It's 2019, Eggs Still Aren't Healthy
In December of 2018, TIME magazine published an article titled "Are Eggs Healthy? Here's What the Experts Say." Unfortunately, what the article failed to do was look critically at the science and/or interview any "expert" whose opinion was different from "Eggs are totally, absolutely, unequivocally, all the way healthy. No doubt. Believe me. I'm an expert." What the article succeeded at doing, however, was lying to consumers about the true healthfulness of eggs. Likely, in concert with the egg industry. Below, Balanced's Manager of Institutional Outreach and Support, and nutrition and food policy professional, Maddy, responds to the TIME article.
For some years, there has been a push by the egg industry to exonerate the “humble egg”—a phrase I borrow from a recent TIME magazine article in which the breakfast staple was heavy-handedly lauded. It appears that, in the court of public opinion, the defense’s strategy is to paint this disease-linked food as a wholesome, if banal, source of nutrients that has been unjustly defamed.
The article in question fails to critically examine the nutrition science literature on eggs, cholesterol, and saturated fat.
It features quotes from just two dietitians (both of whom have their own personal online brands), and from those interviews, the article concludes by the third paragraph that “[n]utrition experts agree” that eggs are “healthy.” It’s not terribly difficult to find dietitians or other healthcare professionals with dissenting viewpoints, but the opposing arguments from that group of equally qualified experts found no representation in the article whatsoever.
Indeed, if the egg-loving experts find eggs healthy, their opinion contrasts with federal laws and a Supreme Court decision explicitly prohibiting the marketing of eggs as healthy or safe.
It would appear that scientific and popular publications, grasping for novelty, have failed in their duties as gatekeepers against poorly designed, industry-backed research. Given that overstimulated consumers of media are relentlessly bombarded with conflicting nutrition information, it is easy to see how a jaded reader might simply choose the side that validates her or his comfortable, but unhealthy, dietary choices.
As a result, the average egg-eating consumer may read the TIME article and determine that the nutritiousness of eggs is both absolute and unquestionable.
If somebody wants to eat eggs, that’s their prerogative. However, at the very least, consumers should be well informed with all the information, not just cherry-picked factoids. Here, I will interrogate the article’s stance and provide an alternative perspective.
The first dietitian quoted in the article states that eggs are “very healthy” because they contain “13 essential vitamins and minerals” and are a “high-quality protein” source. But neither of those qualities in and of themselves makes eggs a de facto healthy food. Extrapolating from reductive facts can be dangerous because it does not take into account the impact of the whole food on the body. For example, poisonous mushrooms and plants undoubtedly contain essential vitamins and minerals, but that fact alone doesn’t make them edible or safe to eat. Similarly, eggs may very well contain vitamins, minerals, and all nine essential amino acids, but they also contain choline, phosphatidylcholine, and L-carnitine—all of which are converted by gut bacteria into trimethylamine-N-oxide, also known as TMAO. Just as poisonous plants are unhealthy because of their toxins, eggs are unhealthy because they stimulate production of TMAO, which actively participates in the development of atherosclerosis.
The “high-quality protein” argument deserves an extra rebuttal.
The average American ingests far more protein than is needed. School-aged children consume three to four times as much protein as is required, and adults consume approximately twice as much as they need. Excess dietary protein is generally converted into and stored as body fat when we meet our minimum carbohydrate needs, which we easily surpass. It therefore seems silly to speak of protein as though we are a protein-deficient population.
The second dietitian quoted in the article continues in the same vein as the first and touts the lutein and zeaxanthin content of eggs. A quick Google search will reveal that the best sources of both of these antioxidants are green leafy vegetables, squash, peas, carrots, pistachios, and many cruciferous vegetables. None of these plants contribute to atherosclerosis and, in fact, can help lower blood cholesterol thanks to their fiber content.
Both dietitians allude to studies that appear to de-link dietary cholesterol and fat from blood cholesterol levels, but they provide no specific sources. The article does link to a study conducted with Finnish men—not exactly a generalizable population, I should add. This study concludes that neither egg consumption nor dietary cholesterol is associated with greater risk for coronary artery disease. However, researchers classified “low” egg intake as less than 19 grams per day and “low” cholesterol intake as less than 321 milligrams per day, and the average intakes among the “low” egg and cholesterol consumption groups were 11 g and 267 mg, respectively.
An astute observer will note that a cholesterol intake of 267 mg per day is objectively high—too high to be honestly labeled “low.” The upper limit of daily cholesterol intake is 300 mg for those without high LDL cholesterol and 200 mg for those with high LDL cholesterol (including one-third of American adults). Even though the average individual in the “low egg consumption” group only ate one-sixth of an egg on average per day (about 35 mg of cholesterol), the chances are high that this individual still ingested too much cholesterol from other sources.
So, it’s not surprising at all, given these egregious misclassifications, that no significant differences were found between low, moderate, and high consumers of eggs and cholesterol with respect to their risk for coronary artery disease.
I haven’t even mentioned the study’s numerous limitations detailed by its authors in the paper’s discussion section. All flaws taken into account, the conclusions drawn from this study are simply untenable.
And it is very often on flimsy, poorly designed, and incorrectly interpreted science that the purported healthfulness of eggs is based. The scientific community established decades ago that eggs should be restricted in our diets if we want to protect our hearts, but the appeal of novel, seemingly contradictory findings is strong. Couple that with the food industry’s infiltration into academic research through the funding of studies and donations to universities, and we’re left with distorted, paradoxical facts that the average science journalist probably isn’t equipped to demystify.
This apparent lack of a final verdict on the healthfulness of eggs is all the egg industry needs to keep us buying, and suffering the consequences of consuming, its products.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: email@example.com
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