The nutritional value of eggs has long been debated, but a new study brought the controversy back to the forefront of the nutrition world last week. The research, published in JAMA, sought to answer once and for all whether or not eggs are healthy, if we should be eating both the white and the yolk or not, and how much eggs do (or don't) raise cholesterol. Unfortunately, this study just sent health professionals and the public into a frenzy.
This massive study of nearly 30,000 individuals found that for every additional half an egg in one's daily diet, a participant's risk for cardiovascular disease and early death increased by 6 and 8 percent, respectively. While this is a shocking statistic, the study focused specifically on egg consumption and didn't consider other aspects of the participants' diets, their BMIs, exercise and sleep patterns, or whether or not they had a smoking habit—all of which are contributors to the risk of developing heart disease. We asked two nutrition experts, Katie Andrews M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N. and Abby Langer, R.D., to find out just what to make of this new information and whether or not eggs were still going to be on their breakfast tables or not.
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"Eggs are a fantastic example of portable, inexpensive nutrition," Andrews says. "The combination of protein from the white and fat from the yolk makes them the perfect on-the-go snack or start of a healthy meal."
Eggs are not only a good source of protein but also boast Vitamin B12, iron and zinc—all of which are nutrients that many of us don't get enough of. Andrews notes that pasture-raised eggs are great sources of some other hard-to-get nutrients like Vitamin D and omega-3 fats.
"There's really nothing unhealthy about eggs," Langer adds.
One large egg contains about 185 mg of cholesterol (over half the daily limit on dietary cholesterol once proposed by the USDA), which can be a cause for concern when it comes to heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., so we certainly have a reason for caution. However, just as the fat in our bodies is different from the fat we eat, the same goes for dietary and blood cholesterol.
Cholesterol we get from the food we eat doesn't affect the average person's blood cholesterol levels. The cholesterol naturally produced in our livers is what drives our blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels are often genetic and are caused by our livers overproducing cholesterol in the body.
"I often say I wish they weren't both called cholesterol," Andrews adds. "We need cholesterol to help us digest food and for the production of hormones and vitamin D."
Dietary cholesterol is considered extra, since our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need, but we don't directly absorb it all. Along with genetics, the consumption of too many trans and saturated fats from highly processed foods and animal products impacts blood cholesterol much more than dietary cholesterol.
"It's important to distinguish between the foods that are high in both cholesterol and saturated or trans fats versus those that are not," Andrews says. "A 3-ounce serving of shrimp, for instance, contains over 160 mg of cholesterol but practically no saturated or trans fat, so the impact of its dietary cholesterol is minimal."
However, Andrews notes, that many of the foods containing cholesterol out there are also high in saturated fats, such as bacon, sausage, fatty red meats, fried foods, pastries and desserts like ice cream.
Langer said that while people are much more open to the idea of saturated fat as part of a healthy diet, it isn't exactly harmless and affects different people in different ways. This means that consuming your morning eggs over bacon is not necessarily a heart-healthy option if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, but eggs served with avocado or smoked salmon can be.
Andrews advised taking a look at the experts in the equation. When it comes to the field of food and nutrition, a registered dietitian opinion should take precedence over a food blogger, wellness influencer, nutritionist without R.D. credentials and even some medical doctors.
"The key is to not depend on one food to be either a savior or an enemy," Langer concludes. "No food is going to save your health, which is why I don't believe in 'superfoods'. By the same token, if you eat moderately and you eat a varied diet, no food should be off-limits."
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