To Your Health

For the past 20 years or so I have conscientiously restricted egg yolks to less than three per week as advised by my physician. Do I need to continue to be cautious, since recent news indicates that eggs are not as bad as once thought?

Q. We ate a lot of eggs as I grew up on a farm. For the past 20 years or so I have conscientiously restricted egg yolks to less than three per week as advised by my physician. Do I need to continue to be cautious, since recent news indicates that eggs are not as bad as once thought?

A. Eggs are a valuable part of a well-rounded diet, and it is unfortunate that some people still think "eggs = cholesterol = heart attack." About 30 years of research now indicates that for most people dietary cholesterol has only a small effect on the blood levels of cholesterol. Increasing cholesterol consumption by 100 mg per day increases serum cholesterol by about 1%. Reasonable consumption of eggs, one egg per day or about double what you have been allowing yourself, seems to have no measurable effect on heart disease risk.

Today we recognize that total serum cholesterol level may be less important than the ratio of LDL:HDL cholesterol as a determinant of heart disease risk. Cholesterol feeding studies demonstrate that the addition of 100 mg of cholesterol per day to the diet increases the LDL:HDL ratio on average from 2.60 to 2.61, which probably has negligible effect on heart disease risk. This may explain why epidemiological studies show that dietary cholesterol is not related to coronary heart disease incidence or death rate.

Research is uncovering evidence that oxygen-damaged cholesterol might be the link between cholesterol and heart disease. Cholesterol in the HDL form is protected from oxidation better than cholesterol in the LDL form, although more generous intake of antioxidants will protect even LDL-cholesterol from oxidation.

Severely limiting eggs is unwise for all but a few of us, since eggs have high nutrient density for the cost, plus they are convenient and easy to digest. Recent research indicates that egg eaters are more likely than are non-egg-eaters to have diets that provide adequate amounts of essential nutrients.

Other than cholesterol, another concern about eggs is the possibility of salmonella contamination. Fortunately, the risk of contamination in the U.S. is small, only about 1 in 20,000, and this risk can be lowered even more when eggs are cooked completely. People with weakened immunity, such as the elderly or persons with AIDS, should avoid certain foods with raw eggs such as Caesar salad dressing, or consider using pasteurized eggs.

It is possible to modify the nutritional composition of eggs by feeding the hens special diets. "Designer" eggs containing increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E are now on the market, and research indicates that up to a dozen per week of these eggs will not increase the risk of heart disease.

Eating a variety of whole and wholesome foods in moderation is the key to good nutrition. Since eggs provide many essential nutrients, such as high-quality protein, several important minerals and vitamins such as vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and vitamin E, they should not be ignored when planning your menu.

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