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home : features : health May 22, 2015

Health Watch: Do I Dare To Eat an Egg?

Three decades ago, my uncle was eating a poached egg on toast every morning for breakfast. He was healthy and had a very good cholesterol profile.

But that was an era that stressed low fat and low cholesterol, and one egg yolk contains 185 milligrams of cholesterol, roughly two thirds of the daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. As a preventive measure, my uncle decided to delete the daily egg from his diet except as a treat on weekends.

Today, my uncle is still healthy and has a cholesterol profile very similar to the one he had in 1984. And he wonders: did I have to deny myself a daily egg for all these years? The answer is probably no.

The Nurses' Health Study, with data on 117,000 subjects followed for 8 to 14 years, found that those eating one egg a week had about the same heart disease risk as those eating one egg a day. And a 2013 meta-analysis of 17 studies found no association between egg consumption and the risk of heart attack, stroke or death in otherwise healthy individuals. Eggs are good for you--one of the most nutritious foods around, in fact.

PROTEINS: Eggs are one of the best sources of high-quality protein--7 grams in each egg. Proteins are used to build and repair muscle, skin, hair, organs and other tissues. Of the 21 amino acids used by the body to build proteins, 9 are known as "essential" because they can be obtained only from diet. Eggs have all 9 of these essential amino acids.

MULTIVITAMINS: Some nutritionists have compared the egg to a multivitamin because it contains small amounts of virtually every vitamin and mineral needed by the human body--calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, manganese, vitamin E and folate. In addition, it contains significant amounts of vitamin B12 (9 percent of recommended daily allowance); vitamin B2 (15 percent); vitamin A (6 percent); vitamin B5 (7 percent), and selenium (22 percent).

CHOLINE: Egg yolks, along with beef liver, are the two principal sources of choline, a nutrient that is essential for the health of the brain and the cardiovascular system. Low choline intake can result in inflammation, liver disease and, in pregnant women, a risk of birth defects.

According to one study, 90 percent of Americans had some degree of choline deficiency.

LUTEIN, ZEAXANTHIN: Among other nutrients found in egg yolks are lutein and zeaxanthin, which have important protective benefits for the eyes, reducing the risk of both macular degeneration and cataracts.

Lutein also protects against the early progression of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

And eggs may be beneficial to heart health in other ways, as well. They tend to raise HDL (the good cholesterol) and increase the size of LDL particles, making them less likely to pose a heart risk.

The high cholesterol content of eggs is generally not considered as important as once believed. Saturated and trans fats are much more important factors in raising serum cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

THE OTHER SIDE: There are, however, individuals who need to limit their egg consumption--most notably diabetics and persons with familial, or genetically determined, high cholesterol.

In addition, some doctors believe that persons with heart disease should limit their egg consumption and that even healthy persons should eat no more than one egg a day, including the amounts found in breads and baked goods.

The Physicians' Health Study concluded that the consumption of up to six eggs a week "has no major effect on the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and mortality." But subjects consuming seven or more eggs a week had a slightly greater risk of overall mortality, and this association was stronger among diabetic subjects. People with diabetes eating the most eggs had a 1.5 times higher risk than people with diabetes eating the fewest eggs.

Most eggs on the market are produced in a factory environment with thousands of hens crammed into a small space and fed a grain-based diet. In such an environment, sanitation is an issue. Alternatives may be labeled "organic," "cage free" or "pastured." Because of the diet and living conditions of the laying hens, these alternatives are believed by some to be tastier and more nutritious.

Except for the Egg Board, no one is suggesting that you start making eggs a major part of your diet. If you like them, though, and you're not a diabetic, it's probably not necessary to deny yourself a simple pleasure.

This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your health care provider.

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