Thursday, June 9, 2011
Eat Your Eggs!
A couple things got me thinking about eggs today. Seems like I keep running in to more and more clients who tell me they are using Egg Beaters for breakfast in order to avoid the cholesterol in eggs. Then today I was thumbing through a nutrition journal and saw a story about eggs. The article concluded the following: “the relationship between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol levels is complex.” I personally think that statement is total BS. It isn’t that the relationship between these two things is “complex” it’s that there is no proof that one has any effect on the other. However, I think it’s hard for many to accept that the conventional way of viewing dietary cholesterol, as a causal factor in increased blood cholesterol is wrong.
So let’s dig a little deeper. Why is dietary cholesterol often blamed for high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease? The only reason that we believe this to be truth is that we have heard it over and over from our medical and governmental authorities. They have repeated it over and over so many times that we believe it to be accurate. However, just because someone says something does not make it true, and in this case the repeated lie has caused severe damage to our overall health. Typically, when someone goes on a low-fat/cholesterol diet, they don’t replace the fat with spinach, berries, and sweet potatoes, they instead replace the fat with crackers, chips, and other processed foods that make them sicker and fatter. Sorry, I got side tracked. Now let’s get back to discussing cholesterol and heart disease.
This idea originated as the cholesterol/diet hypothesis and propelled the idea that if you get too much cholesterol in your diet, you will them have higher concentrations of cholesterol in your blood, which will in turn increase your risk for heart disease. The thought is that increased cholesterol levels lead to a narrowing of the arteries, which eventually leads to a heart attack, which may or may not kill you. The problem is that none of this has ever been proven by real science! Again, just because we have been programmed by the media and our medical providers to believe that fat or cholesterol causes all these terrible things, that doesn’t mean it is true, especially if there is no evidence to support these claims.
Lets start with the cholesterol/heart disease part of the equation. Where did the idea that elevated blood cholesterol levels cause heart disease come from? To find the answer to this question, we have to take a trip all the way back to the early 1900’s. In the early 1900’s Russian scientists were busy trying to find out what causes atherosclerosis. Back then, they believed it was just a normal part of aging, and if they could reverse it, maybe they could reverse aging.
They performed experiments using rabbits to see if there was any connection between atherosclerosis and cholesterol levels in the blood. Scientists gave cholesterol to the poor little bunnies and guess what happened? A bunch of the rabbits had heart attacks. Doesn’t this mean if humans have higher serum cholesterol levels, they will also be more likely to have heart attacks? Nope!
What needs to be mentioned is that rabbits are terrible models and this type of assumption can’t be extrapolated to humans. Rabbits are nothing like humans. They are herbivores and normally don’t consume any cholesterol in the diet. In other words, you can’t assume that because increased serum cholesterol in rabbits led to an increased incidence of heart attacks that the same would hold true in people. It just doesn’t work like that.
However, it is completely acceptable to base the need for future research on the results of such a study. The problem there is that no legitimate study has been able to duplicate the same results in humans. Some recent studies have actually shown that cholesterol is not linked to increased incidence of heart disease. Just one example can be seen in Japan where recently cholesterol levels have risen, but the number of heart attacks has decreased. Also, more than one study has shown low blood cholesterol levels to be a risk factor. The take away message here is that increased levels of cholesterol in the blood do not equate to increased risk for heart disease.
Instead we should think of cholesterol as a good thing. When there is some type of stress to an artery, cholesterol is what comes to the rescue. Cholesterol is the band-aid or the patch. Instead of blaming cholesterol, we should be looking at what is causing the problem that eventually results in cholesterol being present. Why is the artery requiring cholesterol to be present? That is the better question to ask. It is also important to mention that plenty of people with low cholesterol have heart attacks, while many people with high cholesterol levels don’t. Studies confirm this statement. You can see it is time to quit thinking of cholesterol as the enemy.
Ok, so we have established that increased blood cholesterol levels do not equal increased risk of heart disease, but there is another problem with the cholesterol hypothesis. Even if increased blood levels of cholesterol did results in increased risk, there is no evidence that increasing cholesterol in the diet actually results in increased levels of cholesterol in the blood. That means that you can eat a diet that is higher in cholesterol but it doesn’t mean you will have more cholesterol in your blood.
Two major studies, Tecumseh and Framingham, found that the subjects who ate the most cholesterol had the same level of cholesterol in their blood as those who ate the least amount of cholesterol. Just to summarize: increased blood levels of cholesterol have not been found to raise risk of heart disease, and increased intake of cholesterol in the diet has not been associated with increased levels of cholesterol in the blood. Neither part of the cholesterol/diet hypothesis has ever been proven to be true.
Ok, so what does all this have to do with my patients who use egg beaters or egg whites in order to avoid all that cholesterol? Usually my response when someone tells me they are avoiding yolks is “why?” However, I know the reason why. Conventional wisdom has told us repeatedly to avoid cholesterol! I was taught in school about the dangers of dietary cholesterol and I did my best to avoid those yolks myself.
However, now we no better. We know that the egg is your friend, and even that funny looking yellow part is safe to eat. Not only is it safe to eat, but it is also a source of 13 essential minerals. The egg is a great source of protein, iron, B12, vitamin D, zinc, folate, and choline. It is one of the most concentrated sources of choline in the American diet, which may have a protective effect against heart disease. How about that! Also, eggs are often thought of as one of the most perfect protein sources because of their specific amino acid profile.
So all this means that eggs are safe to eat, and they are a very healthy food to consume, especially in place of processed cereals or toast, which may actually be the foods that hold a stronger link to heart disease risk. That’s for another day. Today, the parting message is don’t fear the egg.
Please email me with any questions or post any comments you like!