Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
Whether poached, scrambled or sunny side up, we love to pile our plates high with eggs in the morning. Packed with protein, the humble egg has fast become our morning fuel of choice but that wasn’t always the case.
For years, we were told that to be healthy, we’d have to do the egg-xact (sorry) opposite of eating an egg a day. Long associated with high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (the LDL type) and heart disease, eggs were taken off the menu for many healthy eaters.
However, that’s started to change in recent years and we can now get cracking with our eggs! Especially given the news that a brand new study from the University of Eastern Finland has revealed that diets relatively high in cholesterol have no effect on heart problems. In fact, those clever scientists found that eating the equivalent of one egg every day doesn’t increase our risk of suffering a heart attack – not even a little bit.
So impressive were these findings that even for those people whose metabolism is generally more affected by dietary cholesterol (those with the hereditary APOE4 phenotype) saw no difference when eating cholesterol-rich eggs.
This is especially amazing when you consider that around a third of the population in Finland are carriers of this and – for APOE4 carriers at least - dietary cholesterol should have a greater impact on serum cholesterol levels.
Of course, all this means nothing unless you actually know what cholesterol is and how it affects you! If you were wondering, cholesterol is a waxy sort of substance found in your cells. The body needs a bit of it to make hormones, vitamin D and other essentials that help you to digest foods. However, too much of anything is never a good thing…
Cholesterol is transported through the blood by molecules known as lipoproteins.
There are two types of these lipoproteins - there’s high-density lipoproteins, or HDL (AKA ‘good cholesterol’), and low-density lipoproteins, or LDL (also known as ‘bad cholesterol’).
HDL transports cholesterol to the liver to be excreted, while LDL can lead to cholesterol building up in the arteries, blocking blood flow. This is what can cause us problems and lead to heart disease.
Anyway, let’s forget all that and move back to the study - how did those clever science guys find out that we can eat eggs without worry? And who do we have to thank for this cracking news (sorry!)?
Well, until now, research on the relationship between high dietary cholesterol intake and the risk of heart disease in carriers of the APOE4 wasn’t available. To find out more, those super-smart Finnish scientists looked at the dietary habits of 1,032 men, between the ages of 42 and 60. A third of these men carried the APOE4 gene type.
At the start of the study – between 1984 and 1989 - none of the men had problems with their hearts. However, just 21 years later, the study found that 230 of them had suffered a heart attack.
In the highest control group, the men had a fairly high dietary cholesterol intake of 520mg, eating around one egg a day. Just to put that into perspective, our daily recommended cholesterol allowance is 300mg or less. An egg contains 213mg, while a 100g piece of beef has 70mg.
Based on this, the study found that eating plenty of dietary cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease or heart problems. Better still, eating eggs – a significant source of dietary cholesterol – had no effect either, and they don’t even thicken artery walls. The scientists also believe that these findings can be applied to the whole population – including those with the APOE4 phenotype.
Well, quite simply – you can now have your dippy egg a day and enjoy it, completely guilt-free. The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, seem to support more recent dietary advice which encourages egg lovers to let loose.
In fact, you could say that advice has now come full circle. So much so that in 2000, the American Heart Association changed its guidelines from saying we should cut back on eggs – they now say it’s perfectly safe to eat an egg a day.
So, why the turnaround? Well, for most of us, dietary cholesterol barely affects serum cholesterol levels – the bit that’s found in the blood. In other words, what we eat doesn’t have a huge effect on our cholesterol levels in the first place.
What’s more, very few studies have linked dietary cholesterol to a higher risk of heart disease. That’s why, across the world, many nutrition recommendations no longer tell us to reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol we can eat.
However, what’s worth bearing in mind is that other foods associated with high cholesterol - dairy and saturated fats - could well cause health problems. You see, the scientists in this particular study noted that because they only focused on people who ate eggs, the findings may not apply to all foods.
Well, firstly, let’s start by telling you what foods have long been associated with increasing our bad cholesterol levels:
Saturated fats including –
However, despite our very own Lucy Bee Coconut Oil being a source of saturated fats, there have been plenty of studies to suggest that coconut oil isn’t a problem, either. You see, not all saturated acids behave in the same way and our coconut oil is packed with lauric acid, which helps the body, instead.
It’s also worth remembering that countries such as Thailand – where coconut oil is high on the menu - eat very high amounts of saturated fats like coconut oil and lard, yet have very low levels of heart disease on average1. Hurrah!
Confusingly though, it’s difficult to say exactly how much dietary cholesterol we should be having. This is because dietary cholesterol is only responsible for about 15% of our total blood cholesterol, with other factors such as smoking, obesity, physical activity all playing a huge role.
However, as a general guideline, the daily limit in the US currently stands at 300 mg.
If you’re worried about cholesterol levels and want to work to lower them, then there are plenty of foods you can eat to help you on your way! It’s worth cutting out processed foods and, instead, eating plenty of nature’s goodness – think lots of oats, veggies, beans and nuts and seeds.
Eating plenty of fibre can also help, as can getting sweaty with lots of exercise. If you do want an easy guide, then these are our favourite foods to lower cholesterol:
Of course, if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, then it’s always worth popping in to see your doctor and having a chat.
If you'd like some guidance on which eggs to choose, check out our guide here.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.