For many years, eggs have gotten a bad rap as a forbidden food because of their cholesterol content. The mere mention of cholesterol conjured up fear and was enough to banish eggs entirely from the diets of many Americans. No cholesterol was the most important benefit trumpeted in advertising and on the labels of many food products.

Today, thanks to years of research, we know more than ever about the relationship between diet, lifestyle and good health. There is growing evidence that diet and health relationships are a function of both what is in the diet and what is missing from it. It is also becoming clear that many of our perceptions about various dietary factors are inaccurate. For example, when it comes to dietary cholesterol, many people believe that it is an extremely important factor in high blood cholesterol. Studies have now shown that many people on a low-fat diet can eat one or two eggs a day without measurable changes in their blood cholesterol levels. As reported in a recent publication, Dr. Wanda Howell and colleagues at the University of Arizona conducted a statistical analysis of 224 dietary studies carried out over the past 25 years investigating the relationship between diet and blood cholesterol levels in over 8,000 subjects. What these investigators found was that saturated fat in the diet, not dietary cholesterol, is what influences blood cholesterol levels the most [Howell et al. 1997. Am J Clin Nutr. 65:1747-64.1.]. Therefore, the results of this meta-analysis indicate that for most healthy people saturated fat is a greater concern then dietary cholesterol, and that eggs can readily fit into a heart-healthy, nutritious and enjoyable dietary pattern.

Prevention Is Key

Genetics plays a role in whether a person will develop a chronic disease, such as heart disease, but so, too, does lifestyle. You have no control over your family’s medical history, but you can take steps to decrease your own risk. According to the American Heart Association, you lessen the likelihood of heart disease by not smoking, controlling blood pressure, maintaining a blood cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl, and exercising regularly. Diabetes, family history of heart disease, and obesity are some other important heart disease risk factors.

Cholesterol, Clearing Up the Confusion

Cholesterol is not a fat. It is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by all animals, including humans. Cholesterol is needed for many bodily functions and serves to insulate nerve fibers, maintain cell walls and produce vitamin D, various hormones and digestive juices. Cholesterol is produced by the liver.

There is a difference between dietary cholesterol (the cholesterol you consume in foods) and blood cholesterol (the cholesterol in your bloodstream, also called serum cholesterol). Dietary cholesterol is present in varying amounts in some foods, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. Dietary cholesterol does not automatically become blood cholesterol when you eat it. Most of your blood cholesterol is made by your body. Individuals vary in how much cholesterol their body makes. There is little doubt that elevated blood cholesterol levels increase heart disease risk. But the effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels is the subject of debate among health professionals. That’s because research does not show that food cholesterol significantly boosts blood cholesterol levels in everyone.

Currently, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association recommend an average daily intake of no more than 300 milligrams. But some health professionals, including the American Heart Association, are starting to take another look at the 300 milligram limit, a recommended level which has not been challenged, or revised, since the 1970’s. Even without revised dietary cholesterol guidelines, certain people may not need to restrict their cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams a day. That’s because scientific studies suggest people react differently to dietary cholesterol. Some researchers say that nearly two-thirds of Americans can handle cholesterol intake within the range that people normally consume (300 mg – 400 mg) without significantly raising their blood cholesterol level.

For example, two recent studies published in an American Heart Association journal showed that 20 healthy young men and 13 healthy young women with normal blood cholesterol levels were able to consume up to two eggs per day while on a low-fat diet without significantly raising their blood cholesterol levels. The outcome of these studies support results from several other studies published in the last decade, and suggests that an egg or two daily may be acceptable for people with normal blood cholesterol levels. With more research and improved technology, doctors and dietitians may soon be personalizing dietary cholesterol recommendations. However, until we know more about individual dietary cholesterol limits, ask your doctor to assess your personal heart disease risk and dietary needs. Keep in mind that dietary guidelines do not apply to a single meal, recipe, or food, but to your diet over a period of several days, or even a week. Reductions in saturated fat intake typically result in lower cholesterol consumption, since many high fat foods are also cholesterol-rich. But you don’t have to consume only foods low in fat and cholesterol. Practice moderation by balancing foods high in fat or cholesterol with low-fat selections.

For example, there’s no need to avoid eggs on a heart-health diet. Even cholesterol-lowering diets allow moderate amounts of whole eggs. There is no limit on egg whites, since they’re cholesterol and fat-free.

The Diet / Heart Disease Link

Americans have a collective fat tooth. Nearly thirty-seven percent of our calories come from fat, much more than the recommended 30 percent or less.

There are three types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. All have the same number of calories, yet they affect blood cholesterol levels differently.

