With all the buzz around protein, there’s a resurgence in the popularity of eggs. Understandably, it’s left some of us confused. How healthy are eggs, and is there a limit to how many we can have in a week?
Eggs are pocket rocket nutrient powerhouses, boasting high quality protein, vitamins A, E and B12, folate, antioxidants and omega 3 fats. And yet, research in the 1970s which lead to us classifying fats as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meant eggs were struck off the good choice list.
In this low fat love affair era of the 70s, we learned the necessity of cutting down on bad saturated fats in order to lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. Misunderstanding the relationship between the cholesterol we ate and its effect on blood cholesterol (which we later discovered was insignificant), we placed eggs, which contain both saturated fat and cholesterol, firmly in the ‘off limits’ basket. No doubt you’ve heard someone make the declaration, “I can’t have eggs – I’ve got high cholesterol.”
This concern was reflected in egg consumption dropping to an all time low in 1998/1999, as shown in the graph below:
(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)
“One egg contains around 5 grams of fat, of which 1.7 grams is saturated – about the same amount as a quarter of a teaspoon of butter.”
The thing about nutrition is that our knowledge is constantly evolving, and that can mean the recommendations change. The Heart Foundation relaxed their two-eggs-a-week limit in 2009, raising the heart-friendly maximum to six – with the proviso that the total diet is low in saturated fat. Acknowledging that dietary cholesterol was no longer a nutrient of concern aligned them with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which since 1991 have emphasised reducing saturated fat, not cholesterol, to reduce blood cholesterol. The American Dietary Guidelines, however, are only just relaxing their restriction on cholesterol intake, which may explain the persistence of the dietary cholesterol myth.
So how bad is it to have more than six eggs per week? Let’s consider the science of common sense. One egg contains around 30 0kJ and 5 g of fat, of which 1.7 g is saturated – about the same amount as a quarter of a teaspoon of butter. Two large eggs are considered a protein serve, in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, as is 80 g cooked chicken, 65 g cooked lean meat or 100 g cooked fish. For vegetarians, the elderly and children, eggs are an ideal protein option.
Although we’ve limited eggs to six per week for cholesterol levels, it’s simplistic to think one food can make you healthy or unhealthy. The combination of factors that influence heart disease risk should be taken into account. If you’re getting potassium from fruit and vegetables, plus adequate omega 3 and soluble fibre, and you’re limiting salt, saturated fat and trans fat, it’s unlikely that exceeding the egg quota is going to tip your cholesterol into the danger zone.
If your eggs are keeping company with fatty bacon, sausages and cream – well, that’s another story, and I wouldn’t be pointing a finger at the eggs if your cholesterol is high. The facts, in an eggshell, are that nutrient rich eggs deserve to be back in the good books.