What food supports heart health, brain health, weight loss efforts, and vision? The egg! Whether you choose brown, white, organic, or conventional, you can bet you’ll get one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
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Eggs are cheap, easy to prepare, versatile, and delicious. They also pack a nutritional punch and provide high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and low calories. Eggs are an excellent food for just about everyone, even vegetarians, at least ovo-vegetarians and lacto-ovo-vegetarians. According to the American Heart Association, one whole egg per day can be part of a healthy diet.
Eggs are a good source of complete protein. They contain heart-healthy fats (e.g., omega-3 fats), provide valuable micronutrients including B-vitamins, vitamin D, choline, and supply powerful antioxidants (lutein and zeaxanthin). It is through these nutrients’ eggs offer many health benefits.
1. Heart Health
Eggs have been vilified for decades for their supposed contribution to heart disease. Recent research does not support this. An important study out of Harvard University in 1999 found no link between one egg per day and heart disease in the general population [source]. Numerous studies since this one have vindicated eggs.
It turns out that eggs don’t significantly raise blood cholesterol in most people. Yes, the egg yolk contains cholesterol, but it appears that consuming cholesterol in the diet doesn’t significantly increase blood cholesterol or the risk of heart disease. Then again, there is a small part of the population that are “hyper-responders.” These people may see a mild increase in their blood cholesterol when they consume foods rich in cholesterol [source]. Luckily, this increase might be mitigated by other positive cholesterol changes seen in people who eat eggs.
Studies show that eating eggs is associated with an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – the “good” cholesterol [source]. People with higher HDL typically have a lower risk of heart disease [source].
Eggs also contain omega-3 fats that support heart and brain health. Eggs laid by hens fed a special diet high in omega-3 fats (e.g., flaxseed) provide more omega-3 fats. Omega-3 enriched eggs give anywhere from 100 mg to over 600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per egg [source], with 150-200 mg of EPA + DHA [source]. EPA and DHA are the omega-3 fats that provide considerable health benefits. Fatty fish, like salmon, is considered the best source of EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t eating enough fish to meet recommendations. The average healthy adult should consume between 250-500 mg of EPA + DHA per day [source]. Omega-3 enriched eggs can provide an alternative source to help people meet omega-3 needs.
2. Weight Loss
Eggs can support weight loss efforts. They are low in calories and provide both fat and protein, increasing satiety and satiation. Meaning, eggs help fill us up fast and keep us full between meals. One study found eating eggs for breakfast led to more balanced blood sugar and insulin, suppressed the “hunger” hormone ghrelin, and reduced calorie intake [source]. Egg eaters also appear to increase hormones that reduce appetite (e.g., GLP-1, PYY) [source]. Another study found an egg breakfast improved weight loss when combined with caloric restriction [source].
Eggs provide high-quality protein (also called complete proteins) that contain all the essential amino acids we need to build tissues, like muscle. When people diet (decrease calories eaten), they often lose muscle mass, which reduces energy expenditure (calories burned). This is one reason health professionals recommend increasing protein intake when people diet. Eggs are a great way to increase protein intake.
Although the American Heart Association states that one egg per day can be healthy, that doesn’t mean we can’t eat more. There just isn’t a lot of research looking at higher intake. One study designed for weight loss found eating 12 eggs per week for three months and a healthy diet didn’t increase cardiovascular disease risk [source].
3. Brain Health
Several nutrients in eggs support brain health – choline, lutein, omega-3 fats, B-vitamins. Choline is an essential nutrient found in the egg yolk that supports brain health. It is especially important for fetal brain development. Choline helps build cell membranes. What’s more, choline is needed to create acetylcholine, an important brain chemical needed for mood, memory, muscle control, and other nervous system functions [source].
Some research has found higher choline intake was associated with better cognitive performance, improved verbal memory, and visual memory in adults. Research has also shown enhanced information processing in infants exposed to higher levels of maternal choline during the third trimester. Improved information processing is an indicator of both cognition and intelligence [source]. And, higher intake of choline earlier in life may also protect from small blood vessel disease in the brain later in life [source].
