We recently had the pleasure of entertaining many of our closest friends and family members, quite a few who stayed and crashed at our place. Upon awakening, the obvious answer to the question, “What’s for breakfast?” was eggs.
You see, I like eggs and tend to eat a lot of them. I mean, who doesn’t love a good omelet, right?
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard a time or two before that you should be mindful of consuming too many eggs as their cholesterol content is rather high.
I’ve even heard the recommendation that eggs should only be eaten once per week to avoid cholesterol issues. If that’s the case, I’m in big trouble.
Fortunately, it’s not.
The Truth About Eggs and Cholesterol
You see, for years we have been told that cholesterol intake should be kept to a bare minimum under the presumption that doing so will help to decrease blood cholesterol levels and promote overall health. While this theory of lowering dietary cholesterol intake to lower blood cholesterol makes sense, it doesn’t quite pan out that way.
Fact is, despite its bad rap, cholesterol is as necessary for human health as water or oxygen. Cholesterol is an essential building block of your cell walls (i.e., cell membranes), it helps form the protective covering that surrounds your nerves, and it’s used to synthesize important hormones, like testosterone and estrogen.
Cholesterol is so important, in fact, that your body (e.g., liver) produces it. Indeed, the average person’s liver produces about 75% of the body’s total cholesterol, far outweighing any potential contribution from dietary sources. And when dietary intake of cholesterol is decreased, the liver compensates by producing more cholesterol, leaving total cholesterol levels relatively unchanged.
Numerous studies have shown that egg consumption does not significantly affect total cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, or the so-called “bad” cholesterol), and observational studies have found no evidence of a negative association between egg consumption and heart health.
In a study published in the journal Metabolism, researchers from the University of Connecticut compared the effects of eating 3 whole eggs per day versus an equivalent amount of yolk-free egg substitutes (i.e., cholesterol-free) on blood levels of cholesterol and insulin sensitivity. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that the participants who ate the whole eggs experienced significantly greater increases in HDL cholesterol and large HDL particles (i.e., the “good” forms of cholesterol), as well as reductions in total VLDL and medium VLDL particles (other forms of “bad” cholesterol).
What’s more, the egg eaters also experienced significant improvements in insulin sensitivity and increases in HDL and LDL particle size (i.e., more large, fluffy particles). Particle size is noteworthy because small, dense particles are considered more detrimental than large, fluffy particles (regardless of whether they’re HDL or LDL).
Still not convinced?
Perhaps the most striking evidence on the topic came in 2015 when America’s top nutrition advisory panel, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which is responsible for publishing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans based on the body of scientific and medical evidence, stated, “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
In other words, you don’t need to worry about the cholesterol in your food.
In fact, the DGAC went on to retract its previous recommendation to limit cholesterol to no more than 300mg/day because “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and [blood] cholesterol.” That is, the cholesterol in food (such as eggs) has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Taken together, egg consumption does not seem to be a concern for otherwise healthy individuals, although it may be an issue for certain folks, who may be genetically described as “hyper-responders” to dietary cholesterol.
Now that’s not to say that we should go hog wild with our intake of cholesterol-containing foods, but it does mean that one can expect cholesterol levels to remain relatively stable over a wide range of dietary intakes.
Then, Why Is Everyone Afraid of Cholesterol?
Given this information, you may be wondering why the body would ever produce more cholesterol if cholesterol is so “bad,” and that’s a good question.
Metaphorically speaking, cholesterol accumulation on the walls of arteries can be compared to firefighters battling a blazing fire. Along those lines, you wouldn’t accuse those brave men of arson because they’re at the scene of a fire. Rather, they’re responding to a problem
Cholesterol acts in much the same way, as it is sent to “patch up” damaged arterial walls, which may be induced by several factors, including diet and lifestyle. Of course, genetics play a role, but the fact of the matter is there are many factors within your control that can impact blood levels of cholesterol.
“Wait a second, I thought you said dietary cholesterol doesn’t have an appreciable impact on blood cholesterol?!” I did, and that’s true; however, there are other dietary factors that do seem to affect cholesterol levels.
On one hand, dietary fiber has well-known cholesterol-lowering properties. It can interfere with the amount of bile, which is necessary for the breakdown of dietary fats, that is reabsorbed in the intestines. To make up for this loss, the liver must produce new bile salts, which are composed of cholesterol. So, increasing fiber intake by eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes, etc., can have a cholesterol-lowering effect.
On the other hand, consuming trans fats (in any amount), excess consumption of saturated fats, and regular consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars can increase cholesterol levels. Interestingly, some studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with processed carbohydrates leads to an increased risk of heart issues. In addition, lack of physical activity and weight gain also contribute to suboptimal levels of cholesterol, while regular exercise and stress management help lower cholesterol.
So, the answer to decreasing blood cholesterol levels is not avoiding omelets and not necessarily decreasing dietary cholesterol intake, but rather improving one’s diet overall by eating healthier in general and avoiding the other harmful types of foods mentioned.
Combine that with increased physical activity, and both you and your cholesterol levels will be in even better shape.