“Are eggs good for you?” “Are eggs healthy?”
Go ahead. Try one of these questions at your next dinner party, with your most health-conscious friend, or the next time you see your doctor or dietitian. Even experts can’t reach a consensus about whether eggs are healthy.
“I can’t say enough good things about eggs,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, in his book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. “They’re nature’s most perfect food.”
Mark Hyman, MD shares similar enthusiasm. “Eggs have been eggsonerated!” he writes in Eat Fat, Get Thin, claiming they “might be the cheapest and best new health food.”
But not everyone agrees.
“When it comes to egg consumption, I have a lot to say, most of it not-very-flattering,” writes Joel Kahn, MD. He calls it “a cruel and dirty industry [and the] environmental impact of raising so many hens on air, water and soil quality is also alarming.” (1)
Others resort to hyperbole. “Eggs Are Worse Than Cigarettes?” asks Molly Raisch’s clickbait Prevention title. (2)
But, Raisch bases the article on a 2012 study where Canadian researchers looked at over 1,200 men and women and concluded “that regularly eating egg yolks was two-thirds as bad as smoking when it comes to carotid plaque in the arteries, a known risk factor for stroke and heart attack.” (She does go on to recommend cutting egg consumption to one a day or, if that doesn’t cut it, eat extra whites.)
Last year the documentary What the Health? leaned heavily on that study and a few other sources to claim “eating an egg is about as dangerous as smoking five cigarettes.” That sounds shocking and sensationalistic, but is it true?
“The research strongly supports that the cholesterol, saturated fat and choline in eggs promotes disease, so my recommendation is to keep egg consumption to a minimum,” writes Cyrus Khambatta, PhD. “If you are currently living with diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer OR if your parents lived with diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer, limit your intake of eggs to less than 2 per week.” (In other words, that would be zero or one eggs weekly.) (3)
That’s a mouthful, but Khambatta diligently cites research showing how eggs contribute to diabetes, several types of cancer, all-cause mortality, and so much more.
But if that’s the case – if the research really does show eggs can contribute to all these problems – why do experts like Bowden and Hyman call eggs a perfect food?
Besides, other studies show eggs are absolutely healthy. One showed eggs protect against disease, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Antimicrobial, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-cancer, and hypotensive properties? Researchers found eggs provide all that and more. (4)
How can such a simple food become so confusing?
How Many Calories in an Egg?
That much is pretty straightforward. Almost all of those calories come from protein and dietary fat. Eggs are almost entirely absent of carbohydrate, including fiber.
Now, here’s the thing about the calories in an egg. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a medium chocolate chip cookie has about the same number of calories. (7)
But consider where those calories come from. A cookie is mostly sugar and fat, whereas an egg contains about six grams of protein and five grams of fat with almost no carbohydrate.
If I put a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies and a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs on the table, I’ll bet you could devour those cookies pretty quickly. You might have a stomach ache afterwards, but you could probably do it. But those eggs? My guess is you’d feel pretty gross before you got through the whole half-dozen. Maybe three or four, but not six.
And therein lies the situation about egg calories: Yes, calories matter with food, but where they come from matters far more.
Egg Nutritional Information
Regardless of the calorie debate, eggs pack quite a nutritional punch for very few calories.
Take protein: For such a tiny food, the protein content in an egg is pretty impressive. A large egg has about six grams of protein, and about half – 2.7 grams, to be exact – protein is in the egg yolk. (8)
At 93.7, egg protein has the highest biological value – a measurement that determines what percentage of a given nutrient, in this case protein, that your body utilizes – of any food. (Fish, by contrast, clocks in at 76.) (9)
Among those amino acids, eggs are high in leucine, one of three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that research shows stimulate skeletal muscle synthesis while decreasing muscle protein breakdown. (10)
Eggs also come loaded with nutrients. Let’s start with vitamins and minerals. Eggs have 18, in fact. They include immune-boosting and antioxidant-boosting nutrients like zinc, selenium, retinol (vitamin A), and tocopherols (vitamin E). (Worth noting: A hen’s diet, age, and environmental factors are among the variables that can impact an egg’s nutrient content.) (10)
Here’s the thing about egg nutrition facts: Most of those nutrients reside in the yolk.
“It turns out that the yolks are a treasure trove of nutrients (after all, they must supply the ingredients for creating new life),” says Hyman in Eat Fat, Get Thin. “While the whites have vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin), the yolks contain B6 and B12, folic acid (B9), pantothenic acid (B5), and thiamin (B1). The yolks are also rich sources of vitamins A, E, K, and D. In fact, egg yolks are one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D.”
Hyman adds the yolk also contains more calcium, copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc than the white.
