For decades we were told that eggs were somehow a mistake of nature that we should avoid, in particular the yolk in the middle, which is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, raising our risk for heart disease. While high cholesterol has been shown to increase risk for heart disease, we now know that the cholesterol in eggs has very little impact.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one large egg has 186 mg of cholesterol and about 5 grams of fat, 1.6 of which is saturated fat. This information alone can steer you away; however, the egg also has many health benefits: a good source of protein (6.5g); 11 vitamins and minerals; the disease-fighting carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin; and, omega-3 fatty acids (1).
The egg white has been considered an innocent bystander in the health debate since it includes about 60% of the protein in an egg, without all the fat and cholesterol. Surprisingly, the ‘villainous’ egg yolk is actually the most nutrient dense part of the egg, which makes sense since it is the primary food source for a developing chick, if the egg was actually fertilized.
So now the research has finally shown that humans prior to 1960 were not mistaken by including whole eggs in their diets. The cholesterol we eat in our diet has very little impact on the cholesterol level in our blood and we now understand the important role that cholesterol has in cell membrane health: insulates nerve cells, manufactures vitamin D, and produces sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone) and cortisol (2). The saturated fats in our diet have been shown to cause a mild increase in cholesterol levels; however, the increase seems to be in the good HDL-cholesterol and in the larger-size (benign) LDL-cholesterol particles (3), which can ultimately lower your risk for heart disease.
Now, if you choose to eat eggs, it is important to consider the health of the chicken that your egg comes from. Not only for animal welfare concerns, but from a health benefit perspective. Chickens are by nature omnivores that eat grasses, seeds, grains, worms, grubs and insects while roaming outside. The conditions that 99% of our laying hens in this country are raised in, is far from this original design. Since most of us don’t have the ability or desire to raise our own laying hens, we have to choose from the mind-boggling array of egg cartons labeled cage-free, free-range, vegetarian-fed, organic, omega-3 enriched, or pasture-raised on our grocery store shelves. What does it all mean?
Cage-free and free-range imply that the hens spend at least some of their time outdoors, however, it typically means that, while they are not confined to cages, they spend their lives in large barns packed in with hundreds of other hens. The ‘organic’ label ensures no GM products, glyphosate or synthetic fertilizers were used in the feed. The ‘omega-3 enriched’ label means a vegetarian source of omega-3, such as flax seed, was added to the diet, although the omega-3 content from a hen allowed to eat their natural diet is usually higher. While the ‘pasture-raised’ label is not regulated to define the amount of outdoor time hens are allowed, it does mean they at least saw the light of day and had the chance to be an omnivore, which has been shown to increase the level of omega-3s as well as vitamins A, D, and E in these eggs (4). While the color of the egg shell (i.e. white, brown, green) has no impact on the nutrient content, you will generally find the higher quality eggs have a thicker shell, firmer egg white and darker yellow yolk, and many people claim they taste better.
In general, free-range organic or organic pasture-raised eggs are more expensive, but mean greater peace of mind when it comes to the treatment of the hens and the quality of the eggs you are eating. If you can’t afford either of these options, then go for the cheapest eggs since none of the other classifications have a significant impact on the health of the hen or the egg. Eggs have always been, and still are, a nutrient dense, whole food that can be included in a healthy diet.
About the Author:
Jennifer received her Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Gerontology Certificate from the University of Georgia and her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Hayward. She is an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Certified Health Fitness Specialist. Besides working for BaySport, Jennifer has worked as an exercise physiologist at Duke University’s Center for Living, and was a graduate assistant in the Cardiac Rehab and Adult Fitness program at the University of Georgia. In her 15+ years with BaySport, Jennifer has been providing wellness programming and counseling, fitness center management, personal training, group exercise class instruction, health screenings, and fitness testing. In her free time she enjoys playing almost any sport and enjoying the great outdoors.