Eggs provide many health benefits, but too many eggs can raise your risk of heart disease. The protein in eggs provides essential amino acids and nutrients such as biotin, selenium, iodine, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins B12, A and D. Egg yolks are also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help protect against age-related macular degeneration.
The controversy around eggs comes from the cholesterol in the yolk. Too much low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol in the blood can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke. Yet research shows that, for most people, dietary cholesterol is not significantly related to LDL cholesterol in the body. Actually, saturated fat in the diet is more of a problem.
Recent studies from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy have shown data on both sides of the subject of eggs in the diet. A prudent way to look at it is if you have diabetes or a heart issue, talk to your doctor about avoiding eggs altogether—or skip the yolk, and enjoy an egg-white omelet. Get tested for diabetes if you are overweight or obese, because many people have diabetes without knowing it.
If you are not in the high-risk category, eat eggs in moderation; the American Heart Association suggests no more than one egg a day. Avoid unhealthy sides with your egg, such as bacon, ham, sausage, white bread or fried white potatoes. Instead, eat eggs with vegetables, beans and whole grains. Store eggs in the refrigerator, and cook them until the yolk is firm to decrease the risk of salmonella infection.
If you want to avoid a buildup of LDL cholesterol in your body, avoiding saturated fat is a better way than avoiding dietary cholesterol. Saturated fat is found in butter, lard, cheese, meats, chicken skin and baked goods like doughnuts, pie crusts, frozen pizza and cookies. Fast-food restaurants use trans-fats for frying because the oil can be used over and over again. Read the label on processed foods and margarine to avoid partially hydrogenated oils.
Coconut oil is another saturated fat that many people enjoy because of its distinctive taste. Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health said, “for now, I’d use coconut oil sparingly. Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels. We really don’t know how coconut oil affects heart disease. And I don’t think coconut oil is as healthful as vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil, which are mainly unsaturated fat and therefore both lower LDL and increase [high-density lipoprotein, or HDL]. Coconut oil’s special HDL boosting effect may make it ‘less bad’ than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it’s still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Sadja Greenwood, a longtime Bolinas resident now living in Portland, is a retired physician formerly active at the University of California, San Francisco. A version of this column is available at sadjascolumns.blogspot.com.