Love ’em or hate ’em, eggs are a much-maligned food by many, largely as a result of getting a bad rap for their cholesterol content. Years ago, a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast was considered to be healthy and a good way to kick off the day. The tide shifted when researchers proclaimed that the cholesterol in eggs would raise the level of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, in the blood. Eggs, or at least the yolks, were then shunned, while egg substitutes and egg whites became the stand-ins.
But the tides have shifted back in recent years, thanks to research showing that dietary cholesterol (the kind that is found in food) is really not the culprit when it comes to high cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease; rather, it’s the type of fat — and other factors, such as refined carbohydrates — that one eats. And thanks to the low-carb/keto diet trend, eggs have once again surged in popularity. But are eggs all they’re “cracked” up to be?
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People have been eating eggs for centuries. According to The Incredible Egg website, wild fowl were domesticated as early as 3200 B.C., and fowl were laying eggs for consumption in 1400 B.C. We can also thank Columbus for bringing chickens over to America in 1493. And while chicken eggs are the most common type of egg eaten in the United States, other types of eggs are just as edible, including pigeon, turkey, goose, duck, ostrich and quail eggs.
What makes up an egg?
An egg has an outer shell, which can range from white to brown to blue to green. The color of a hen’s egg has to do with the breed of hen. For example, Leghorn chickens lay white eggs, Rhode Island Red chickens lay brown eggs, and Ameraucana chickens lay blue eggs. (By the way the color of an egg is not an indicator of quality or nutrition). Egg shells contain about 2 grams of calcium. They contain “between 7000 and 17,000 tiny pores that allow oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture to pass through, but keep bacteria out,” states the Purina Mills website.
Inside the egg is an air cell that is formed at the wide end of the egg after the egg is laid. The albumen, or the egg white consists primarily of water, protein and some minerals. The yolk, which makes up one-third of the egg’s weight, is the main source of vitamins and minerals. In addition, it contains all of the fat in the egg, as well as a little less than half of the egg’s protein. The color of the yolk can range from light yellow to a deep orange, and is determined by what the hen eats. And what about that stringy white stuff that you sometimes see in an egg? That’s called the chalazae, and that serves to anchor the yolk in the center of the albumen.
Eggs come in different sizes, too: peewee, small, medium, large, extra-large and jumbo. Various factors impact the size of the egg, including the age and weight of the hen, as well as the hen’s breed, diet and living conditions.
Curious about an egg’s nutrition facts? Here’s the rundown for one large egg:
· 70 calories
· 0 grams of carbohydrate
· 6 grams of protein
· 5 grams of total fat
· 1.5 grams of saturated fat
· 185 milligrams of cholesterol
· 70 milligrams of sodium
· 30 milligrams of calcium
· 0.9 milligrams of iron
· 1 microgram of vitamin D
· 70 milligrams of potassium
In addition to the above nutrients, eggs contain nutrients such as lutein, choline, biotin and omega-3 fatty acids.
Egg health benefits
An egg is a nice, neat little package of nutrition, and provides a number of health benefits.
An egg contains the protein equivalent of an ounce of chicken, fish or meat and helps to sustain mental and physical energy during the day.
There’s no carb in an egg, so it makes a good addition to a meal and also serves as a carb-free snack, which can help you in keep your blood glucose levels within target range. Research published in 2019 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people with type 2 diabetes who ate a lower-carb, higher-fat breakfast that included eggs prevented blood sugar spikes after breakfast and improved blood glucose readings for 24 hours.
At just 70 calories each, eggs fit nicely into an eating plan aimed at weight loss or maintenance. Of course, cooking eggs with excess oil, butter or cheese will significantly increase the calorie content of your meal.
Nervous system health
Eggs contain choline, a nutrient that helps regulate memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions.
Eggs contain lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that protect your eyes from free radical damage and may reduce age-related macular degeneration and cataract formation.
Eggs, heart health and diabetes
But what about egg’s cholesterol content? Isn’t cholesterol bad for your heart? That was the thinking years ago. A lot has changed since then, thanks to research that has shown that most of the cholesterol in the blood is made by the liver and doesn’t come from cholesterol in the food we eat. The liver is stimulated to make cholesterol primarily from the amount of saturated fat and trans fat that we consume. Too much saturated and trans fat are linked with raising LDL levels; high LDL levels may raise the risk of heart disease.
Cholesterol isn’t some evil or toxic substance. We need cholesterol to give structure to cell membranes and to make hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. Cholesterol is also needed to help the body make vitamin D.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer recommend a set limit on the amount of cholesterol one should consume each day; however, they do recommend that people should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible. That’s mainly because foods higher in cholesterol, such as high-fat dairy foods and fatty meats, are also higher in saturated fat, which might raise blood cholesterol levels.
Current research indicates that a healthy person can safely eat up to seven eggs per week. But what does this mean if you have diabetes and/or heart disease? It can seem like a Catch-22 when it comes to eggs: on the one hand, eggs are a carb-free, economical source of protein. On the other hand, some studies point to an increased risk of heart disease when people with diabetes eat more than one egg per day. (Yet, another study has shown that the risk of type 2 diabetes is reduced by eating more than 1 egg per day!).
Confusing, for sure. So, if you have diabetes, can you eat eggs or not? While it’s always best to have a conversation with your dietitian or healthcare provider to address your own, unique situation, the general answer is a resounding yes. But because there is still a gray area when it comes to how many eggs, a wise course of action is to limit the number of egg yolks that you eat to about three per week. Go ahead and enjoy egg whites, though, as they do not contain cholesterol.
Enjoy eggs the healthy way
Before you reach for the egg carton in the fridge, consider how you will prepare them as well as what you intend to eat with them. There are several ways to cook eggs that don’t involve using fat, such as:
· Baking (yes, you can bake eggs!)
· Microwaving (take them out of the shell first)
If your heart is set on fried or scrambled eggs, or an omelet, go ahead and use a small amount of butter or oil (skip the bacon or sausage grease). You can also use a vegetable oil spray, or cook your eggs in a non-stick pan and skip the fat altogether. Throw in some vegetables for a boost of nutrition. Add extra egg whites to “stretch” your eggs and add more protein. If cheese is a must, choose a hard, stronger-flavored cheese, such as a sharp cheddar or pecorino romano — a little of these cheeses grated into your eggs will go a long way.