Since ancient times, eggs have been an integral part of the human diet and an enduring symbol of fertility and rebirth. Across cultures — from Egypt to China to Persia — the tradition of painting eggs as an expression of celebration is a testament to eggs’ status as icons of good fortune. In the past several decades, however, eggs’ angelic reputation has been dragged through the mud, so to speak, by Western science. Eggs have been singled out as devilish bearers of cholesterol and salmonella. When researchers made the link between cholesterol and heart disease in the 1960s, many demonized egg consumption as a sure-fire risk factor for heart attack.
But new research suggests that eggs may be able to reclaim their halo of goodness once again. A growing body of evidence now shows that eggs can impart essential benefits for the brain, the eyes, and, yes, even the heart, without any clinically significant impact on cholesterol.
Although egg yolks do contain cholesterol, researchers now believe that levels of saturated fat in the diet — not dietary cholesterol — have the greatest impact on blood cholesterol levels, which are thought to predict heart disease risk. Additionally, little of the cholesterol found in eggs is actually absorbed in the intestine, making its impact on blood cholesterol negligible. A Harvard University study found that people who consumed one or more eggs a day were at no more risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease than non-egg eaters. A subsequent analysis done at Michigan State University revealed that cholesterol among people who ate four or more eggs per week was actually lower than among people who avoided eggs altogether. In light of this evidence, the American Heart Association has since revised its earlier four-eggs-per-week restriction.
Beneficial to the Body
Liberated from their cholesterol burden, eggs have a host of nutrients that impart unique health advantages. They are an excellent source of the B vitamin choline, which is essential for healthy brain function and communication between nerves and muscles. Since more than 90% of Americans are choline-deficient, cutting eggs out of one’s diet can be detrimental. This is especially true for pregnant women, since choline is necessary for brain and memory development in the fetus. Furthermore, choline can help neutralize homocysteine, a molecule that can damage blood vessels, thereby protecting cardiovascular health.
Eggs have also proven to be excellent sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, the carotenoids responsible for healthy eyes. A diet rich in these substances guards against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness. The lutein found in eggs is absorbed even better than the lutein in spinach, thought to be the top source of this nutrient, likely due to fats found in the egg yolk.
The high-protein packages may also be cancer fighters. In one study, women who consumed at least six eggs per week lowered their risk of breast cancer by 44%. Additionally, findings from a Harvard longitudinal study suggest that teenage girls who eat an egg a day may reduce their risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The unique combination of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals in eggs — including vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, iodine, and phosphorus — may account for this effect.
Shed the Pounds
Maintaining a healthy weight is key for overall well being, and eggs help in this arena, too. In a study of overweight or obese men and women, those who ate a breakfast including two eggs lost twice as much weight as those who consumed a bagel breakfast. Low in calories but high in protein, eggs promote a feeling of satiety, leading individuals to consume fewer calories overall in a 24-hour period.
Today we know eggs aren’t all that cholesterol researchers cracked them up to be. Far from being dangerous sources of artery-clogging cholesterol, eggs have redeemed themselves as perhaps nature’s most perfect pre-packaged food. In that way, they’re true symbols of rebirth.