Life is fast-paced, harried, even stressful, for many Americans. Many two parent families are working parents, and time is always short. Employed people in the US spend more time on the job than in any other developed country. The financial pressures for many are excessive. The stresses based around time and money has led to critical changes in the American diet, most of these being harmful. The most obvious culprits are fast food and processed food. Still, it is safe to say, the American diet has undergone dramatic changes.
It’s common knowledge, evident in most every publication, one’s dietary consumption is of critical importance to health. Beyond that, many are confused by the disparate claims and recommendations, the widely varying opinions, on the topic of what is a healthy diet. This includes controversy over the benefits or drawbacks of one of the world’s favorite foods: the incredible, edible egg.
We can only guess at the amazement of the first human to cook an egg. Think of all the things an egg is used for! The list is extensive, including making omelets, cakes, and so many other baked goods. Plus, they can be cooked in so many different ways, from poaching to scrambled, hard-boiled to easy-over. Eggs also acts as a thickener for many dishes. Any good baker will mention their use as a glaze, or even a raising agent. The possibilities are almost endless.
Americans are eating more eggs than ever before, in numbers not seen in more than 50 years, about 279 eggs per year per person. This averages out to about 95 million dozen eggs nationwide. And why not? They are a readily available, inexpensive food, packed with nutrients. But the US is outdone by Japan when it comes to egg consumption. The Japanese eat more eggs than anywhere else in the world, followed by Paraguay and China.
What of the concerns of eating eggs? One egg yolk contains around 185 milligrams of cholesterol, which is more than half of the 300mg daily amount of cholesterol that the US dietary guidelines recommended — until recently. But guidelines on cholesterol consumption have been turned upside down in recent years, with the best and most recent studies showing clearly, we need cholesterol. This substance, produced in our liver when insufficient quantities are ingested, can be found in every cell in our body. People tend to think of cholesterol as bad but it is a crucial building block of our cell membranes. It also is needed to make several important vitamins and hormones.
For several decades, the consumption of eggs was controversial due to their high cholesterol content. Some studies had linked them to an increased risk of heart disease. Does that mean eggs, rather than being an ideal food, might actually be doing us harm? But the tide has changed on this, and most nutritionists point to all the positive health benefits we do know of.
The recommendation to significantly limit your egg intake was mostly responsible for a drop in the number of eggs consumed at that time. The proclamation was centered around the concern egg consumption places one at higher risk of cardio-vascular disease. But recent research found no evidence supporting this increased risk with moderate egg consumption. Interestingly, researchers have also not been able to definitively link consumption of cholesterol to any increased risk of cardiovascular disease. As a result, US dietary guidelines no longer have a cholesterol restriction.
Excess egg consumption has also been implicated with increased stroke risk. Neither egg nor cholesterol intake was associated with the risk for stroke in middle-aged to older men in a Finnish study. Concerns about the consequences of egg consumption and blood pressure appear to be unfounded as well, according to another large study. They found no links with blood pressure problems.
Nutritionally, they are hard to beat (pun intended). This power-packed, super-food has provided nutrition to millions, likely for millions of years. Science has revealed some of the positive effects of eggs on health. For example, the protein in eggs helps maintain and repair body tissues, especially important for muscle health. Want another? Men who eat more eggs appear to be at lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes than those who eat fewer eggs, according to a new study, which contradicted some past research.
Eggs contain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the brain and nervous system to function effectively, thus promoting brain health. Additionally, eggs contain all the nutrients that the body needs to produce energy. Even the immune system is benefitted due to the vitamin A, vitamin B-12, and selenium in eggs, which all seem to be key to a well-tuned immune system.
An unexpected factor in the nutritional content of an egg appears to be the birds living conditions. A recent study found that organic eggs from hens with the freedom to choose their own food had more nutritious eggs. The positive additions included significantly higher levels of protein, potassium, and copper as compared to those caged. A different study found that hens allowed to roam outdoors, in the sun, produced eggs three times higher in vitamin D-3 as those kept indoors.
True vegetarians do not eat meat……and don’t eat eggs, according to some definitions. This is a major obstacle for many individuals interested in going meatless. In truth, most vegetarians are lacto-ovo-vegetarians, meaning they eat eggs and dairy but no fish, fowl or red meat. Then there are vegans who consume no animal products, in any form, whatsoever. (But that means no eggs!!)
Naturally, this treatise will abstain from any real discussion of the lives of these animals, the ones we are relying on to produce eggs. Attention has been directed to these conditions, and they have improved, to some small degree. But this is a complex question, without enough space in these pages to delve into. Suffice to say, this issue of living conditions of our livestock is why many Americans don’t like being meat-eaters.
Nutritional research is difficult and drawing conclusions has historically been something of a disaster. Think of the food pyramid from the 60’s! But our (shifting) emphasis is now placed more on limiting how much saturated fat we consume, as opposed to classifying all fats together. It’s these and trans fats that can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Trans fats are made almost entirely by artificial means and these, in particular, increase our “bad” fat levels (LDL). But to besmirch the name of the wholesome egg seems wholly unjust!
In the past, there was some controversy about whether eggs are healthy, mostly concerns centered around these cholesterol levels. But our thinking on this substance has changed significantly in the last decade or so, and likely will continue to do so. As a food source, eggs have been around for a long time. And the evidence seems quite clear: eggs are healthy. Clearly, an excellent source of protein and other essential nutrients. How much of such a good thing is good for you? That’s another one of those too-plentiful questions: we just don’t know enough to say.
Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments email@example.com.