Cholesterol has long been viewed with negative connotations, and whole eggs, which contain about 213mg of cholesterol within their yolks, have been lumped into these associations. However, recent evidence and studies suggest findings that may send that egg-white-only omelet by the wayside.
Cholesterol plays a very important role in the body. It's a structural molecule that is essential in all cell membranes. It is also used to make steroid hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and cortisol. Given that it is such an important element, the body has evolved elaborate ways to ensure that we always have enough of it available. The liver can produce cholesterol, thus making dietary cholesterol unnecessary. However, when we do eat cholesterol rich foods, the liver will down regulate its production, making the total amount of the cholesterol in the body change only slightly, if at all, when switching from liver sources to dietary sources.
Nutrition of an Egg
Eggs are a nutritionally dense addition to any diet. Along with milk, they contain the highest biological value for protein. One egg contains about 75 calories, with 7 grams of high-quality protein, 5 grams of fat and 1.6 grams of saturated fat. They also pack many different micronutrients, including vitamin B12, riboflavin, iron and selenium.
It's important to note that a large majority of these benefits and nutritional components are packed within the egg yolk, and are sparse within egg whites. Egg yolks themselves are also a rich source of healthy fats. This fat helps slow absorption, satiating you and keeping you fuller longer. So, while skipping the yolks may help you cut back on calories initially, it leaves out the most nutritious part of the egg, and it will ultimately lead to some stomach rumbling mid-morning.
It's All in the Genes
Much like a salt sensitivity, scientists believe that cholesterol sensitivity differences are innate and directly related to our genetic makeup. In addition, they believe that only a small percentage of the population (up to 30%) is hyper-responsive and sensitive to dietary cholesterol.
However, even for these hyper-responders, egg consumption (in moderation) has been shown to still be acceptable. While initially all dietary cholesterol was thought to lead to heart disease, other factors have since proven to play a larger role in its pathogenesis. LDL cholesterol, known as the "bad" cholesterol, lines blood vessels with excess cholesterol and fat, whereas HDL cholesterol tends to remove LDL from artery walls and is known as the "good" cholesterol. Values such as the ratio of these two types, and other dietary sources of fat such as saturated fat or trans-fat also play a role in overall cholesterol levels.
The negligible effect off eggs on cholesterol is two-fold. One, while their mild fat content may lead to the development of some LDL cholesterol, the particles formed are larger and less atherogenic than smaller LDL particles. Additionally, in some cases, while egg consumption has been linked to higher LDL levels, they have also been tied to higher HDL levels as well. This helps to keep the overall ratio of HDL and LDL the same, thus keeping heart disease risk at bay.
If your cholesterol levels are of concern, the first step in improvement is to evaluate your overall fat intake, particularly trans-fat. Some animal products like red meat and dairy are natural sources of trans-fat, however commercial products and baked goods provide more significant sources of this detrimental fat. In addition to the types of food you consume, evaluate your methods of preparation. Avoid frying foods or dosing them with heavy sauces. Down the line, if nothing is working, limiting eggs may be an additional change to consider. However, these nutrition-dense bombshells should really be your last line of defense. Eggs are one of the best natural forms of protein on the market, and their affordability and ease of preparation make them a great addition to a healthy diet.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.