Eggs – Should you limit your intake?

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by clients is how many eggs can I safely eat each week?  There is still this ongoing myth that cholesterol causes heart disease and because eggs contain cholesterol we should limit our consumption.  The trouble is there is actually no research that links egg consumption to heart disease.

I may be a bit biased here of course – we have our own chickens and so have a plentiful supply of pasture fed, organic eggs.  Eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense foods available. One egg provides 6g of complete protein and is packed with nutrients (particularly in the yolk rather than the white).  Eggs are an excellent source of B vitamins, essential for neurological health and energy production. They supply vitamin A needed for growth, development, immune function and gut health. They are also rich in the antioxidant vitamin E and one of the few food sources of vitamin D. They provide iodine – one mineral lacking in our western diet and essential for thyroid function and protecting against certain hormone cancers. They are excellent for brain health providing phospholipids which help supply the building blocks to neurotransmitters that aid memory.

The issue with eggs seems to be around their cholesterol content.  While cholesterol is often seen in a negative light the truth is cholesterol plays a vital role in the body. It is a structural molecule that is an essential part of every single cell membrane particularly brain health. It is also used to make hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and stress hormones like cortisol. As well as getting cholesterol from our diet our liver can also manufacture it.  But our body likes balance – so if we eat a lot of cholesterol rich foods, the liver will produce less. So the actual amount of cholesterol in our body changes very little. This is highlighted in many research papers and studies.

For many years people have been advised to limit the amount of eggs we eat per week.  Common recommendations include around 2-6 yolks per week. However, there really isn’t much scientific support for these restrictions. 

One study I like is a recent review published in the Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. This clearly indicates that egg consumption has no discernible impact on blood cholesterol levels in 70% of the population. In the other 30% of the population (termed “hyperresponders”), eggs do increase both circulating LDL and HDL cholesterol. But the way it is increase may in fact protect you more from heart disease.  This study for example showed that eggs consumption increases the proportion of large, buoyant LDL particles. This has actually been associated with more protection against heart disease. The study also mentions the importance of eggs for protecting against eye health due to their concentration of Lutein and Zeaxanthin.

Other studies have looked at changes when people eat 3 eggs per day. In these studies they found that actually the total amount of cholesterol does not really change and in many cases HDL – which can protect against heart disease actually goes up.  Eating omega 3 rich eggs and pasture fed eggs also appears to improve the level of triglycerides, another important risk factor.

So it appears that eating up to 3 eggs a day should be healthy for many people in good health. Clearly highlighting consumption of just one food from the rest of your dietary patterns is not particularly helpful for long term health outcomes. If the rest of your diet is full of sugary, refined carbohydrates and low in vegetables and lean protein then I suspect the outcome in terms of your long term health will be different. For example some observational studies indicate that diabetics who eat more than 1 egg a day may be at an increased risk of heart disease. But it is not clear whether this is because the rest of their diet is unhealthy. Studies have shown that a low carbohydrate diet (which is what we recommend anyway) and egg consumption actually leads to improved lipids and protection from heart disease.

So don’t be afraid of including eggs in your diet but make sure the whole diet is nutritious and low carb. Choose organic and pasture fed eggs too. Studies show these are far more nutritious than caged eggs.