So one of those Egg Council creeps got to you too, huh?
February 8, 2010 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Is there actually a link between eating eggs and having high choleterol?

I know you're not my doctor, but help me settle a bet with one. I've been regularly eating 3 eggs a day for the past month, and my girlfriend's dad (an endocrinologist) is trying to convince me that this will give me high cholesterol and a risk of cardiovascular disease. But every time I try to look this up online myself, I find conflicting information. First, there are journal articles like this one in JAMA or this one on PubMed, which seem to indicate that there is actually no proven link between the dietary cholesterol in eggs and bad cholesterol, at least not for everyone in the population. There's also this summary of the research on the Egg Nutrition Council website, but that may just be industry propaganda.

On the other hand, there are plenty of websites like this eHow that recommend limiting dietary cholesterol to less than 300mg per day (which I'm more than doubling). There's also this study which seems to indicate that egg consumption increases the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol (i.e., has a bad effect on cholesterol levels).

So, which is it? Is there just as much uncertainty as there seems to be, or is this like climate change where almost all credible scientists actually agree? In case it's relevant, I'm in my early 30s, nonsmoker, not diabetic, and the last time I had my cholesterol checked (before I started eating all these eggs) it was well within the normal limits.
posted by albrecht to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think this article from Mayo Clinic deals with the subject pretty well. Yes, the recommendation for cholesterol really is less than 300mg a day. Yes, eggs have a lot of cholesterol in them. But yes, how much a given person can eat before their blood cholestorol starts to go up varies widely. Some people can eat less than 100mg/day and still have a blood cholesterol above 400 (which is pretty high). Others can down a dozen eggs a week and be less than 150 (which is awesome).

So, uh, YMMV. If you're worried about this, get your cholesterol checked and talk to your doctor.
posted by valkyryn at 12:17 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not incredibly well-read on the subject, but my impression is that it's a legitimate controversy, although "dietary cholesterol = bad" is the more established, orthodox perspective. Here is a recent discussion of this question on another forum, sprinkled with lots of links to further reading.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:18 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: considering how nutrition is more than just one variable, i would imagine that eating 3 eggs a day fried in butter with pancakes, bacon, and grits all doused in butter and maple syrup is not good for you regardless of cholesterol.

I get the sense that the foods that are normally associated with eggs may be acting as confounding variables in these studies. For what it's worth, I generally eat the eggs either hard boiled or fried in a small amount of olive oil or cooking spray, and I don't eat bacon, sausage, or buttery toast. Definitely planning to get my levels checked again as soon as possible, but I'm really more interested in the state of the research, generally.
posted by albrecht at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2010

Consider reading Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. At least check out the reviews of the book. If you buy his synthesis of a vast number of medical studies, then, no, the cholesterol in eggs isn't what you should be worrying about.
posted by artemisia at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Everyone's body makes cholesterol, too, which contributes to the cholesterol level in the blood as well. (Animals synthesize cholesterol for a variety of biochemical purposes--to shore up the lipid bilayer of the cell walls, as a precursor to the sex hormones. Plants do not synthesize cholesterol.)

Because different people have different metabolisms, some people can eat a lot of cholesterol and have low levels in their blood, and some people can adhere strictly to a vegan diet and still have high cholesterol.

You can't tell by looking. Get a blood draw, get your levels checked, take it from there. Maybe get nutty and turn it into an actual experiment--give up eggs for a month and then have your levels rechecked. If there's no difference in your cholesterol levels, tell your girlfriend's dad to mind his own business. If there is a big difference, then modify your diet.
posted by Sublimity at 12:37 PM on February 8, 2010

Seconding Good Calories Bad Calories, and adding that people who follow a strict Atkins diet (high fat, medium protein, low carbs) often see a drop in cholesterol. (It can go up initially, and then drop off; I don't remember why.)

We consume the same number of eggs per day that you do, for what it's worth, and our numbers are gorgeous. Your anecdotal mileage may vary.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:43 PM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I eat two eggs for breakfast every morning and have for a long time. My LDL is 90 and my total cholesterol is 163. As others have said, it can vary from person to person, but my personal experience is that the eggs haven't hurt my cholesterol numbers.
posted by cecic at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2010

Backing up Sublimity, I hope my painfully unscientific control group of one can come in handy here, at least to show there are probably many factors at work more important than 3 eggs (something I have for breakfast 2 or 3 times a week).

