Eggs, rich in protein and various nutrients, were once a mainstay of the American diet. Then science gave them a bad rap due to their high level of cholesterol, and doctors advised people to avoid them. But in 2015, the federal government gave eggs its blessing, citing research showing that the cholesterol in eggs was only weakly related to cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Now the advice has been utterly scrambled by a new study that once again berates the egg.
By examining data on 29,615 adults across an average of 17.5 years, researchers found that a combination of eating more eggs and downing 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol daily was linked to a 17 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, which includes a narrowing of blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, and an 18 percent higher risk of death overall.
“The take-home message is really about cholesterol, which happens to be high in eggs and specifically yolks,” said study team member Norrina Allen of Northwestern University. “As part of a healthy diet, people need to consume lower amounts of cholesterol. People who consume less cholesterol have a lower risk of heart disease.”
The findings are detailed in the March 15 issue of the journal JAMA.
Few foods have seen intake guidelines flip more than eggs. What’s going on?
One egg has between 140 and 200 mg of cholesterol, depending on size. That sounds bad. But past studies have indicated that consuming cholesterol is not strongly linked to how much cholesterol is in your bloodstream. Rather, blood cholesterol is influenced by the fats and carbs you consume, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Specifically, saturated fats and trans fats are the evildoers, according to the Heart Foundation. Eggs contain healthy fats, such as omega-3 fats, which are, ironically, known to be good for the heart.
But as happens with science, understanding advances. Allen and her colleagues say previous studies that suggested eggs did not raise cardiovascular risk weren’t as comprehensive as the new one.
“Our study showed if two people had exact same diet and the only difference in diet was eggs, then you could directly measure the effect of the egg consumption on heart disease,” Allen said. “We found cholesterol, regardless of the source, was associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”
Sooner or later, more research will sort this out once and for all and somebody will have egg on their face. Meantime, what should you do? Three points:
- If you have high cholesterol or a history of it in you family, or if you are diabetic, talk to your doctor, who might advise caution on egg consumption.
- If you’re concerned about cholesterol, you can cut down on other cholesterol-heavy foods: red meat, processed meat and high-fat dairy products like butter and whipped cream, the researchers of the new study advise.
- If it’s the protein your after, enjoy those egg white omelettes — the cholesterol is all in the yolk.
“We want to remind people there is cholesterol in eggs, specifically yolks, and this has a harmful effect,” said Allen (who said she still serves eggs to her kids for breakfast, by the way). “Eat them in moderation.”