Blood cholesterol can be broken down into two major parts: HDL or high-density lipoprotein and LDL, low-density lipoprotein. HDL, known as good cholesterol, helps move cholesterol back to the liver for removal from the bloodstream. LDL, referred to as the bad cholesterol, helps cholesterol stick to artery walls.

Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and LDL levels more than any other element in the diet. Saturated fat is the predominant fat in animal foods. Some vegetable oils are highly saturated, too. Palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter, often used in processed foods, contain large amounts of saturated fat.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may lower blood cholesterol levels when they replace saturated fat in the diet. Foods rich in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, nuts and nut butters. High levels of polyunsaturated fat are found in most cooking oils. Polyunsaturated fat is also found in seafood. A large egg contains 4.5 grams of fat, most of which are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Health professionals suggest decreasing saturated fat intake, but cutting back on total fat consumption is equally important. Luckily, the two go hand in hand, since most low fat foods are low in saturated fat, too. The new nutrition labels make it easier than ever to determine total and saturated fat intake.

Girth Control

Maintaining a healthy body weight may be the best single move you can make to ensure good health. Lugging around extra fat, especially fat around the abdomen, increases your chances for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It may also aggravate lower back pain and contribute to low energy levels.A healthful, long term weight control regimen includes tasty foods from all of the food groups, promotes weight loss of no more than a pound a week, and uses exercise to achieve and maintain a desirable weight.

 Exercise Benefits

Many people exercise for weight control. But regular exercise can do much more: It preserves and builds muscle and bone tissue, increases flexibility, improves the body’s response to insulin, and helps control blood pressure. Physical activity may lower blood cholesterol levels and increase levels of desirable HDL. The higher your HDL, the better. More to the point, studies show that active people live longer. Increasingly, experts are recommending a combination of aerobic activity, such as brisk walking and bicycling, and strength training, commonly known as weight lifting. You don’t need to jog daily or climb mountains to reap the benefits of physical activity, however. New research suggests that even moderate movement, including gardening, dancing, strolling, and household chores, promotes good health when done regularly, for 30 minutes per day, four to five times a week.

High Blood Pressure ~ It’s Under Your Control

According to the 1992 Heart and Stroke Facts, published by the American Heart Association, one in three adult Americans has high blood pressure. That figure may be alarming, but there is good news: High blood pressure is controllable. If your doctor has prescribed high blood pressure medication, be sure to take it, even if you don’t feel sick. To best control blood pressure, drink alcohol in moderation or not at all; don’t smoke; exercise regularly; and achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Weight loss alone may be one of the most effective non-drug treatments for high blood pressure.

Putting It All Together for Good Nutrition

Whoever said “moderation in all things”, must have had nutrition in mind. A healthful diet does not exclude any one food or food group. Moreover, it may include your favorite foods. According to health professionals, the best diet is based on breads, grains, cereals, fruits, and vegetables which are rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber, low in fat, and full of vitamins and minerals. A balanced diet also includes high-protein foods, such as: eggs; low fat dairy products; lean cuts of meat and poultry; and seafood. These foods are loaded with key vitamins and minerals, too. Finally, don’t forget fluids. Drink at least six to eight glasses daily of either water, milk, or juice, even when you don’t feel thirsty.

You love eggs and want them to be part of your diet. That’s fine by many nutrition experts, who believe that eggs fit into a healthy, well-balanced eating plan. A large egg contains 4.5 grams of fat (1.5 of which is saturated fat), and 213 milligrams of cholesterol, 22 percent less than previously thought based on a 1989 study. Additionally, eggs contain 70 calories each.

An egg is one of nature’s most nutritious creations. Eggs are protein-rich, low in sodium, and contain vitamins and minerals. In addition, eggs are inexpensive, delicious, and easy to prepare.

Here Are Some Important Egg Tips

  • Use only properly refrigerated, clean, sound shelled, fresh, grade AA or A eggs.
  • Buy eggs from refrigerated cases. Always refrigerate eggs at home.
  • Store eggs in the carton on a shelf in the refrigerator to ensure freshness.
  • Egg shell and yolk color may vary, but color has nothing to do with egg quality, flavor, nutritive value, cooking characteristics or shell thickness.
  • Poach eggs instead of frying to cut back on fat, or use non-stick pans or non-stick vegetable pan spray to reduce fat when preparing eggs.
  • Prepare and serve eggs with low-fat foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grain breads, and low fat or skim-milk cheeses.
  • Serve egg dishes promptly or keep them refrigerated.

The above information was written by Elizabeth Ward, MS., R.D. and has been favorably reviewed by Wanda Howell, Ph.D., R.D., University of Arizona and C. Wayne Callaway M.D., George Washington University.