For years whole eggs with the yolk had a pretty villainous reputation for being cholesterol bombs and an omelet was dubbed a heart attack on a plate. But recently whole eggs have earned a bit of a health halo, making lists with titles like ‘bad foods that are actually good for you’ or ‘surprisingly healthy foods.’ The shift from red light to green light status was largely due to new research, which indicated that eggs really aren’t so bad for your heart, along with studies about the health benefits of a few key nutrients only found in the yolk (more on this below). But a brand new study from the University of Western Ontario has scrambled the issue, generating headlines like, 'Eggs Back on the Naughty List.'
In a nutshell researchers looked at data from just over 1,200 older men and women (mean age 61.5) who were patients at a London hospital. Using ultrasound, scientists were able to measure build-up in the patients’ arteries. They were also asked to fill out questionnaires about their lifestyles, which included smoking habits and the number of egg yolks consumed per week. Researchers found that artery health worsened significantly in heavy smokers and those who reported eating three or more yolks a week. The trouble is, there’s so much this research doesn’t tell us.
First it’s not exact data. It’s an estimate based on asking people to recall what they’ve eaten. And there’s a whole lot we don’t know about the people who ate more eggs, like what else were they eating, and how did they prepare those eggs, info that may very well be responsible for the artery impact. Even the study’s author admits that there are other factors, which could have affected the outcome that weren’t looked at, such as physical activity level. Perhaps heavy egg eaters are less active. Bottom line: this may be a clue but it’s no smoking gun.
When you look at the overall body of research on eggs, there’s a lot of good news. A University of Connecticut study found that when egg and bagel breakfasts contained an identical number of calories, those who ate eggs reported feeling less hungry and more satisfied for up to three hours and naturally consumed fewer calories later in the day. Another study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that eating eggs for breakfast as part of a reduced-calorie diet helped overweight dieters lose 65 percent more weight and feel more energized than those who ate a bagel breakfast with an equal number of calories and an identical volume. And a third bagel versus egg breakfast study found that after eight weeks, egg eaters lost almost twice as much weight, and had an 83 percent greater decrease in their waistlines, compared to the bagel group.
As for heart health, these studies found no significant differences in subjects’ blood cholesterol levels. That’s not surprising because newer research has confirmed that saturated fat in the diet, not cholesterol, is what influences blood cholesterol levels the most. While whole eggs are high in cholesterol, they’re low in saturated fat. One large egg contains just 1.5 grams, compared to three grams in a cup of two percent milk or seven grams in a tablespoon of butter.
Plus, egg yolks contain some important nutrients that aren’t found in the whites, including vitamin D (check out my previous post about this sunshine vitamin and weight loss) and choline. If you’re not familiar with the latter, choline is a nutrient needed to produce each of your body’s cell membranes, as well as help support brain health, muscle control, and memory. Choline also quells inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging and disease, and some research shows it helps break down fat deposits in the body.
For these reasons and more I included organic whole eggs as one of only five foods that make up the 5 Day Fast Forward in my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim. In this solid food “detox” the same four meals are consumed every day for five days, made from combinations of just five foods (eggs, spinach, almonds, raspberries, and yogurt), which I chose for their high nutrient levels, healthy balance of “good” carbs, lean protein, and healthful fat, and proven ability to support hunger free weight loss. After the detox ends I also included organic eggs in the book’s long-term plan, like the Cranberry Pesto Spread Dip and Berry Almond French Toast (note there's also a vegan version of the plan).
So if you’re an egg fan, and especially if you’ve recently added whole eggs back into your diet, don’t let this study derail you. Just be sure to go organic, and enjoy eggs “in rotation” with other lean proteins like lentils and seafood, along with fruits, veggies, whole grains, and “good” fats. It’s that pattern of your diet (e.g. an organic egg with a bowl of oats topped with berries, almonds, and cinnamon versus an egg alongside sausage and buttered white toast or a stack of syrupy pancakes) that matters most.
What’s your take on this topic? Are you confused about eggs and other foods that seem to flip-flop from bad to good? Please tweet @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.