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4 December 2007

Edible, Sure. But Just How Incredible?

At breakfast recently a friend of mine passed on the scrambled eggs. “I’m watching my cholesterol,'’ he said. Another woman I know only orders Egg Beaters, which are essentially cholesterol-free orange-colored egg whites.

Of all the commonly consumed foods, eggs contain the highest amounts of cholesterol, and that’s why many people shun them. Now, the American Egg Board is bringing back its “Incredible Edible Egg” campaign to reiterate the health benefits.

So are eggs good for you or bad for you? I asked Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University’s famed nutritionist, for his take.

“Dietary cholesterol has been greatly oversold as a health concern, in part because it has a small effect on blood cholesterol levels,'’ said Dr. Willett, who has never received funding from the egg industry. Eggs, in particular, have gotten a bad rap. “Some of the foods that contain high cholesterol, such as eggs, have many other healthy components,'’ he said.

Egg yolks, organ meat, shellfish, whole-fat dairy products and red meat are rich sources of dietary cholesterol. But the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats in the diet, not how much cholesterol you eat in food.

The average person makes about 75 percent of blood cholesterol in his or her liver, while the rest is absorbed from food. One of the biggest problems with giving up eggs is that people turn to other breakfast foods like bagels with cream cheese, pastries and muffins. These are loaded with unhealthy saturated fat, which increases blood cholesterol levels far more than the dietary cholesterol found in eggs. The downside of eggs is that many people only eat them cooked in butter or oil, or with sausage, also loaded with saturated fat.

There are a few caveats. Egg consumption has been linked to a higher risk of heart trouble in people with diabetes. And a small number of people are unusually sensitive to dietary cholesterol — in them, foods like eggs can disproportionately increase blood cholesterol.

Still, said Dr. Willett, “the large majority can consume eggs in reasonable amounts.” For a more lengthy explanation of the impact of dietary cholesterol and fats on your health, check out The Nutrition Source from the Harvard School of Public Health. And Northwestern University has a useful fact sheet comparing dietary cholesterol and saturated fat in various foods.

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