Over the last 15 years or so, my diet has ranged from so-so to pretty good (including a stretch of about 6 years where I ate no meat); during my teens, twenties and early thirties it was pretty terrible (tons of fast food, sugared sodas, candy, deep-fried everything, etc) - through that entire time, my blood cholesterol has never tested above 120*. My Mom always had extremely low cholesterol as well, and it's only as she's entering her late 60's has it been creeping up.

Doing a little before and after testing sounds like a smart, educational exercise.

(*one time I got a call from my PCP basically telling me to get myself to the hospital that afternoon. After a physical my level came back close to 500, and they figured something catastrophic might be going on, turns out my results got mixed up with someone else's)
posted by jalexei at 1:14 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get your levels checked again if you're worried. I've been seeing preventative cardiologists for my cholesterol/family history for 20+ years now (since I was 10) and I don't buy _any_ specific dietary recommendations.

Epidemiological research into diet is notoriously difficult and very, very few guidelines beyond "don't get fat!" ever get proven in any sort of actual randomized controlled trial or longitudinal study. There's a WORLD of difference between proving something affects blood cholesterol levels (easy) and probing that it has an effect on long-term health outcomes. Hell, even the causal relationship between cholesterol levels and heart attacks isn't an open and shut case.

Don't be fat, don't eat too much meat, eat a lot of veggies and exercise. If you've got a family history of heart attacks, take medicine and be extra careful about your weight. IMO, if you're getting enough vegetables in your diet, you're already being more healthy than 95% of people and the eggs ain't gonna hurt you.
posted by paanta at 1:19 PM on February 8, 2010

I looked into this last year as my cholesterol is on the high side of normal. The short answer I recieved from my MD was: Yes, diet matters. I need to limit cholesterol and eat plenty of nuts, olive oil, fin fish, flax and oats, which have a positive effect on cholesterol. Also, regular aerobic exercise, generally healthy diet for weight maintenance, etc, etc. However, genetics matter a little more. I have to do this just to keep things under control while other, more fortunate folk can probably get away with eating more red meat, eggs, shellfish and cheese.

So, sucks to be me (I love shrimp and eggs but limit these foods to one or two servings a month) but you won't know whether it similarly sucks to be you until you get your levels checked. Either way, subbing out your eggs for some muesli or your hamburger for a fish dinner every once in awhile wouldn't hurt.
posted by Kurichina at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2010

Anecode warning: my dad is a strict vegan and has high cholesterol (both LDL and HDL). My mom is overweight, diabetic, and eats hard boiled eggs like candy. She has low normal cholesterol.
posted by peep at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2010

uh, anecdote.
posted by peep at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2010

You could maybe leave out one or two of the yolks from your 3 eggs - easier to do when hard boiled or scrambled, though.
posted by dnash at 3:46 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: It should be noted that guidelines, though they usually have science behind them, are often set at levels that don't benefit everybody or for reasons that are not strictly to do with outcomes for the general population. For example:

Alcohol: though a SMALL quantity consumed regularly (particularly red wine) seems to be beneficial there is huge reluctance to recommend it, seemingly on the grounds that "if we recommend one glass people will think that a bottle is better."

Sodium: some people's blood pressure is sensitive to sodium intake; there doesn't seem to be any evidence that intake higher than the recommended amount does most people any harm, but guidelines are for the whole population.

Water: some guidelines are seemingly pulled from nowhere; yes you need a decent amount of fluid intake, but there seems to be not much science behind the magic "eight glasses of water a day."

If some people are sensitive to the amount of cholesterol in their diet, the blanket guideline for the entire population will probably take that into account. The general guideline is not tailored to your metabolism, so your test resluts and discussions with your doctor are going to give you a better idea of whether your egg intake is OK.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:29 PM on February 8, 2010

My understanding is that the liver produces more cholesterol than you can correct for in your diet. From my memory, I think it raises its production when there isn't enough dietary sources for it.
posted by gjc at 6:44 PM on February 8, 2010

Nthing Good Calories, Bad Calories.
posted by Nattie at 2:54 AM on February 10, 2010

I just read this article on containing this bit of information:

"Down an omelet every morning and you may lower your small-particle count, University of Connecticut researchers recently found. People who ate three whole eggs a day for 12 weeks dropped their small-LDL levels by an average of 18 percent."
posted by cecic at 5:19 PM on February 14, 2010

I make a point of reading the heartscan blog.

And that doctor makes a lot of empirical points. Linking dietary cholesterol to blood serum levels is not one of them.
posted by Arthur Dent at 10:16 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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