Unfortunately, most of us in the United States aren’t getting enough choline, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) [source]. Eating eggs is a wonderful way to increase choline intake!
Lutein in eggs also plays a role in neuroprotection and supports cognition and memory. These benefits are likely related to lutein’s antioxidant activity and anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to improve connectivity in the brain [source]. These benefits are not limited to adults. Research has also shown an association between lutein and cognition and improved academic performance in children [source].
Omega-3 fats found in eggs also support brain health. Omega-3 fats help build cell membranes in the brain. They also reduce inflammation, which helps protect brain cells.
B-vitamins (and choline) in eggs may help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [source]. B-vitamins help lower homocysteine. High homocysteine levels are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Mental Health
Eggs provide nutrients that support mental health. Studies have shown a link between low levels of folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats in people with depression [source]. Eggs provide all these nutrients.
Low B-vitamin (B12, B6, folate) levels are associated with depression. Vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins help create brain chemicals that affect mood. B-vitamins, choline, and amino acids (methionine and cysteine) found in whole eggs also help balance homocysteine [source]. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with depression and anxiety in adults and children [source].
Vitamin D also plays a role in mental health. Low intake is associated with several psychiatric disorders, including depression [source]. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for women’s health. Several studies have shown a link between low vitamin D in women and increased mood-disorders, seasonal affective disorder, major depressive disorder, and premenstrual syndrome. A large percentage of Americans are deficient in vitamin D [source]. Eggs provide 6% of our Daily Value (DV) of vitamin D so they can help us meet our needs [source].
Egg yolks provide vitamin A and two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. Many people know that vitamin A is essential for the eyes, but fewer people are aware of the critical role lutein and zeaxanthin play. Lutein and zeaxanthin are powerful antioxidants. They filter harmful blue light and protect cells in the eyes [source].
When these carotenoids are consumed in adequate amounts, they accumulate in the retina (macula) of the eye and help reduce age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts [source]. AMD and cataracts affect millions of Americans and are a leading cause of visual impairment and acquired blindness in the U.S. [source].
The body does not naturally make lutein and zeaxanthin. We must eat foods rich in these antioxidants to meet the body’s needs. Eating eggs can help us meet our intake recommendations [source].
What type of egg is the healthiest?
Regardless of the type of egg you choose – organic, conventional, free-range, white, or brown – you really can’t go wrong. Even your standard egg will provide a powerhouse of nutrition. The nutritional value can be influenced by the hen’s diet, health, and environment. Studies have found a modest difference in the nutrient levels in organic versus conventional eggs, but research is conflicting [source].
Some research has shown higher minerals and vitamin D in free-range hens, but more research is needed to confirm this. Research is more consistent when it comes to omega-3 enriched eggs. Fortifying the hen’s feed can significantly increase the omega-3 content in her eggs and lower inflammatory omega-6 fats [source].
Contrary to what many believe, the color of the egg doesn’t impact the nutritional quality. And, brown eggs are not superior to white eggs. Interestingly, the egg color is related to the hen’s earlobes. White eggs come from hens with white earlobes [source].
Egg whites vs. egg yolks
The egg yolk and egg whites both provide complete protein. The whites provide 50%-60% of the egg’s protein, but that’s no reason to throw away the yolk. Many of the health producing nutrients are in the yolk. B-vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin A, choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fats are all found primarily in the yolk.
What’s the healthiest way to prepare eggs?
Eggs are incredibly versatile, and there are many healthy ways to prepare them. Hardboiled or poached eggs are both healthy and simple to prepare. Hardboiled eggs are an excellent addition to a salad. When frying or scrambling eggs, consider using heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil. Don’t overcook eggs. High heat and longer cooking time can reduce nutrients and increase cholesterol oxidation. Oxidation can lead to more significant free radical formation.
To make your eggs even healthier, combine them with fiber-rich whole-grains and vegetables and ditch the processed meats (e.g., bacon) sidekick. Processed meats are inflammatory and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease when consumed in excess.
Are there risks?