Egg yolks are also a good source of lecithin and one of the few food sources that contain good amounts of choline. Among its roles, lecithin helps activate enzymes like superoxide dismutase and increases bile secretion. And choline’s roles include phospholipid synthesis and brain health. (10)
Carotenoids give egg yolks their yellow or orange color. Among them include carotene and xanthophylls including lutein, cryptoxanthin, and zeaxanthin. Perhaps best known for eye health (your retina has high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin), carotenoids also provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting benefits. (10)
The yolk color, by the way, depends on what a hen ate. A yellow-orange color means hens ate xanthophylls. Yellow corn or alfalfa meal makes medium yellow yolks, while hens who ate wheat or barley create lighter-colored yolks. A colorless diet (like white cornmeal) means almost colorless yolks, though some manufacturers add yellow-orange substances like marigold petals to enhance yolk color. (11)
OK, So What’s the Controversy with Eggs?
Eggs are nutrient powerhouses, loaded with nutrients and protein, but that doesn’t mean everyone loves them. Why the confusion and contention about eggs? Let’s clear the air here: If you are vegan and perhaps vegetarian, you’re not likely to approve of eggs because they come from animals, and – nutrients or anything else be damned – any animal-derived food is unhealthy.
For the record, Khambatta and Kahn are both vegan, or were at least when they made those statements. (Interestingly, CNN reports that a new type of vegans – called veggans – occasionally eat eggs to get B12, iron, and protein they might be getting in plant foods. (12) For many vegans, however, eating eggs remains controversial.)
But even some experts who are okay with eating animal foods shun eggs, and some studies show eating eggs can harm your health. To understand why, you need to remember two words: Fat and cholesterol.
“Eggs have one of the lowest energy to nutrient density ratios of any food,” begins a review by Dr. Bruce Griffin called “Eggs: good or bad?” By that, he means eggs pack many nutrients for very few calories.
They also “contain a quality of protein that is superior to beef steak and similar to dairy. From a nutritional perspective, this must qualify eggs as ‘good’. The greater burden of proof has been to establish that eggs are not ‘bad’, by increasing awareness of the difference between dietary and blood cholesterol, and accumulating sufficient evidence to exonerate eggs from their associations with [cardiovascular disease] and diabetes.” (13)
If that’s confusing, let’s backtrack and talk about the cholesterol in eggs. About four ounces of egg contains about 200–300 mg of cholesterol, all of it in the yolks, making them a potentially “dangerous” food for conditions like heart disease during the past 40 years. (10)
In 1968, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended people consume no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol daily, which meant no more than three eggs weekly. People adhered and dutifully downsized egg intake. (4)
Griffin notes that while the ensuing six decades of research yielded conflicting conclusions, most people agree dietary cholesterol has a relatively small effect on factors like serum LDL-cholesterol and cardiovascular risk. (13) [Classifying LDL as “bad” vastly oversimplifies this molecule, but that’s a story for another article.]
Even so, research is conflicting. One meta-analysis found eating four eggs a week could potentially increase your risk for cardiovascular six percent and diabetes by 29 percent, while a systematic review found no link between egg consumption and CVD among people with diabetes. (10)
Ultimately, egg studies present the same problems as meat and many other hot-button foods. Many don’t account for other things people might be doing that could contribute to, say, cardiovascular disease.
Maybe people who eat eggs in these studies smoke cigarettes, drink too much, don’t exercise, eat an overall poor diet, and choose lower-quality eggs (more on that in a minute). Perhaps they eat three-egg omelettes with toast slathered in jam and that’s why they have Type 2 diabetes?
Then there’s the issue about flawed research.
“Nutrition science is a particularly tough field to tackle,” explains Chase Purdy in Quartz. “It isn’t ethical for researchers to play Dr. Frankenstein with someone’s livelihood by experimenting and testing different diets on them, so nutrition scientists often lean heavily on observational studies rather than randomly controlled trials, which are the gold standard in scientific research. And because there are so many observational studies published every year, there are a lot of whiplash-inducing headlines like these [showing eggs are good or bad] trickling out on a near-daily basis.” (14)
That explains why one day you’ll read eggs are the perfect food; the next, you find a headline like the aforementioned Prevention article that compares eggs to smoking cigarettes.
At least with cholesterol, eggs have mostly – mostly – been vindicated among experts who keep up with the latest research. Whereas researchers once believed high dietary cholesterol consumption increased blood cholesterol levels (increasing problems like cardiovascular disease), newer research shows otherwise: Eggs have limited effects on the blood cholesterol level and on CVD. (10)
“Dietary cholesterol—like the kind you find in egg yolks—has minimal impact on serum cholesterol (the kind your doctor measures),” says Bowden. “Not only that, but the effect of eggs on heart disease can’t be predicted by looking only at their cholesterol content. Eggs contain many other nutrients that are good for you—protein, some polyunsaturated fats, folic acid, and other B vitamins.”
