Are Eggs Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Are Eggs Bad for You

Do Eggs Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are eggs bad for youThe “eggfusion” (That’s short for egg confusion) continues.

  • First there were the warnings that eggs were bad for your heart because egg yolks contained cholesterol, and cholesterol was to be avoided at all costs.
  • Then experts decided that dietary cholesterol wasn’t all that bad for you. It was saturated fats, obesity, and lack of exercise that raised “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels in your bloodstream.
  • That was followed by several US studies suggesting that eggs in moderation (one per day) did not affect your risk of heart disease.
  • Then, about a year ago, a major study claimed that an egg a day actually lowered your risk of heart disease.

Now, the latest headlines claim that eggs increase your risk of heart disease, and you should avoid them. Are eggs bad for you? No wonder you are confused. Let me review the latest study and put it into perspective by comparing it to previous studies.

How Was The Study Done?

are eggs bad for you studyThis study (WW Zhong et al, JAMA, 321: djw322, 2017 combined the data from 6 clinical trials in the United States that assessed dietary intake and measured cardiovascular health outcomes. In all, these studies included 29,615 adults who were followed for an average of 17.5 years.

The diet of the participants was assessed upon entry into each of the clinical trials. The primary variables derived from the dietary information were cholesterol and egg consumption. Diet was not assessed at later times in these studies.

The primary outcomes measured were heart disease and all-cause mortality. In this study heart disease was an umbrella term that included fatal and non-fatal heart attacks, stroke, heart failure, and death from other heart-related causes.

The association of cholesterol and eggs with heart disease and mortality were similar. Similarly, the effect of cholesterol and eggs on both heart disease risk and mortality were similar. Most people know how many eggs they eat but have no idea how much cholesterol they consume. Thus, for simplicity I will just focus on the association between egg consumption and heart disease risk.

 

Do Eggs Increase Heart Disease Risk?

do eggs increase heart attacksHere are the main findings from this study.

  • Each additional half an egg consumed per day (which is equivalent to 3-4 eggs per week) was associated with a:
  • 6% increased risk of heart disease. While that doesn’t sound like much, the increased risk was over 13% for one egg per day and almost 27% for two eggs per day.
  • The increased heart disease risk associated with one half egg per day was greater for:
  • Women (13% increase) than men (3% increase)
  • People who already had high blood cholesterol (7% increase) than people who already had low cholesterol levels (0% increase). This suggests that the effect of eggs on heart disease risk primarily affects people who are already having trouble controlling their blood cholesterol levels – either due to genetics or due to diet & lifestyle.

Of course, the question is whether it was the eggs that increased the risk of heart disease or was it something else in the diet. This study attempted to answer that question by systematically subtracting out other variables that affect heart disease risk to see whether that correction eliminated the association between egg consumption and heart disease risk. When this was done:

  • The association between egg consumption and heart disease risk disappeared after correcting for dietary cholesterol intake.
  • The association between egg consumption and heart disease risk remained significant after correcting for other components of the diet, such as fats, animal protein, fiber, sodium, or overall “diet quality”. There were 3 main measures of diet quality.
  • The Med diet score measures how closely the diet resembles the Mediterranean diet.
  • The DASH diet score measures how closely the diet resembles the DASH diet.
  • The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) measures how closely the diet aligns with the USDA Dietary Guidelines For Americans. Basically, the HEI recommends a whole food diet containing foods from all 5 food groups with a heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. It also recommends limiting saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.

In simple terms these data suggest that the effect of eggs on heart disease risk was primarily due to their cholesterol content and was not influenced by other components of the overall diet.

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Study?

are eggs bad for you strength weakness studyThe strengths are obvious. This was a very large study (29,615 participants) and the people enrolled in the study were followed for a long time (an average of 17.5 years). The primary variables in the study (cholesterol consumption, egg consumption, heart disease, and all-cause mortality) were accurately measured in each of the clinical trials included in the study.

