Eggs are funny.
If you eat them in the US, they increase your risk for diabetes. But if you eat ’em in Spain or France or Japan, you’re fine. No increased diabetes risk. Buen provecho! Bon appetit! Itadakimasu!
Now, wait a second. Does living in America somehow make eggs dangerous? Would crossing the Atlantic or Pacific protect egg lovers from this dread disease? Do we have to relocate to enjoy nature’s perfect food?
That’s ridiculous. Here’s the real story.
A SCRAMBLED TALE
Eggs, once beloved by all, then shunned because they’re high in cholesterol, now are back in nutritionists’—and home cooks’—good graces. After all, dietary cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern” according to the latest Dietary Guidelines.
The only potential spoiler has been diabetes risk. Truth be told, the research has been totally confusing. While a few studies have suggested that dietary cholesterol might increase the risk for diabetes, others show that eating eggs actually improves sensitivity to insulin, which protects against diabetes.
To shed light on the issue, researchers looked at 12 studies from the US, Europe and Japan (nearly 220,000 people).
Taken as a whole, the studies showed no increase in risk for people who ate more eggs compared with those who ate fewer or none.
But when the researchers looked just at the US studies, they found that people who ate three eggs or more a week were 39% more likely to develop diabetes than people who ate fewer eggs or none. Even here, it was dicey—some American studies found no such link.
Some non-US studies even found that eggs were protective. In one Finnish study, for example, men aged 42 to 60 who ate the most eggs on a weekly basis over 19 years were 38% less likely to develop diabetes. A Japanese study also found less diabetes in egg eaters, but only in women.
To put these findings in perspective, we spoke with Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD, a registered dietician and nutrition educator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
CRACKING THE EGG MYSTERY
First, let’s acknowledge that these are primarily observational studies that can’t prove cause and effect, explained Zeratsky. But the studies do hold key clues…
- Who’s eating lots of eggs? In the US, people who eat the most eggs tend to also be less physically active, eat more meat and smoke. Egg consumers tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who don’t eat eggs, too. These findings aren’t observed outside our borders.
- What else are they eating? In the US, people who eat the most eggs tend to also eat more processed meat, such as sausage and bacon.
Since avoiding eggs, especially egg yolks, had long been a health recommendation in the US, it’s not surprising that healthier people have been eating fewer eggs—or that people with less healthy lifestyles eat more eggs. That may change now that healthier people are likely to be eating more eggs. We also tend to serve our eggs with bacon, sausage, home fries and lots of toast with butter, not to mention orange juice, which is high in sugar and low in fiber—not the healthiest breakfast pattern.
A HEALTHIER WAY TO EAT EGGS
A single large egg has only 78 calories, a substantial 6 or 7 grams of protein (more than 10% of the Daily Value) and good amounts of iron and zinc, B-12, B-6 and choline, an amino acid key for brain health. Another egg bonus: They’re satiating. In one weight-loss study of people who already had diabetes, those who ate two eggs a day, six days a week, reported feeling less hungry than those who took in the same number of calories but only two eggs a week. Nor was there any difference in blood cholesterol levels between the two groups.
“In the context of an overall healthy diet, eggs are a great, economical source of protein,” says Zeratsky. However, she cautions, eggs do contain a moderate amount of saturated fat, which can increase blood cholesterol levels, so moderation is still the best guide. Her recommendation? “Eating up to one egg a day is reasonable.” That jibes with earlier research that eating an average of one egg a day has no effect on risk for heart disease or stroke. Like a two-egg omelet? That’s fine to have three times a week or so. No need to avoid yolks.
Just make the rest of your plate healthy, too. A poached egg or two, with some fruit on the side, is a lovely breakfast, suggests Zeratksy. So is a scramble with red peppers and kale, which add their own nutrients—or these sweet potato muffin cups. For lunch, a sliced hard-boiled egg adds protein to any salad—and helps you absorb more vitamins from the greens. When making dinner, try sliding a sunny-side-up egg on top of, say, sautéed chopped Brussels sprouts, for a little extra nutritional punch.
Bottom line: Eggs are once again what they’ve always been—a versatile, inexpensive, good-tasting, nutritious, low-cal, high-protein staple. For everyone.