
“Eggs’ biggest problem is the company they keep,” said Ward, a spokeswoman for the ADA and American Egg Board. “People fry them in saturated fat, then add more in the form of hash browns and bacon.”
Ward advises clients with cholesterol readings less than 200 that they can eat an egg per day if they follow a low-fat diet - about 20 to 25 percent of total daily calories deriving from fat. (Some experts argue your diet can reach 30 percent fat, incorporating such monounsaturated fats as olive oil and the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, if less than 10 percent of total calories come from saturated fats.) Remember that eggs are used in many foods and recipes, which should be factored into any egg-per-day equation.
“Vegetarians who don’t eat dairy or meat or other sources that can be high in cholesterol might even eat a few more,” Ward said. “Nonetheless, it is always an individual question.” Some people have severe allergies to eggs, and others store cholesterol at abnormally high rates.
More than two decades ago, based on results from the respected Framingham (Mass.) study, the American Heart Association recommended that cholesterol intake should be limited to 300 milligrams per day, and that three eggs per week was prudent because the yolk of a large egg contains 265 to 275 milligrams. Most cardiologists recommend patients with heart disease be careful about egg consumption.
But some dietitians say that overstated concerns about cholesterol discourage people who could most benefit from eggs. They point to the 6.6 grams of protein in one egg (more than half in the white) and 13 vitamins and minerals (the most significant amount is vitamin B-12).
“We have scared off many older people who grew up eating eggs,” said Ward. “They are now in their late 70s. Eggs can be a really cheap, convenient, nutritious food that is easy to chew.”