Eggs can’t catch a break. They’re scarce on store shelves. If you do manage to track some down, you may have to shell out considerable cash, as eggs reach record prices.
An avian flu outbreak in the United States killed millions of hens in 2022, eliminating a critical egg supply. And now, a frenetic flurry of misinformation is being volleyed between pro- and anti-egg camps on social media. To Joe Rogan, eggs cause blood clots. To some on Twitter sharing screenshots of the abstract of a scholarly paper, yolks can ward off COVID-19.
This is not the first egg war. For the last 60 years or so, scientists have sparred over whether eggs are bad for the heart, said Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Nutritionists have debated whether the high levels of cholesterol found in eggs outweigh the punch of protein they offer.
“They’ve been pooh-poohed for so long,” said Dr Selvi Rajagopal, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – alternately valorised and demonised. Claims floating around social media that eggs can cure COVID-19, or lead to blood clots, are “just unsubstantiated,” she said.
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Here’s what we do know about the benefits, and risks, of eggs.
HOW DID EGGS GET SUCH A BAD REP?
In the 1960s and 1970s, Dr Willett said, doctors raised concerns about whether foods high in cholesterol could elevate the amount of it in your blood. They suspected that high levels of certain lipoproteins, which ferry cholesterol throughout the body, could form plaque on the walls of your blood vessels. Since eggs are rich in cholesterol – a single egg yolk can contain around 200 milligrams – and high lipid levels have been linked to poor cardiovascular health, some targeted them as an easy dietary fix: Ditch the eggs Benedict, and protect your heart.
But over the past decade or so, Dr Rajagopal said, researchers have questioned whether eating cholesterol-rich foods actually raises your lipid levels. The existing evidence hasn’t established that the average person will definitively gain “bad” cholesterol, known as LDL-C, based on their diet.
Saturated fat is a far more pressing culprit in heart disease, said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health – and while eggs contain high amounts of cholesterol, “if you eat a cheese omelet today and you haven’t eaten one in a while, your arteries aren’t going to clog immediately,” she said. Eggs are also high in protein, making them an alternative to meat, which tends to be high in saturated fat.
In 1968, the American Heart Association recommended that Americans consume no more than three eggs per week; by 2015, though, that thinking had largely shifted. The current US dietary guidelines no longer use that weekly limit, and instead promote eggs as a “nutrient-dense” protein source.
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Eggs contain vitamins B, E and D, and they’re low in saturated fat. “You get high protein for low calories,” said Bethany Doerfler, a researcher and dietitian at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. They also contain nutrients that are beneficial for your eyes and bones, Heller said.
“There’s really more pros than cons,” said Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, adding that some eggs are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, depending on what hens have been fed.
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That doesn’t, however, make eggs an unimpeachable superfood. Consuming an excess of eggs still carries some risk of cardiovascular disease, Doerfler said. But eating them in moderation, like one full egg (including the yolk) per day, is safe for people who don’t have underlying cardiovascular issues, she said. (You can also “bank” your eggs, she added, skipping them for a few days and then having the occasional three-egg omelet.) If you’re concerned about cholesterol, you can also stick to egg whites – but the yolk is also where most of an egg’s vitamins lie, so the drawbacks of skipping the yolk might outweigh the benefits.
It’s important to examine your overall nutritional intake, rather than homing in on one component or another, Doerfler said. A breakfast that features an egg with toast and fresh fruit, for example, is far better for your heart health than a doughnut and sweetened coffee. “Eggs are getting a lot of the spotlight,” she said. “But they’re one small piece of a dietary pattern.”
And there isn’t substantial evidence that eggs protect against COVID-19, or any other disease, experts said. “We’re looking at reality and balance,” Heller said, “not fear-mongering and scaring people.”
By Dani Blum© The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.