In honor of National Cholesterol Education Month, today’s blog post comes from Mary Donkersloot, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant with a private nutrition practice in Beverly Hills, California. Donkersloot has helped individuals dealing with diabetes, heart disease, weight management, and eating disorders for more than 20 years. She is also one of ENC’s Health Professional Advisors.
When I was a child, eggs were considered a perfect food, and my mother felt she was doing a good thing by making them for us before she rushed us off to school. The discovery of cholesterol and its link with heart disease has put that reputation into question. With 180 milligrams of cholesterol in each egg yolk – nearly at the daily dietary recommendation of 300 milligrams for healthy Americans – we began to eat eggs sparingly, often feeling guilty when eating them.
But are the dangers of eggs all they are cracked up to be? New research may indicate that they are not. Studies have shown that adding an extra 200 milligrams of cholesterol a day to the diet increases blood cholesterol levels only slightly, with a minimal effect on heart disease risk. I tell my clients that the benefits of eggs may outweigh that risk, since eggs are low in saturated fat and contain many other nutrients that are good for you – protein, folic acid, choline, lutein (good for eye health) and vitamin D. So eggs effect on risk for heart disease can’t be understood only based on their cholesterol content.
Perhaps even more important, people respond in different ways to the cholesterol in their food. Scientists sort people into two categories when it comes to cholesterol. The “responders” are those whose blood cholesterol goes up when they eat foods high in cholesterol and the “non-responders” are those who have little or no effect.
One of the favorite parts of my job as a registered dietitian is to help my clients sort out how to meet their individual dietary needs. Based on any health concerns, weight and their current diet, I can help them map out a dietary approach that may involve decreasing refined carbohydrates, such as sugars and starches, rather than limiting eggs. Many of my clients eat too many grains and/or sweets and not enough vegetables. Perhaps they eat large portions, or consume too much saturated fat from meat or added fats. These habits can lead to overweight and diseases linked to inflammation – diabetes, heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Current thinking is that inflammation may be caused by insulin, carbohydrate intake and excess body fat rather than saturated fat or dietary cholesterol. This means, cutting out egg yolks does not solve the problem.
That said, for my patients who have diabetes or heart disease and struggle with dyslipidemia, elevated cholesterol or high triglycerides, we may have to take the step of limiting or eliminating egg yolks. But for healthy people who want to stay healthy, the right balance of vegetable, fruits, whole grains, lean meat and dairy and lean protein – including eggs – is the best approach. In fact, limiting eggs in order to lower cholesterol is not going to help most people achieve greater health. Rather, for many, it will deprive them of a convenient and inexpensive source of nutrients.
It has been said that strong recommendations about cholesterol and eggs have been made based on very weak data. It may have been the best information we had at the time, but current information suggests we consider the bigger picture and make sensible adjustments according to individual dietary and health need. So thanks, Mom, you were right on this one after all.