Are Eggs A Superfood — Or Super Unhealthy?
Eggs have long been in the crossfire of controversy, with some doctors and registered dietitians labeling them one of the healthiest foods on the planet, and others proclaiming them a food to be avoided—bad for cholesterol levels at best, and as health-harming as five cigarettes (as recent documentary What the Health asserts) at worst. We reached out to some of the country's top functional medicine practitioners to figure out once and for all: Are eggs a superfood, or super unhealthy?
Let's talk about cholesterol.
Eggs have been demonized for their cholesterol content for years, with many traditional docs still recommending against them as such, especially for patients with heart disease or diabetes. One egg contains 186 mg of cholesterol, all of which is found in the yolk, a fact that gave rise to the "egg-white only" breakfast order that's become ubiquitous in the last 10 years. "To me, cholesterol-phobia needs to give way to a more nuanced and enlightened understanding of what really contributes to heart disease and chronic disease for the majority of people (chronic inflammation, chronic stress, processed foods including refined carbohydrates, sweet foods and industrial seed oils, for starters)," says Ellen Vora, M.D.
Tiffany Lester, M.D. and medical director of Parsley Health San Francisco, agrees. "Eggs have gotten an undeserved reputation as one of the leading causes of high cholesterol. The suggestion that the higher saturated fat content in eggs accelerates atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) as much as smoking does is false. New research1 from both the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health have debunked this concept."
But are they as bad for you as five cigarettes a day?
One of the most quoted (and nervous Google search-inducing) claims of the recent viral documentary What the Health, the eggs-equaling-five-cigarettes-a-day comparison comes from a focus on eggs' dioxin content. Dioxins are highly toxic compounds that accumulate primarily in the fatty tissues of animals. The WHO calls them a "known carcinogen"—which would point to eggs being super unhealthy, right? Not so fast. "To say that dioxins accumulate specifically in eggs or other animal products is overly simplistic and intellectually dishonest," says Will Cole, D.C., a functional medicine practitioner. "A diet rich in organic, pasture-raised eggs and other animal products has ample amounts of bioavailable true vitamin A, which is only found in animal products. Vitamin A down-regulates the toxic actions of dioxins2." Meaning, essentially, that eggs contain the bad stuff (dioxins), but because of nature's intelligence, they also contain good elements to prevent the bad stuff from wreaking havoc on your body. Cole also points to the high-dioxin content of various plant-based foods. "Research has found3 that, other than fish oil, which isn’t consumed in high amounts, rice was the most concentrated source of dioxin toxins. Animal foods such as eggs had dioxins, but on average, plant foods had higher amounts of dioxins compared to most animal products. For example, vegetables had almost six times3 the dioxin concentration of beef liver." The bottom line? Dioxins aren't great, but whole foods account for that—and if you were going to try to avoid them altogether, you might have very little left to put on your plate.
So, are eggs good for you?
Many doctors answered with an emphatic yes—for most people. "Eggs can be a highly beneficial food for women because of how they support hormonal health. Eggs are an excellent source of vitamin A, which allows your cells to use the thyroid hormone, which affects your weight, mood, energy, and digestive health. They are full of biotin and choline, which is crucial in fertility and pregnancy," says Jolene Brighten, N.D., a women's health expert. "Eggs are a cornerstone of a healthy diet and contain vital nutrients like choline, selenium, and vitamin B12," says Lester. Joel Kahn, M.D., doesn't see that choline as a good thing. "It was shown in the most prestigious medical journal in the world to promote cardiovascular disease and events," he says, noting that he advises his cardiac and diabetic patients to avoid eggs. Many of the doctors emphasized the importance of listening to your body and seeing how you personally respond to eggs. "If you experience eczema, ADHD, seasonal allergies, frequent nausea, digestive issues, or you just don't feel so good when you eat eggs, consider eliminating eggs for a month and then reintroducing," advises Vora. "Pay attention to how you feel throughout the process. If eggs exacerbate your symptoms, consider eliminating them long term."
The type of eggs you choose matters—a lot.
The one point every doctor agreed on? The sourcing for your eggs is of utmost importance, and it's definitely worth spending the extra money or time to find pastured eggs, ideally purchased directly from a farmer. "The anemic eggs from conventional factory farms are damaging to your body, to the animals, and to the planet," says Vora. When Cole sees issues with his patients' tolerating eggs, it often has more to do with what the chickens were eating than the egg itself. "I don't recommend patients consume 'vegetarian-fed' eggs, as those chickens are fed soy," he says, noting that when his patients switch to pasture-raised eggs, they're able to tolerate them.
The bottom line?
While Kahn takes a more hardline stance against eggs, the rest of the doctors agreed—in general, if you like eggs, go for it, but take care to choose a type that's good for your body and the planet. And if you do choose to eat eggs, pay attention to how they react in your individual body. "As more and more research comes out we are seeing that one-size-fits-all statements are just not appropriate at the individual level," says Brighten. "While some people may not tolerate eggs in their diet, others benefit greatly from the nutrients they provide."
While many docs don't think eating cholesterol is bad for your heart, most agree that inflammation is. Here are 10 "healthy" foods causing inflammation—plus, eight foods an inflammation expert won't touch.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.