However, there were some significant weaknesses as well:

  • Cholesterol and egg consumption were only measured by a single dietary survey when people entered the study. This study assumes they did not change over the course of the study. That is very unlikely. Both cholesterol intake and egg consumption in the US population have waxed and waned over the years, in part due to variations in dietary guidelines.
  • The measurements of diet quality used were based on US and European food preferences. That is significant because the only studies showing that egg consumption lowers heart disease risk were performed in China and Japan, where the diet is closer to semi-vegetarian than to US or European diets.

 

Are Eggs Bad For You?

thumbs downAre eggs bad for you?

This is very large, well designed study that combines the data from 6 clinical trials spanning the years 1974 to 2013.

The strongest conclusions from the study are:

  • In the context of a Western diet (the US diet) egg consumption slightly increases your risk developing heart disease. The increased risk is ~6% for 3-4 eggs/week, ~13% for 1 egg per day, and ~27% for two eggs per day.
  • The increased risk of heart disease appears to be almost entirely due to the cholesterol content of eggs.

The significance of this study needs to be weighed in the context of:

  • Recent studies in the US and Europe showing eggs do not increase heart disease risk.
  • Studies in China and Japan (where the diets can best be described as semi-vegetarian) showing that eggs decrease heart disease risk.

The significance of this study also needs to be weighed in the context of:

  • Studies showing that obesity, saturated fat, and physical inactivity have bigger effects on serum cholesterol levels and heart disease risk than dietary cholesterol from foods like eggs.

What Did This Study Miss?

are eggs bad for you breakfastIf, as this study suggests, the effect of eggs on heart disease risk is due to their cholesterol content, this study (and most previous studies) missed a very important point. The effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels is not strongly affected by the overall composition of the diet. It is affected by the composition of the diet at the time foods containing dietary cholesterol are eaten.

  • The kind of fiber found in certain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes bind to dietary cholesterol, preventing it from being absorbed as it passes through the intestine.
  • Certain phytonutrients in plant foods affect how dietary cholesterol is utilized by the body.
  • Our gut bacteria depend on the fiber we eat. They utilize the fiber for energy and release metabolites that affect how dietary cholesterol is utilized by the body.
  • However, to blunt the effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels, the fiber and phytonutrient-containing foods must be consumed at the same meal.

Simply put, if your breakfast consists of eggs, sausage, biscuits, and hash browns, the cholesterol in the eggs will likely increase your blood cholesterol level, which in turn increases your risk of heart disease. This will occur even if you eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with your other meals.

If, on the other hand, your breakfast consists of eggs and fiber-rich plant foods like oatmeal and beans, the cholesterol in the eggs will likely have a much smaller effect on your blood cholesterol levels and your heart disease risk.

The fact that previous studies have not looked at what foods were consumed along with the eggs may explain some of the variation in their conclusions about the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk.

 

The Professor’s Story

professor owlLet me share my story with you. About 25 years ago, my doctor told me that my cholesterol levels were getting high and wanted to put me on statins. I didn’t stop eating eggs for breakfast. I changed breakfast.

Now I soft boil my eggs or fry them in olive oil. I eat them along with oatmeal, which contains a fiber that binds cholesterol, and walnuts, which contain omega-3s and phytonutrients that lower blood cholesterol. I also include whatever fruit is in season. Finally, I take a supplement providing 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols, which block cholesterol absorption from the intestine.

My blood cholesterol levels have been low ever since. I have not had to take statins, and I get to enjoy the taste and health benefits of an egg every day. Of course, what worked for me may not work for you. The effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels is also affected by genetics, weight, and fitness, just to name the top three.

 

Are Eggs Bad For You or Good For You?

thumbs upOnce you get past the cholesterol problem, eggs are a very healthy food.

  • Studies have shown that egg protein results in better blood sugar control, better satiety (feeling of fullness), and reduced subsequent food intake in healthy and overweight individuals. In layman’s terms that means egg protein can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Egg yolks are a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin. We think of lutein and zeaxanthin as good for eye health. They also play an important role in protecting against oxidation, inflammation, and atherosclerosis.
  • Egg yolks also contain choline. We think of choline as good for brain and nerves. But, choline and other phospholipids in the yolk also raise HDL levels and enhance HDL function.
  • Eggs are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, selenium and iron.
  • Eggs contain almost twice as much monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as saturated fats.