Research supports him. One 2017 study that looked at how eggs impacted healthy younger folks, shows eating up to three eggs a day improves markers associated with cardiovascular disease risk, including increased HDL-c and reduced LDL-c/HDL-c ratios. (15)
Another one, this a nearly-22-year follow-up study among a total of 2,497 middle-aged men, found cholesterol and egg intake don’t increase dementia or Alzheimer’s. Instead, moderate egg intake could improve cognitive performance. (16)
What about the Fat in Eggs?
Dietary cholesterol is more or less off the hook in most circles, but dietary fat sometimes gets eggs in trouble. Specifically, saturated fat gets most of the bad press. (Like many foods, eggs also contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.)
Of the five grams of fat in one egg, about 1.5 grams is saturated. (17) Like with cholesterol, that fat almost entirely resides in the yolk. I’ve talked about saturated fat in past blogs; namely about coconut oil and how the American Heart Association got it mostly wrong.
For the record, I’m not alone in believing saturated fat isn’t bad. But even if you do think so – and the evidence isn’t conclusive, especially for larger amounts – three eggs have less than five grams of saturated fat. To put that into perspective, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat. (18)
Like cholesterol, saturated fat got vilified, but new studies show otherwise.
“Eating saturated fat does not cause heart disease,” says Hyman. “I know this might seem startling, given that we’ve spent the better part of a century avoiding everything from butter to egg yolks because we were told they weren’t good for our hearts. But better to know the truth and make new and healthier habits going forward.”
As I argued about coconut oil, consider the source. The saturated fat in whole foods like eggs and nutrient-dense foods like coconut oil are a different ballgame than the saturated fat you find in a fast-food cheeseburger.
Plus eating saturated fat with sugary processed carbohydrates – eating that cheeseburger on a bun with fries and a milkshake – carries a different impact than eating a lower-carbohydrate diet where you would, say, have a grass-fed burger without the bun but rather on a salad.
Eggs Become Acquitted (Mostly)
Finally, in 2015 researchers modified these dietary guidelines – the ones from 1968 that recommended eating no more than 300 mg/day of dietary cholesterol – and nixed an upper limit for dietary cholesterol. (4) Dietary fat also got a break.
“In 2015, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee quietly and with little fanfare ended the era of trumpeting low-fat diets for weight loss or health,” says Hyman. “After reviewing all the research, this group of scientists failed to find any reason to limit total fat or cholesterol in the diet. This was finally put into the official guidelines in late 2015.”
That doesn’t mean eggs aren’t still controversial in some circles, but the two things that gave them a bad rep for decades – cholesterol and saturated fat – have mostly been vindicated. That means you’re less likely to order a three-egg omelet for breakfast and have your friend gasp, “But all that cholesterol!”
At least in most circles.
You’re fairly convinced about the health benefits of eggs. You’re ready to make eggs a regular staple for breakfast or maybe a snack. Now the real daunting question emerges: What kind of eggs should you buy?
Once upon a time, farmers gathered eggs every morning from hens and enjoyed them fresh – with glowing orange yolks – for breakfast. Unless you’re lucky enough to live on a farm or otherwise raise your own food, that probably isn’t possible today.
The best eggs today come from farmers’ markets, where you get to know the owners and learn how they raised their chickens. For many people, that isn’t possible: Their city doesn’t have farmers’ markets or they prefer to buy food elsewhere. Most likely, a grocery store.
It used to be that you would visit your supermarket and find eggs in different sizes (everything from small to jumbo), but that was about as much variety as you’d get. Today, eggs are big business, and you’ll find all sorts of varieties at most supermarkets including organic and free-range eggs. Many of these “special eggs” cost more – sometimes a lot more – than conventional eggs.
“Walk into the refrigerated dairy section at any grocery store and you’ll see all sorts of labels on the cartons of eggs,” says Hyman in his book Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?. “Many of them are confusing and hard to decipher.”
Some of those marketing terms are more legitimate than others.
“Today’s ‘free-range’ chicken has little in common with the chickens I saw on the small sustainable farms I visited as a kid where chickens ran around pecking at stuff to their hearts’ content and produced delicious eggs and meat that were relatively toxin free,” says Bowden.
Hyman notes that while terms like “natural,” “fresh,” and “gluten-free” (yes, some eggs contain that last one!) are meaningless, others like “cage-free” or “free-range” says nothing about what they were fed or whether they were injected with antibiotics.
