No, eggs are not unhealthy ‘cholesterol bombs’

Eggs remain one of the world’s most controversial foods. They are constantly being debated in terms of nutrition. On one hand, they’re cheap, versatile, healthy, and high in protein. On the other, they’re filled with fat and cholesterol, which outweighs any benefits they have. So, what’s true? Can you eat eggs?

How eggs got a bad reputation

Eggs have been slandered in research and by the media for a long time. It started in 1968 when the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended that people eat no more than three eggs per week. This came as a shock for a lot of people because eggs were a breakfast staple at the time, as they still are now. Their reasoning was that it could raise cholesterol and thus heart disease risk.

In the following years, the egg industry unsurprisingly began to suffer. They saw a significant drop in per capita egg consumption. However, some scientists at the time began to wonder if this would actually make any significant difference in cardiovascular disease rates.

In 1977, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs recommended “Dietary Goals for the American People,” which further cemented the idea that people should eat fewer eggs because of the cholesterol they contain. Since then, studies have continued to come out about eggs, many of which contradict each other.

Fast forward to 2018, a review found that there was a lack of evidence to support the notion that cholesterol drove heart disease. Instead, scientists suspected that saturated and trans fats were the more likely culprits. This started to make nutritionists and researchers feel better about eggs and not deem them as unhealthy. After all, one egg contains just roughly 1.5 grams of saturated fat. Of course, another study in 2019 found that cholesterol and egg consumption did significantly increase heart disease risk.

Today, these flip-flops in food science still happen. However, overall evidence actually suggests that eating cholesterol hardly even affects blood cholesterol levels, which generally represents what your liver naturally produces in your body. As such, it’s important to understand that several things make nutrition research more difficult to execute well. Often, it’s based on the assumption that someone is eating the same way every day, especially for studies like the 2019 one, which followed over 29,000 people for an average of 17.5 years. Further, relying on people to accurately report what they eat is another barrier. These are just two factors that make studying long-term chronic disease risk difficult to do, especially if other dietary and lifestyle factors are not considered.

Sunny-side up eggs on toast for breakfast
Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

What is cholesterol?

There are two types of cholesterol: blood and dietary. Your body makes blood cholesterol, a waxy substance, naturally to help your body digest food and synthesize hormones. Dietary cholesterol is what you consume from animal foods like eggs, chicken, and beef, just to name a few.

Cholesterol synthesis and its utilization in the body remains a topic heavily debated in nutrition aside from just its relation to eggs. For some time, it was thought that animal foods and high LDL cholesterol levels were the main drivers of heart disease, but more research continues to show that it’s more nuanced than that. Here’s why:

  • For most people, the cholesterol they eat appears to only affect blood cholesterol slightly, if at all.
  • Stress (mental and physical) is a major factor in raising cholesterol via cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Cortisol can be consistently elevated in the setting of chronic stress.
    • An interesting example: Studies have shown that high cholesterol is a relatively common finding in people with anorexia. This is induced by cortisol as a result of the stress that the body is in response to an eating disorder where the body is in a critical state.
  • Focusing only on LDL cholesterol in cardiovascular disease has shown not to be that effective in the greater picture.
Cholesterol test -- results show high cholesterol
(© jarun011 – stock.adobe.com)

The verdict: Is it healthy to eat eggs?

As stated, for most people, research has evolved to show that it’s okay to eat a modest amount of eggs without worrying that your cholesterol will skyrocket.

Eggs contain cholesterol, but that does not automatically make them “cholesterol bombs.” Of course, eating an exorbitant amount of eggs and high-fat meats isn’t the best idea, as the saturated fat content will likely raise your levels. Eating a healthy and balanced diet consisting of high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to reduce cholesterol levels.

Eggs are packed full of nutrition. They contain vitamins A, D, E, K, and various B vitamins. They additionally contain:

  • Selenium
  • Molybdenum
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Heart-healthy fats
  • Protein

They even contain a nutrient called choline, which is used by the brain and nervous system to regulate memory, mood, muscle control, and more.

Who should be concerned about the cholesterol in food?

People with familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic condition that causes high cholesterol levels, should be aware of their cholesterol intake and keep it low. Additionally, people who are already struggling with high cholesterol should be aware of how much they are eating. If you have questions about your unique situation, be sure to ask your doctor or dietitian. Some studies have also noted that certain chemotherapy agents can impact lipid levels.

Bottom Line

Eggs are a hot topic in nutrition and probably will stay that way for years to come. In recent years, dietitians and physicians have started to shift their opinions about eggs to be more positive as more research continues to surface regarding their relationship to heart disease. While there are no definitive answers, there is sufficient evidence to support that for most people, eggs are perfectly fine to include in a well-balanced diet.

You might also be interested in: 

YouTube video