Is it ever a good idea to eat high cholesterol foods? What about foods that are “otherwise” healthy, like eggs? Regardless of the high amount of cholesterol in eggs, research supports arguments both for and against eggs in the diet. In part 1 of this article, we looked at the other side of the argument, including some research supporting the possible detrimental effects of the cholesterol in eggs and other high cholesterol foods. Here, we look at research supporting the benefits of eggs in the diet.
Based on the high cholesterol in eggs, the American Heart Association (AHA) started to advocate avoiding them in the early 1970’s. However, the AHA’s more recent guidelines no longer advise against eating cholesterol in eggs, admitting that there is a lack of scientific evidence indicating how much cholesterol one should or should not consume. In fact, there is surprisingly little evidence that egg consumption and the cholesterol in eggs increases blood cholesterol levels, thereby increasing you risk for heart disease. Nevertheless, the U.S. dietary guidelines continue to recommend that healthy adults consume no more than 300 mg a day and that people with high cholesterol or heart disease take in no more than 200 mg per day, which necessitates the avoidance of cholesterol in eggs and other high cholesterol foods.
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Cholesterol in Eggs – Research Shows It Does Not Increase Your Chance of Heart Disease
There is no denying the fact that the amount of cholesterol in eggs is high compared to most other foods: one chicken egg has about 212 mg of cholesterol, which is about 70% of the 300 mg recommended for healthy adults. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that cholesterol in eggs increases your blood levels of total cholesterol, or, more importantly, of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Even more importantly, the high cholesterol in eggs doesn’t mean they increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Not all high cholesterol foods are the same. According to researchers from Yale University in a 2010 paper published in the peer reviewed Nutrition Journal, “It is a common misconception that dietary cholesterol increases serum cholesterol which increases CHD [coronary heart disease] risk; however, research has failed to provide substantial evidence of this assumed relationship.” This seems particularly true for eggs versus other high cholesterol foods.
These investigators from the Yale Griffin Preventive Research Center have performed a number of studies showing daily ingestion of cholesterol in eggs does not negatively affect one’s cholesterol profile or risk for heart disease.[1,2] Their research supports the data from several other recent studies, one on which we reported here, that have found no evidence that eggs significantly raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). In their first study, the Yale researchers gave 49 healthy adults two eggs a day for 6 weeks and found this had no effect on total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, or triglycerides. Furthermore, the effects of egg ingestion had no negative effects on what is known as endothelial function (the ability of the arteries to relax and dilate), which is considered a reliable way to assess of cardiovascular risk.
In their second study, the Yale researchers examined the effect of daily egg consumption on 40 adults with high cholesterol instead of those with normal cholesterol. Once again, they found that the cholesterol in eggs from consuming two eggs a day for six weeks was not detrimental their cholesterol levels or endothelial function.
Eating Eggs May Actually Improve Your Cholesterol Ratios
Not only have studies shown that the cholesterol in eggs does not significantly affect cholesterol levels in most individuals, but the latest research suggests that eating eggs, unlike some other high cholesterol foods, may actually result in significant improvement in one’s cholesterol profile. For example, in an area of northern Mexico in which heart disease is common because of high consumption of saturated fat and hydrogenated oils, researchers evaluated the effects of daily consumption of eggs on the ratio of LDL (bad) cholesterol to HDL (good) cholesterol, which is known to be a more reliable marker of heart disease risk than looking at total, LDL, or HDL cholesterol levels individually. A month of eating 2 eggs daily, not only did not worsen the participant’s ratio of LDL:HDL, which remained the same, but the size of their LDL cholesterol increased—a very beneficial change since larger LDL is much less atherogenic (likely to promote atherosclerosis) than the smaller LDL types. Among participants who originally had the high-risk type of LDL, 15% shifted to the low-risk LDL type after just one month of eating whole eggs.
Another randomized study recently published in the journal Metabolism also found improvements in cholesterol profiles when cholesterol in eggs is part of a lower-carb diet. Subject with metabolic syndrome (a precursor to diabetes) consumed either 3 whole eggs per day or the equivalent amount of yolk-free egg substitute as part of a moderately carbohydrate-restricted diet, in which carbs were limited to 25%-30% of total calories, for 12 weeks. The cholesterol profiles improved for all individuals, but those eating three whole eggs a day experienced greater improvements than those eating the egg substitute. Subjects in both groups had significant reductions in triglycerides, small and medium LDL particles (the most dangerous types of LDL), oxidized LDL, and other atherogenic lipids. Meanwhile, they all had significant increases in the more protective lipids: HDL-cholesterol, large LDL and large HDL particles. Those consuming the whole eggs, however, had greater increases in HDL-cholesterol and large HDL particles, and reductions in total and medium VLDL particles, indicating a reduced risk of atherosclerosis. Those consuming the cholesterol in eggs, but not those eating the egg substitute, also had significant improvements in their blood sugar metabolism as evidenced by decreased insulin levels less insulin resistance.
Diabetics Can Also Benefit From Eating Eggs
Compared to other high cholesterol foods, studies indicate eggs may benefit people with diabetes or metabolic syndrome following a low-carb/high-protein diet. At least in the short-term, including eggs in this type of diet appears beneficial rather than detrimental in terms of cholesterol, weight, and blood sugar control. One study examined the effects of a low-calorie, high-protein diet with or without eggs in 65 type 2 diabetics or pre-diabetics. Participants were randomized to either a low-calorie, high-protein, high-cholesterol diet containing two eggs per day, or a similar low-calorie, high-protein, low-cholesterol diet in which the eggs were replaced with 100 grams of lean animal protein. After 12 weeks, total cholesterol and apolipoprotein b were significantly reduced and LDL cholesterol was unchanged in all subjects from both groups. All participants also lost a similar amount of weight and experienced similar improvements in blood sugar and insulin levels and blood pressure. Only in the egg group, however, did HDL cholesterol, lutein, and folate increase. The study authors concluded that a high-protein, calorie-restricted diet containing a high amount of cholesterol in eggs rather than other high cholesterol foods improved blood sugar and lipid profiles and blood pressure in individuals with type 2 diabetes.
So in Spite of the High Cholesterol in Eggs, This Delicious Food Source Has Many Exceptional Qualities
Putting the cholesterol in eggs issue aside now, let’s look at why eggs have the potential to greatly improve the overall quality of your diet. They are inexpensive, versatile, and contain an exceptional nutritional profile. For example:
- Eggs are an excellent natural source of folate, riboflavin, selenium, choline, vitamin B12, and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Eggs are also exceptionally rich in especially well-absorbed forms of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
- By choosing organic omega-3-rich eggs you will be benefiting from an exceptional source not only of lutein and xeaxanthin, but anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids as well.
- Eggs provide low-cost, high-quality, bioavailable protein with little total fat. One egg provides 6.3 grams of protein (13 percent of the daily value for protein) for a caloric cost of only 68 calories.
- Compared to many other animal protein sources which are also high cholesterol foods, eggs contain proportionately less saturated fat.
The research presented here indicates just some of the many benefits of eggs and shows that for most people, an egg or two a day is a healthy way to get protein and nutrients and is not detrimental to cholesterol levels. In fact, there are many other (and more important) determinants of high cholesterol and heart disease risk than cholesterol in eggs. To find out how to naturally reduce your cholesterol using evidence-based treatments that go way beyond the avoidance of high cholesterol foods, check out our comprehensive guide, Natural Cholesterol Control: Achieve Healthy Cholesterol Levels Without Drugs.
This post originally appeared in 2013 and has been updated.