What Does This Mean For You?

  • what does this mean for youThe latest study suggests that eggs may increase your risk of heart disease, and this is due to their cholesterol content.
  • This study needs to be considered in the context of recent studies in the US showing that egg consumption did not increase heart disease risk and studies in China and Japan showing that egg consumption lowered heart disease risk.
  • It is also important to consider that egg consumption in China and Japan is in the context of a semi-vegetarian diet. This suggests that diet plays a role in determining the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk.
  • However, if you take this study at face value, there are two things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease:
  • Reduce dietary cholesterol by avoiding eggs or using egg whites.
  • Eat eggs in moderation along with fiber- and phytonutrient-rich plant foods that negate the effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels. I recommend oatmeal or beans, nuts or seeds, and fiber rich fruits and vegetables. These should be consumed at the same meal to minimize the effect of the cholesterol in the eggs on blood cholesterol levels.
  • Eggs are a very healthy food, so I recommend the second option if possible. Get your blood cholesterol levels measured to determine which approach works best for you.
  • Finally, we need to recognize that egg consumption plays a relatively minor role in determining heart disease risk. Other factors play a much larger role in influencing heart disease risk. For example:
  • Smoking, obesity, inactivity, saturated and trans fats significantly increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Omega-3s, antioxidants, and a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet significantly decrease your risk of heart disease.

If we wish to reduce our risk of heart disease, this is where we should focus most of our attention. We can minimize the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk by changing the foods we eat with the eggs. For more information on how to reduce your risk of heart disease, read my books, “Slaying The Food Myths” and “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

 

The Bottom Line

  • The latest study suggests that eggs increase your risk of heart disease because of their cholesterol content.
  • This was a very large study. It combined the data from 6 clinical trials spanning the years 1974 to 2013. It followed 29,615 people for an average of 17.5 years. However, it has two significant weaknesses:
  • It only determined cholesterol intake and egg consumption at the time people entered the clinical trials. Both cholesterol intake and egg consumption have waxed and waned considerably over the years covered by these clinical trials.
  • It did not measure what foods were consumed along with the eggs. Foods consumed along with eggs have a strong influence on how much the cholesterol in the eggs influences blood cholesterol levels, which, in turn, influences the effect eggs have on heart disease risk.
  • This study also needs to be considered in the context of recent studies in the US showing that egg consumption did not increase heart disease risk and studies in China and Japan showing that egg consumption lowered heart disease risk.
  • However, if you take this study at face value, there are two things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease:
  • Reduce dietary cholesterol by avoiding eggs or using egg whites.
  • Eat eggs in moderation along with fiber- and phytonutrient-rich plant foods that negate the effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels. I recommend oatmeal or beans, nuts or seeds, and fiber rich fruits and vegetables. These should be consumed at the same meal to minimize the effect of the cholesterol in the eggs on blood cholesterol levels.
  • Eggs are a very healthy food, so I recommend the second option if possible. Get your blood cholesterol levels measured to determine which approach works best for you.
  • Finally, we need to recognize that egg consumption plays a relatively minor role in determining heart disease risk. Other factors play a much larger role in influencing heart disease risk. For example:
  • Smoking, obesity, inactivity, saturated and trans fats significantly increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Omega-3s, antioxidants, and a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet significantly decrease your risk of heart disease.

If we wish to reduce our risk of heart disease, these are the areas where we should focus most of our attention. We can minimize the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk by changing the foods we eat with the eggs. For more information on how to reduce your risk of heart disease, read my books, “Slaying The Food Myths” and “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

For more details and to learn how the professor does about egg consumption, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Geoff Lamdin

    |

    Hi Steve,

    Good discussion today on eggs and cholesterol. I recall my Dad was interested in these inter-relationships (eggs/cholesterol/overall diet) back when he was VP of Science at the Heart Association. I also seem to remember, perhaps not correctly, a study done in the 1990s? that looked at eggs and cholesterol content. The finding suggested that the “healthier” the chicken – i.e. a plant -based, free-range, non-animal feed diet, the lower the native cholesterol in the egg. Does this ring any bells with you?

    Reply

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Latest Article

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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