On the Menu: Eggs-ellent and versatile powerhouses
A standalone source of protein, eggs offer a light meal option that is both nutritious and inexpensive
Cold salmon frittata. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Baked eggs with spinach and tomato. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
As I was growing up, eggs made a regular appearance at tea time. They were scrambled, boiled, poached or fried. A standalone source of protein, sometimes accompanied by a few baked beans, this light meal option was versatile, nutritious and inexpensive.
Over the years, our tastes broadened and their image changed. To minimise the elevation of blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association recommended that the public consume less than 300mg/day of cholesterol.
Since eggs are a major source of dietary cholesterol, with one large egg containing almost 210mg of cholesterol, worried consumers looked for alternative protein sources.
But cholesterol can be good and bad. It isn’t just found in your arteries but also in cell membranes and in the material that sheathes nerves. It plays an integral role in the production of hormones, such as oestrogen. It is a component of bile acids and fat digestion. Your liver and other tissue cells make about 75 per cent of blood cholesterol. The other 25 per cent comes from the foods you eat.
Genetics plays a role in your cholesterol levels. It seems that cholesterol in food such as eggs and shellfish contributes substantially to total and bad LDL cholesterol levels in only 15-30 per cent of the population. These are hyper-responders. However, the remaining 70-85 per cent of the population is unaffected by cholesterol in foods.
One of the largest egg studies, conducted by Hu et al (1999) and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined data from the health professionals’ follow-up study and the nurses’ health study. It reviewed dietary questionnaires from 37,851 men and 80,082 women.
They concluded that consumption of up to one egg a day is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) or stroke among healthy men and women. The increased risk of CHD associated with higher egg consumption among participants with diabetes warrants further research. This has most recently been confirmed by a meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal, January 2013.
One reason for the lack of association between the egg and risk of CHD is that the egg is a good source of many nutrients, some of which might counterbalance the risk of heart disease.
From current research we know that saturated fat in the diet and not cholesterol in foods has the most influence on blood cholesterol levels. In light of these and other similar findings, several countries decided to drop their limitations on dietary cholesterol and focus solely on saturated fat.
Although eggs do contain some saturated fat, about two-thirds of the fat found in an egg is either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
If you’re eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, eggs are not the problem; it’s the umpteen other sources of saturated fat that are. Take the Japanese, for example: they are among the biggest egg consumers in the world, yet have the lowest rates of CHD.
Their overall diet is lower in saturated fat and higher in polyunsaturates.
With all the attention eggs get, you might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing they contain is cholesterol. But eggs are good complete proteins, with a myriad of vitamins and minerals. One egg has 7g of protein. High-protein foods are good choices for athletes and for older adults especially, as ageing tends to reduce lean body mass.