Over recent years eggs have gotten a bad rap, and unfortunately when eggs for breakfast were replaced with overly processed breakfast cereals many suffered the consequences. Eggs are an excellent source of protein, which is so important at breakfast, compared to heavy carbohydrate cereals, toast or bagels which can spike blood sugar levels. They are also high in vitamins and minerals are one of the best sources of the vital nutrient choline which is found in large amounts in only a limited number of foods. They are also an excellent source of some key fat soluble vitamins, contain omega-3 fatty acids, as well antioxidants. Clarification on the effects of dietary cholesterol, the ethics of eating eggs, as well as the health benefits of eggs is necessary, and I hope to shed some light on these topics so we can all come to our own more educated opinion on eggs.
Eggs Are High In Choline
Choline is a B-like vitamin, and the reason you probably haven’t heard too much about it is that the first recommended intakes for choline were only issued in 1998. One of the most important functions of choline is that it works much the same way as folate, and is important for the developing brain. It is also needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions (1). Recommended intakes for choline are 425 or 550 milligrams per day for adult females and males respectively – just two large eggs with the yolk contains 294 milligrams. The only other food that is richer in choline than eggs is liver. For vegetarians, ½ cup roasted soybeans contain 110 milligrams of choline, while ½ cup cooked kidney beans, ½ cup quinoa, ½ cup Brussel sprouts, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower or peas all contain between 25 to 45 milligrams of choline (1).
Eggs and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The health benefits of eggs are not limited to choline- they are also one of the few non-seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of DHA. The DHA found in eggs, as well as fatty seafood has been linked to numerous health benefits including reduction in inflammation, blood clots, and blood pressure. One egg contains as much as 40 milligrams of DHA (we require at least 650 milligrams per day of EPA and DHA combined), and omega-3 enriched eggs which come from hens being fed flaxseeds and/or processed fish meal can contain five to ten times this amount, but for a price. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp hearts, contain alpha-linolenic acid, which can convert to DHA and EPA but at very low amounts, and many factors can inhibit the conversion including excess omega-6 fatty acid, alcohol, and inadequate protein (see my post How To Get Enough Omega-3s for the Vegetarians and Vegans).
Other Health Benefits of Eggs
Much of the health benefits of eggs are concentrated in the egg yolks which are also a good source of vitamin A, and is important for involvement in immune function and reproduction, and vitamin D which has a strong role in bone health (see my post Getting Enough Calcium For Bone Health On A Dairy-Free Diet). Eggs also contain folate, B-vitamins, trace minerals including iodine and selenium and lutein, a plant pigment in the same chemical family as beta-carotene which may protect against eye diseases. Dark leafy greens are also a great source of lutein but we will absorb more lutein from eggs because of the fat content because lutein, like beta-carotene, is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning you need to eat it along with fat in order to absorb it (3). Note that adding a little olive oil to your spinach will do the same, and offer 8,000 micrograms of lutein per ½ cup cooked compared to 200-345 micrograms in an egg (2).
The Ethics of Eating Eggs
For many years I strayed from eggs, the images of overcrowded and filthy cages filled with thousands of chickens in cages piled one on top of another in batteries infamous for accumulated feces, feathers and feces haunted me. Caged eggs come from hens that often never see daylight, and are routinely fed low-levels of antibiotics. When it comes to the health benefits of eggs, just as with other animal food products, the health and wellbeing of the hens will be mirrored in their eggs (see my post For The Flexitarian – Sustainable and Healthier Meat Choices). Hens that are raised on the pasture and have access to sunlight, natural food (insects), and are surrounded by natural elements will produce healthier eggs. If you do not have access to farm eggs, Certified Organic guarantees that the eggs come from hens that eat organic feed, are allowed to access the outdoors and sunlight and are inspected to make sure the rules are followed.
Free-Range Eggs vs Caged Eggs
Lily Nichols, a Registered Dietitian, and Author introduced me to this study comparing the nutrient density of eggs from pasture-raised chickens compared to commercially-raised hens (3,4). Eggs from pasture-raised chickens had:
- A 30% higher Vitamin A content which is attributed to the fresh greens, grasses, and bugs a chicken eats. Vitamin A contributes to the rich orange colour of the yolks,
- Twice as much Vitamin E,
- More than double the content of Omega-3 fatty acids, and lesser amounts of omega-6 fatty acids leading to a more preferable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3,
- A 3-6x higher content of Vitamin D, due to regular sun exposure.
Eggs and Cholesterol
There is no argument about whether dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol; it does. There is also no argument about whether a high level of cholesterol in blood raises the risk for heart disease; it does. But there is still some uncertainty about how dangerous the effects of high blood cholesterol might be, and about whether having high blood cholesterol is bad for everyone, or only for those individuals who are especially sensitive to its effects for reasons of family history.
It is also important to consider that blood cholesterol is also affected by many other factors. Saturated and trans fats in food raise ‘bad’ or LDL blood cholesterol levels, and do so more effectively than the cholesterol in eggs. Unsaturated oils, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help to reduce LDL blood cholesterol. Take note that many studies attempting to prove that dietary cholesterol has no effect on heart disease risk are sponsored by industry. For now, we can all agree that 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day, which equates to about one large egg per day, is acceptable for most people. Those with diabetes or a history of heart disease should speak to their health professional about appropriate recommendations for them.
Eggs For Breakfast
I’ve written about the importance of adequate protein, especially at breakfast, in previous posts (see Cottage Cheese Omelette with Kale and Mushrooms, Banana-Free Cauliflower and Greens Smoothie Bowl, Steel Cut Oats with Peanut Butter for more high protein breakfast ideas). I cannot stress the importance of achieving balance at breakfast by reducing carbohydrate load and aiming for at least 15-20g of protein. Replacing refined carbohydrates with eggs has been shown to result in few cravings throughout the day, and fewer spikes in blood sugar and insulin (5). Eggs are a great source of protein with 6g per egg; serve your eggs with a low glycemic-index sweet potato hash, or sautéed up some vegetables for a nutrient-packed scramble. They are a nutrition powerhouse and can be a sustainable form of protein that like anything else should not be had in excess.
References for The Health Benefits of Eggs
1. Choline: Fact Sheet For Health Professinoals. National Institute of Health
2. What To Eat (2006). Marion Nestle
3. Real Food for Pregnancy (2018). Lily Nichols
5. Egg Breakfast Enhances Weight Loss (2008). International Journal of Obesity
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.