Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket—Or On One Plate!

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Eggs are one of the most frustrating foods. As a dietitian, I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent telling people that eating eggs is OK, and that it’s really the saturated fat in food that’s the culprit, not the cholesterol. But it seems that once people finally get comfortable with the fact that eggs are highly nutritious and can be part of a heart-healthy diet, researchers give us some bad news.

As David Spero mentioned in his post last week about breakfast (“What’s for Breakfast”), a new study out of Harvard Medical School has given us reason to pause. In this study, which involved looking at data from two large studies, the Physician’s Health Study and the Women’s Health Study, the researchers found that men who ate one egg every day had a 60% increase in risk for Type 2 diabetes, and women who ate one egg a day had a 77% increased risk. Men who ate less than one egg per week had only a 9% increased risk of getting diabetes and women a 6% increased risk. It didn’t matter whether people were following a high-carb or a low-carb diet, or had a high cholesterol level or a high body-mass index (BMI), either.

Of course, with any study, there are certain limitations. For example, in this study, the researchers didn’t do repeat blood glucose and insulin measurements. This was an observational study, and some of the data was self-reported (meaning that the researchers relied on the study subjects to recall and report information). Also, most of the participants were white and most were health-care professionals, so it’s hard to generalize the findings to a wider, more diverse population.

And, as it often goes with research on a particular topic, previous studies with eggs have shown varying results. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999 examined the link between egg intake and risk of heart disease and stroke in men and women (using some of the same data that was used in this new study, by the way). The findings? The intake of one egg per day was unlikely to impact the risk of heart disease and stroke in men and women. And while the subjects who had diabetes had a higher risk of heart disease, the conclusions were that “further research is warranted.”

Yet another study, done by the same researchers who did the newly-published study, found that men with diabetes who ate eggs during the 20-year study period were twice as likely to die as men without diabetes. But, as it turns out, the men with diabetes were older, heavier, more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, and less likely to exercise and eat vegetables than their counterparts without diabetes. So, is it really eggs that are the problem?

It’s possible, despite the other factors. Maybe dietary cholesterol really is more dangerous than we thought. It seems like we don’t know enough, though, to draw any conclusions. Once again, eggs are frustrating!

Egg Facts
Here’s the lowdown on eggs. One large egg contains:

  • 75 calories
  • 213 mg cholesterol, found only in the yolk (the cholesterol intake for people with diabetes shouldn’t exceed 200 mg per day)
  • 5 grams of fat, including 2 grams of saturated fat
  • 6 grams of protein (equal to one ounce of meat, chicken, or fish)
  • 70 mg sodium

Here are some more facts about eggs:

  • Eggs are a great source of B vitamins and some minerals, such as iron, zinc, and iodine.
  • Eggs contain choline, a nutrient needed for brain function and health.
  • Eggs contain lutein, a carotenoid that may help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.
  • People who eat eggs for breakfast seem to lose more weight and lose more inches from their waistlines than people who eat bagels for breakfast.
  • Eggs are an economical source of protein and are part of a budget-conscious healthy eating plan.

But, in spite of all of eggs’ good qualities, it might be wise for people who are at risk for diabetes and those who have diabetes to go easy on the eggs for now (about one per week). Talk with your health-care provider about your risk for heart disease, and make sure you know your “numbers” (total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides). In the meantime, if you’re an egg lover and can’t keep your intake to just one or two per week, consider switching over to egg substitutes or egg whites, which are cholesterol-free.

Eggs can still be part of a healthful diet and, hopefully, we’ll soon learn “eggs-actly” what it is about eggs that may not be so good for us.

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