Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.See all posts »
Confused About Eggs and Heart Health? It's a Mixed Basket
It was a lovely late Sunday morning. Music was drifting across the backyard, the air was full of laughter and snatches of cheery conversations, our host was making the rounds with a tray of champagne mimosas, and plates were piled high with scrumptious brunch treats. “Sarah,” my dad whispered, “they’re trying to kill us.”
What could have provoked my poor father, just months after surviving a devastating stroke, to accuse his very gracious hosts and dear friends of plotting his demise? Without a doubt, it was the Eggs Benedict.
Back in the 1990s, cholesterol was the heart’s sworn enemy. We were told that if we vigilantly avoided cholesterol, then we could avoid the devastating duo of heart disease and stroke. Since it is cholesterol buildup in the arteries that typically causes these conditions, it stood to reason that by avoiding cholesterol, we might avoid this plague of the modern world. Each egg provides about 200 mg of cholesterol, which is the top limit recommended for people at risk for cardiovascular disease. Those with no major risk factors should limit their cholesterol to 300 mg daily. (Besides eggs, cholesterol is also abundant in red meat and full fat dairy products.) That’s all well and good, but what was less apparent at the time was the fact that our body is fully capable of making its own cholesterol, such that dietary cholesterol accounts for less than one third of our total cholesterol number.
Nevertheless, it still seems to make good sense to limit egg consumption. Why ask for trouble? Studies on the subject have been limited by the fact that there is no way to do double-blinded randomized controlled research, so most rely on dietary questionnaires. There is some evidence that more than six eggs per week may increase risk, while other studies suggest that it is only people with diabetes who should stringently avoid eggs.
A recent report from the Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre in Ontario performed ultrasound testing on the carotid (neck) arteries of 1262 people who filled out dietary questionnaires. Since the carotids feed the brain, cholesterol buildup in these arteries can have serious consequences. The study subjects were asked specifically about egg yolk consumption. The researchers found that those who ate 3 or more eggs per week had substantially more cholesterol plaque than those who on average consumed less than two eggs weekly. The likelihood of plaque increased substantially after the age of 40.
Of course, there is a lot we don’t know about the people who were studied. Did they eat bacon and sausage with their eggs? Did it matter if the eggs were fried rather than boiled? What about farm-raised free-range eggs, as opposed to those from battery hens?
If you like eggs, it makes sense to account for that cholesterol in your weekly diet plan. If you’re going to eat eggs, say “no thanks” to the meat and cheese, so you can keep your cholesterol intake to a safe level. Better yet, choose a side of soy sausage (seriously, it tastes really good!) and a heaping helping of fruit to balance out your diet and keep your heart and brain healthy and strong.