Sure, they contain protein. But do egg whites really deserve the health halo they've been given?

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In the nutrition world, it seems as if there are stories and questions that never go away. One of the longest-standing quandaries—is it OK to eat whole eggs or should I toss the yolks and just eat the whites? I'll admit, I felt guilty of falling into this trap myself.

It started in high school, when my brother and I would read in fitness magazines that egg whites were a great source of protein. We convinced my dad to buy dozens of eggs each time he went to the store to feed our desire. One time he was checking out of a big-box store with so many eggs, a clerk was sure he was a baker and asked where he worked, because clearly there was no other need for so many eggs.

His response: "Not a baker. But I have teenage sons." Point was taken.

It continued when I went away to college, I would go into the cafeteria and order nine egg whites every single morning to get as much protein as I could, but without the fat that is packaged with the yolk. But as the saying goes, that's like throwing the baby out with the bath water. There's much more to egg yolks than just their fat content. A whole lot more (read more on the health benefits of egg yolks here).

But let's focus on the egg white nutrition facts for a minute. Exactly how healthy are egg whites? And do they really deserve the health halo they've been given?

hands separating an egg on a designed background
Credit: Getty Images / Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography

Egg White Nutrition

Here's the nutrition facts for one egg white:

  • 17 calories
  • 4 grams protein
  • 0 grams fat
  • 0 grams saturated fat
  • 0 grams carbohydrates
  • 0 grams fiber
  • 55 mg sodium

Egg White Benefits

They deliver on protein

The truth is, egg whites don't offer much more than just protein. The protein in an egg white clocks in at 4 grams per egg, which is not nothing! It's recommended we get approximately 50 grams of protein per day, so when you start your day with an egg white omelet made with two or more eggs, you're getting a nice amount of protein to help you feel satisfied until your next snack or meal.

They're low in calories

When it comes to an egg white, its calories clock in at just 17—so very low. If you're watching your calorie intake, egg whites are a nice way to get satisfying protein, while keeping calories in check. That being said, you don't want to eat too few calories—contrary to what the fad-diet world tells us, eating too few calories is one of the main reasons why people have trouble losing weight (read more on that here). So be sure to pair your omelet with plenty of nutrient-rich veggies, plus a healthy fat, like avocado or some cheese.

Don't forget about the rest of the egg

Apart from the protein, there's not that much going on with egg whites. The yolks, on the other hand, are truly nutrient powerhouses. Eggs have sadly been demonized because of the dietary cholesterol they contain. "Dietary cholesterol has a relatively small effect on serum (blood) cholesterol, compared to saturated fat," says Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., who's chief physician at Renaissance Periodization and certified by the American Board of Clinical Lipidology.

Many studies support this notion, like one published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition that found that people eating about one egg daily had a 12% reduced risk of stroke compared to those who ate less. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined more than 170,000 subjects and found that egg intake (about one egg per day) was not associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Egg yolks do contain several helpful nutrients, such as vitamin D and iron. Added to all this goodness, "There are some lesser-known and very important compounds such as choline, which has been linked to a reduction in birth defects during pregnancy and improved brain health with age, and lutein, which is needed to maintain vision. Lutein is what provides the yolk with its golden hue," says Liz Ward, M.S., RD.

Besides the evidence that the cholesterol in the yolk is not a health threat for healthy people, there is relatively little saturated fat in the yolk and, as I mentioned, there's a ton of quality nutrition at an incredible affordable price.

And if that all was enough evidence, this is all supported by the recent American Heart Association Nutrition Committee statement published in late 2019, which concluded, "The elimination of specific dietary cholesterol target recommendations in recent guidelines has raised questions about its role with respect to cardiovascular disease."

Specifically, regarding eggs, the advisory concluded:

  • Healthy individuals can include up to a whole egg daily in heart-healthy dietary patterns.
  • For older healthy individuals, given the nutritional benefits and convenience of eggs, consumption of up to two eggs per day is acceptable within the context of a heart-healthy dietary pattern.
  • Vegetarians who do not consume meat-based cholesterol-containing foods may include more eggs in their diets within the context of moderation.

Bottom Line

If you simply prefer the taste of egg whites, there's no harm in enjoying them. But while egg whites are healthy, you're much better off eating the whole egg, as the yolks are where the nutrition benefits come into play. Plus, gram for gram, whole eggs are also one of the most affordable and highest-quality sources of protein available.

Disclosure: Chris Mohr, Ph.D., RD, is a partner with the American Egg Board's Egg Nutrition Center.