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[NUTRITION ADVISER]

How Do Eggs Pan Out?

Nancy Clark, MS, RD

THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE - VOL 26 - NO. 7 - JULY 98


Once upon a time, eggs were considered a "breakfast of champions." Just about every active, hard-working person enjoyed them fried, scrambled, poached, or even raw in eggnog and protein drinks. Then, Americans became cholesterol-conscious and began to substitute bagels, cereal, and other high-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol breakfast foods.

Today, active people may welcome the news that eggs have less cholesterol than originally thought (210 milligrams, not 275), that dietary cholesterol may be of less importance than thought earlier in heart disease, and that eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein that's low in saturated fat. Although eggs are being revisited, you may still question their role in your food plan. Any way you look at it, 210 milligrams of cholesterol is still the better part of the 300-milligram daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).

Heart Health

When high blood cholesterol was first linked to heart disease, we were urged to cut back on cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs and other animal foods. But saturated fat likely plays a larger role than cholesterol in heart disease. Thus, eggs themselves may be less of a concern than saturated fat in the grease in which they were fried, and in the accompanying bacon, buttered toast, and greasy hash browns (table 1: not shown).

In addition, not everyone's blood cholesterol levels respond to changes in dietary cholesterol. According to a study by H. Gylling and others published in 1997, about 85% of us are "nonresponders" whose blood cholesterol will stay the same even if we reduce our intake of eggs and other cholesterol-rich foods. This inherited trait underscores the importance of identifying people with high cholesterol levels who are responders so they can modify their diets.

Egg advocates can point out research that suggests there is no relationship between egg consumption and heart disease. Japan, for example, has the highest per-capita egg consumption, at 6.3 eggs per person per week, and the lowest rate of heart disease.

But egg opponents can refer to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that suggests that reducing dietary cholesterol can result in slightly lower blood cholesterol. For some people who are at high risk of heart disease, this means that trading a daily two-egg breakfast for cereal could result in a 9-milligram drop in blood cholesterol.

All of this conflicting research calls for individualized dietary recommendations. A one-diet-fits-all approach clearly does not work when it comes to heart health.

Yolk Remedies

If you have high cholesterol and your doctor recommends you reduce your dietary cholesterol, you can enjoy egg alternatives. For example, the egg industry offers cholesterol-free egg substitutes such as Egg Beaters, which are primarily egg whites with vegetable oil, coloring, and flavoring added to simulate the yolk. In addition, egg industry researchers have learned that when hens are fed flaxseed, a source of the omega-3 fatty acids also found in fish, this beneficial fat shows up in the yolks. One of these eggs may have as much omega-3 as a 4-ounce serving of tuna.

To use fewer cholesterol-rich egg yolks, you can use an egg alternative, or two egg whites in place of one whole egg. Or, if a recipe calls for two eggs, you could substitute one whole egg and two egg whites.

Nutrient Density

The properties that make eggs life-sustaining for little chicks also make them a nutrient-dense food for humans. A whole egg is not only a good source of 6 grams of the high- quality protein that helps to build muscles, but the yolk is also rich in iron, zinc, B vitamins including folic acid, and vitamins D and E. The egg white is almost pure protein, with water. Many protein powders include egg protein (albumin) because it contains all the essential amino acids needed to build new proteins.

Note that while egg whites contain complete protein, one egg white offers only about 3 grams of protein, in contrast to 26 grams in a 4-ounce serving of tuna or 30 in a cooked 4-ounce chicken breast. Hence, two scrambled egg whites or an egg-white omelet adds relatively little protein to the day's intake.

If you're wondering if you need eggs for protein, be aware that most active people can get plenty of protein without eating eggs. But since many active people eat too little fiber and fruit, swapping or alternating eggs with fruit-topped bran cereal at breakfast is a healthful move.

How Many to Eat?

In the egg debate, most medical professionals still take a conservative stand. The AHA, for example, continues to recommend limiting eggs to four yolks per week (or one yolk per week if your blood cholesterol levels are high) including those used in cooking. Egg whites can be used freely.

You might want to personalize that recommendation. If your family history includes long, active lives and if your blood cholesterol is low, you can likely eat a few more yolks per week. Poached eggs on toast or a vegetable-filled omelet are nutrient-dense, healthy breakfast choices and can be balanced with fruit or juice for fiber and vitamin C. But if your family is riddled with heart disease and early heart-attack deaths, you might want to remain cautious about your cholesterol intake. Bran cereal with low-fat milk and a banana might be the better breakfast bet.


Handle With Care

Poultry is a major carrier of salmonella bacteria. These bacteria, which reside in the hens' intestines, can be passed along in eggs. They are commonly found in eggs with cracked shells, so avoid using eggs that have cracks. But beware—salmonella has also been found in whole eggs. Cooking destroys these bacteria, but be sure to cook eggs until the white is set and the yolk is firm. You should also avoid eating raw cookie dough or using raw eggs in protein drinks. (Milk powder gives a similar protein boost.) Wash your hands well after handling eggs.


Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.


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