Allergies. Some people have egg allergies. It has been estimated that 2% of children have an egg allergy. Luckily, research shows approximately 70% will outgrow it by age 16 [source]. Reactions can be mild to life-threatening. Avoiding eggs is the best way to manage an egg allergy. Those with allergies should seek more detailed guidance from their healthcare professional.
Bacteria. Salmonella can cause food poisoning – foodborne illness. The FDA has estimated nearly 80,000 foodborne illness cases and about 30 deaths each year due to Salmonella. You can reduce risk by adequately storing, preparing, and serving eggs. Here are a few tips from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) [source]:
- Buy pasteurized eggs
- Buy eggs only sold from a refrigerator.
- Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
- Keep eggs refrigerated at 40ºF (4ºC) or below.
- Store eggs in their original carton and use them within three weeks.
- Eat hard-cooked eggs in the shell or peeled within one week of cooking.
- Keep things clean – wash hands and any equipment that will come into contact with raw eggs.
- Cook eggs until both the whites and yolk are firm, not runny.
- Before serving refrigerated eggs/egg dishes, thoroughly reheat them to 165ºF (74ºC).
- Don’t leave cooked eggs out more than two hours or more than one hour in warm temperatures. Bacteria multiply in warm temperatures.
Health Conditions. Those who are hyper-responders with elevated cholesterol, and people with diabetes, may need to limit the number of eggs they eat. Several studies, including the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, found diabetic men and women eating one or more eggs per day had increased risk of heart disease. It may be best to limit intake to three eggs per week in people with diabetes and heart disease. These individuals should talk with their healthcare provider for recommendations [source].
Can I eat raw eggs?
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends eating cooked eggs to reduce foodborne illness (Salmonella infection). Specific populations are at higher risk of serious illness that can be life-threatening.
Infants and children younger than five years, pregnant women, elderly, and immune-compromised (e.g., HIV, diabetes, organ transplant) should avoid eating raw eggs. And that also includes foods that contain raw eggs (e.g., mayonnaise, cake icing, ice cream, cookie dough). It is safe to eat commercial mayonnaise, dressing, and sauces because they contain pasteurized eggs [source].
There are a couple of other reasons to cook your eggs. Protein absorption may be lower in raw versus cooked eggs. Eating raw eggs may reduce the absorption of the B-vitamin, biotin. A protein in raw egg whites called avidin binds to biotin and limits its absorption. Heat destroys avidin, which is why we don’t see this problem in cooked eggs.
Incorporate eggs into your diet
Try including eggs in salads, sandwiches, soups, stir-fry’s, and casseroles. Consider preparing hard-boiled eggs at the beginning of the week, so they are available for snacks or adding them to salads. Below are a few examples to get you started.
- Scramble or fry an egg in olive oil. Place on whole bread, add cheese, sliced tomatoes and/or avocado slices.
- Sauté spinach and bell pepper in extra-virgin olive oil. Add an egg to the pan and fry it. Add a dash of balsamic vinegar.
- Reimagine deviled eggs. Mix egg yolks with avocado or hummus and add some olives.
- Make a healthy quiche. Beat a few eggs, then mix in spinach, peppers, and broccoli. Add the mixture to muffin tins coated with extra-virgin olive oil and bake for 20 minutes at 350ºF (177ºC).
- Update your egg salad. Dice hardboiled eggs, then add pickles, jalapenos, capers, a little mustard, extra-virgin olive oil, and vinegar. Make a sandwich with whole-grain bread or add to a bed of leafy greens.
- Eggs, pasta, and Parmesan. Sauté garlic in extra-virgin olive oil, then add cooked pasta to the pan and a few beaten eggs. Top with Parmesan cheese and cook until eggs are firm.
- Stir-fried rice. Add a couple of beaten eggs to brown rice and diced vegetables sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil. Cook until the eggs are firm.
Eggs are amazingly healthy. They are rich in nutrition, support heart health, brain health, mental health, weight loss efforts, and vision. They are affordable, versatile, and delicious. They truly are an incredible food!