Often, you’ll see manufacturers boast their chickens ate vegetarian feed. While this sounds good speciously, chickens aren’t vegetarians (they eat worms and other decidedly non-vegetarian things), and “vegetarian feed” probably entails very un-chicken-like foods like corn and grain.
Other terms like organic and pasture-raised do mean something. The former is good; the latter better; and if you can find organic pasture-raised, you’re in luck.
Omega-3 enriched eggs are also good. When you see claims like “high in omega 3s” on egg cartons, that usually means hens ate plant foods including flaxseed, which are high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the omega-3 fatty acid your body converts to longer-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Farmers might also add fish oil directly into the hens’ diet. (10) [I’ve discussed the limitations of your body converting ALA into the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.]
For the record, even pro-egg experts mostly agree with Kahn’s “a cruel and dirty industry” assessment.
“If the label says nothing, then the eggs are coming straight from a nightmare farm where thousands of birds are housed in cages so tight that they can’t turn around, their beaks are snipped off so they don’t peck one another to death, and the manure gathers all around them creating a stench that words can’t describe,” says Hyman in Food. “The eggs aren’t so great either.”
Put another way, quality matters with eggs. Buy the best eggs you can afford, avoid eggs from conventionally raised eggs like the plague, and don’t be swayed by meaningless terms on the carton.
Please Eat the Whole Egg, Not Just the Egg White
Some relics are best left to history: Things like acid-washed jeans, big hair, and egg-white omelettes.
A few decades ago for any healthy person, ordering a three-egg-white omelet would have been de rigueur. Today, we know better. We know the fat and cholesterol in egg yolks isn’t bad and actually might be healthy. We know (well, we’ve always known) many of the nutrients lie in egg yolks. And we know to absorb fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin D and lutein, we need the dietary fat found in yolks.
Yes, egg whites are almost pure protein. They don’t carry cholesterol or dietary fat like the yolks do. They also have a dark side: For one, egg whites contain anti-nutritional factors that can bind nutrients like biotin (although cooking potentially destroys these compounds). (10)
For some people, egg whites can create food allergies or food sensitivities. That’s because the whites contain most of an egg’s allergenic proteins (although researchers have also found several allergens within egg yolks). (10)
While egg whites have long been a staple food among bodybuilders, you’re missing out on many nutrients if you toss the yolk or use egg-white protein powder. You set yourself up for potential food sensitivities or allergies when you consume egg whites regularly.
Not only that; you might be short changing yourself with building muscle. One study found young men who ate whole eggs immediately after resistance exercise better stimulated protein synthesis and built muscle than those who just ate whites, despite being matched for protein content in young men, proving once again that nature always does things better. (12)
“Many people still ask: Is it okay to eat the yolks?” says Hyman in Food. “And the answer is a resounding Yes. Eat the whole egg, as Mother Nature intended.”
What’s the Best Way to Eat Eggs?
Eggs are an incredibly versatile food, including how you serve them and how you cook them. They add a healthy boost to a variety of foods including omelets (not just for breakfast), on top of salads, and as egg salad (skip out on commercial mayo and look for a coconut-oil or olive-oil based one; better yet, make your own).
I’m incredibly weary about recommending raw eggs in things like protein shakes. Even with the highest-quality eggs, you risk salmonella poisoning and honestly, it just doesn’t seem worth it.
Are scrambled eggs good for you? Maybe.
“The less you scramble or expose the yolk to oxygen, the less the cholesterol gets oxidized,” says Bowden, who believes “minimizing oxygen exposure is probably a good idea.” That means skipping out on those scrambled eggs on the buffet table, which have been sitting under a heat lamp for who knows how long.
Poaching eggs keeps the yolks intact. So does boiling eggs – hard boiled, soft boiled, or somewhere in between – while making those eggs more portable. If you notice the yolk turns green (or forms a green circle around its edges), it could mean you cooked the eggs too long or at too high a temperature. Try a lower temperature. (11)
Whichever way you cook eggs – fried, poached, hard boiled; there are a lot of ways – cooking them in extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or ghee becomes ideal. You know to avoid margarine and those awful no-stick sprays like the plague, and other oils like olive oil have too low of a heat point to cook eggs.
One more thing worth mentioning: Some people like JJ Virgin, author of The Virgin Diet, believe eggs present food sensitivities for many people. Some people can eat eggs every morning (or at least every day) and be fine. For others – just like with other potentially reactive foods – eating eggs every morning can create problems. For that reason, and to provide variety in your diet, I recommend making eggs a weekly staple (once, or a few times per week) as opposed to a daily staple.
Eggs are such a favorite food of mine that I’ve listed 35 Paleo-friendly egg recipes. Among them is a Scrambled Eggs Masala recipe you’re probably not going to find at your local diner! Give these recipes a try and let me know which ones are YOUR favorites.