Eggs: Dietary Friend or Foe?

Nutritionists are taking a fresh look at the health benefits of eggs.

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

How could anyone hate an egg? Yet, 20 years ago, the dietary naysayers decided that the cholesterol in eggs was translating to artery-clogging cholesterol in the blood -- and eggs splattered onto the no-no list.

Finally, some scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at a population of 117,000 nurses who had been followed for eight to 14 years and found no difference in heart disease risk between those who ate one egg a week and those who ate more than one egg a day.

Another study reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that eggs tended to satisfy obese and overweight subjects more than a bagel breakfast with an equal calorie count. Eggs might even be a good diet food!

Nutritionists Weigh In

"I am very happy with eggs," Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health, tells WebMD. "Eggs have a high nutritional value, an excellent quality of protein, are only 70 to 80 calories each, and are not high in fat."

Patricia Kendall, PhD, RD, professor and food and nutrition specialist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, tells WebMD she agrees that the cholesterol in eggs should not put them on the roster of the forbidden.

On the Food Guide Pyramid put out by the government, eggs are part of the protein-rich food group of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Two to three servings from this group are recommended each day. One egg would be equal to one-third to one-half of a serving from this group.

The American Heart Association says that one egg a day is acceptable, but to keep in mind the cholesterol in that egg along with the other foods that you eat in the day. Those with heart disease, diabetes, or a high level of LDL 'bad' cholesterol should probably choose a small or medium egg vs. larger ones which have more cholesterol. Remember that egg whites have no cholesterol.

A large egg represents less than 4% of the daily calorie intake of a person eating 2,000 calories a day; it provides 10% of a person's daily recommended protein, and valuable iron, B vitamins, and minerals, including the folate recommended for pregnant women.

Egg Safety

People who eat eggs have been shown to have better diets, perhaps -- scientists speculate -- because they tend to eat breakfast, especially eggy ones. "Eggs have both fat and protein," Kendall adds. "These increase a sense of fullness."

Of course, questions have also been raised about food-borne illnesses involving eggs. One out of 20,000 eggs may be contaminated with salmonella, bacteria that can cause extreme intestinal distress. The secret to avoiding this is to cook eggs thoroughly, Kendall says. Eggs should also be stored appropriately in the refrigerator and promptly eaten after cooking.

"It's better not to have the yolk runny," Kava agrees. "The extreme elderly and immunosuppressed should be extra careful or not eat eggs."

Kendall says you can even get eggs that are pasteurized to kill bacteria inside the shells. To avoid hard cooking, the heat levels are kept low, but are still effective.

Benefits of Eggs

Pluses outweigh minuses:

  • Eggs are easy to prepare in a number of different ways. They even make recipes work by thickening things.

  • They have a long refrigerator shelf life.

  • They are relatively cheap.

  • They are delicious!

Egg Varieties

"An egg is no longer just an egg," Kendall says.

Go to any upscale food store or even the local supermarket and you have choices, and not just the sizes.

  • "You have your cage-free, free-range, or free-roaming," Kendall notes. This refers to the way the chickens (yes, they come first) are raised. "People got the idea that letting chickens wander around and eat the occasional bug was more humane, and because the birds were exposed to less ammonia, made the eggs taste better." Gourmets, in fact, rhapsodize over the depth of flavor of free-range eggs. On one web site, an egg lover remarked: "My neighbor's chickens are feasting on grasshoppers and I always look forward to the eggs he brings. They are huge with bright golden yolks that stand high above thick whites."

  • Lower-cholesterol eggs are produced, Kendall says, by feeding the chickens a vegetarian diet and oils such as canola oil. "A large egg can have 300 milligrams of cholesterol," she notes, "and this sort of feeding can bring that down to 200 milligrams."