Eggs are a dietary staple consumed by people worldwide, yet they have long been a subject of contention in health discussions, particularly concerning their cholesterol content. This concern isn't unfounded; nearly one-third of all global fatalities are caused by cardiovascular diseases, making it the leading cause of death globally. These alarming statistics have highlighted the potential dangers of dietary contributors to elevated cholesterol levels. However, the relationship between egg consumption, cholesterol, and heart health may not be as direct as previously assumed. With advances in nutritional sciences, our understanding of these interactions has evolved.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol, a fat-like, waxy substance, is found in all cells of our bodies, playing a key role in creating hormones, vitamin D, and certain substances that aid digestion. It's worth noting that our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need, primarily in the liver. However, we also obtain cholesterol through our diet, specifically from animal-based foods such as egg yolks, meat, and cheese. In excess, cholesterol can combine with other blood substances to form plaque, which adheres to the walls of our arteries, leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis. This can further result in coronary artery disease, where arteries become narrow or blocked (2,3).
What is Cholesterol's Role in The Body?
Cholesterol, a sterol synthesized by animal cells and also ingested through food, serves as a precursor for the synthesis of significant substances like steroid hormones, bile acids, and vitamin D, thereby maintaining the integrity and fluidity of cell membranes. While once considered a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases (CVD), newer evidence suggests dietary cholesterol does not significantly elevate LDL-C levels. Findings from the Hellenic National Nutrition and Health Survey (HNNHS) even suggest that moderate egg consumption, a significant source of dietary cholesterol, could potentially decrease the risk of dyslipidemia. Therefore, cholesterol, while multifunctional in nature, plays a central role in maintaining overall health, dictating a need for balanced dietary habits and further investigation into its complex roles.
What Type of Cholesterol is in Eggs?
Eggs are a significant source of dietary cholesterol, specifically found in the yolk of the egg. Each large egg contains approximately 186 milligrams of cholesterol, which is all contained within the egg yolk. However, it is important to understand that the cholesterol in eggs is dietary cholesterol, which does not directly translate into higher blood cholesterol levels. Additionally, eggs contain various important nutrients, such as high-quality proteins, both saturated and unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and phospholipids. Phospholipids, for instance, can have widespread effects on pathways related to inflammation, cholesterol metabolism, and HDL function. The specific types of phospholipids in eggs, such as phosphatidylcholine (HDL-POPC) and phosphatidylethanolamine (HDL-PE), can have a role in promoting cholesterol efflux, a process where excess cholesterol is removed from the body cells.
What Type of Cholesterol is Commonly Associated with Heart Disease?
The type of cholesterol commonly associated with heart disease is Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often referred to as 'bad cholesterol.' If high levels of LDL cholesterol are found in the blood, it can lead to the buildup of fat in the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Over time, these deposits can cause narrowing or blockages in the arteries, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack or stroke.
Conversely, High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, often called 'good cholesterol,' helps remove different forms of cholesterol from the bloodstream and is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. However, HDL function is multifaceted, and an improvement in one function may not necessarily reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
Research has shown that dietary cholesterol, like that found in eggs, doesn't have the same impact on LDL levels as saturated and trans fats. Instead, it's these types of fats, found in foods like commercially baked goods and fried foods, that are more influential in raising blood cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of developing heart disease (4).
What Does Scientific Research State About Egg Consumption, Cholesterol, and Heart Health?
The relationship between egg consumption, cholesterol, and heart health has been a topic of scientific discussion for some time, primarily due to the high cholesterol content found in egg yolks. Current research, however, indicates that for most people, consuming eggs does not significantly raise the risk of heart disease (13,14,15).
Eggs are a nutritionally dense food packed with high-quality protein, vitamins (including A, B, and D), and other beneficial nutrients such as lutein, zeaxanthin, and choline. As an example, one large egg includes about 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 270 international units (IU) of vitamin A, 41 IU of vitamin D, around 6 g of protein, and 72 calories. These nutrients play significant roles in various aspects of health, including eye health and neurological function.
Regarding cholesterol, it’s important to note that dietary cholesterol does not directly translate to higher cholesterol levels in the blood. The primary contributors to increased blood cholesterol are, in fact, saturated and trans fats, not dietary cholesterol. The liver produces most of the body's cholesterol, primarily stimulated by the intake of saturated and trans fats in our diet (14).
Despite the cholesterol content in eggs, eggs have a relatively low amount of saturated fat. This means they don't stimulate our liver to produce excess cholesterol to the same degree as foods high in saturated and trans fats would. Thus, the cholesterol from eggs does not impact blood cholesterol levels in the same way as these other fats (13).
Harvard Medical School's research, which followed hundreds of thousands of people over several years, found that consuming up to one egg per day did not experience an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, or other cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, the general advice is that most healthy individuals can consume up to seven eggs a week safely without increasing their risk of heart disease (14).
However, the context of the overall diet is incredibly significant. Foods commonly eaten with eggs, such as bacon, sausages, and high-saturated fat foods, can indeed contribute to higher cholesterol levels and increased heart disease risk. Cooking methods also matter, as frying eggs in oil or butter can add extra saturated fat and calories (13,14).
For individuals with diabetes, the guidance might be different. Some research suggests an increased heart disease risk with eating seven eggs a week in those with diabetes, but other studies did not find the same connection. It's also worth noting that there is conflicting evidence about the association between egg consumption and the risk of developing diabetes in the first place (13).
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Patients Worried About Cholesterol Levels
Functional medicine labs offer an array of tests that provide detailed insight into an individual's cholesterol levels and overall cardiovascular health.
Cholesterol and Lipids Panel
The Ayumetrix Cholesterol and Lipids Panel is a comprehensive assessment that measures various types of cholesterol and lipids in the blood, including total cholesterol, LDL ("bad" cholesterol), HDL ("good" cholesterol), and triglycerides. This panel provides a detailed snapshot of a patient's lipid status, which can help healthcare providers assess cardiovascular disease risk and guide personalized treatment plans.
High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP)
The BostonHeart High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP) Test is a blood test that measures hs-CRP, a protein that increases in response to inflammation. Elevated levels of hs-CRP can indicate conditions that cause chronic inflammation, such as cardiovascular disease.
The BostonHeart Lifestyle Panel is a holistic and extensive assessment of heart health. This panel includes a lipid profile, hs-CRP, as well as two unique tests: the HDL Map and the Cholesterol Balance. The HDL Map measures different subclasses of HDL cholesterol, while the Cholesterol Balance test assesses the body's production and absorption of cholesterol. This panel offers valuable insights into an individual's cardiac risk and helps guide lifestyle modifications and treatment strategies.
Advanced Cholesterol Profile
The Mosaic Diagnostics Advanced Cholesterol Profile offers a more in-depth look into cholesterol levels by evaluating the size and density of lipoprotein particles. As a result, cardiovascular risk can be more accurately assessed.
To summarize, it is important to recognize that while eggs do indeed contain cholesterol, their consumption does not necessarily equate to direct harm or increased health risks. The dietary cholesterol present in eggs is only one piece of a multifaceted nutritional puzzle. Other factors, such as consumption of saturated and trans fats, play a more substantial role in influencing blood cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health. This understanding marks a shift from past assumptions and underscores the importance of comprehensive, individual dietary considerations. The relationship between diet and health remains complex, and an overly simplified focus on single nutrients may not provide an accurate representation of health outcomes. As such, it is crucial for healthcare professionals and patients alike to maintain a balanced, well-informed perspective on dietary choices and their impact on overall health.
Lab Tests in This Article