Scan the “healthy” section of a brunch menu and there you’ll find it: the world’s saddest order, the egg white omelet. This time will be different, you think, these things aren’t so bad, but then you stare down at the flat, pale pancake of liquid protein and think to yourself: Why do I do this to myself?
You do it because you were told to. We all were. Until just recently, experts warned that dietary cholesterol causes spikes in blood cholesterol, which in turn clogs arteries and hurts the heart. Cholesterol is found in the yellows, not the whites, so down the drain went the yolks.
Left behind are a wobbly mix of water, protein, some vitamins and little else. These whites are also sold in one-ingredient cartons, pasteurized so they can be eaten raw. (That's not the case for shell egg substitutes, like Egg Beaters Original, which come with egg whites but cut out cholesterol by mimicking the yolk with natural flavor and color, vegetable gums, maltodextrin and many other added ingredients.)
But there's good reason not to fear the yolks. Scientific research has vindicated dietary cholesterol, finding that eating cholesterol has no real impact on cholesterol metabolism. That is, eating foods high in cholesterol does not mean you’ll develop high cholesterol. Some evidence suggests that eggs might even be beneficial for cholesterol by raising levels of HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol that’s linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
Egg yolks contain a vibrant mix of saturated and unsaturated fat—another nutrient that, when it comes from a healthy whole food source, is unfairly slandered. Yolks have a good helping of vitamin E, one of the nutrients Americans eat too little of. But the real case for egg yolks can be made by their abundance of carotenoids, nutrients in plants and animal fats that give things like egg yolks (and even autumn leaves) their yellow color. Egg yolks are rich in the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which help eye health and protect against inflammation.
Sure, you can find carotenoids in more virtuous places, like fruits and vegetables. But egg yolks have an edge. Carotenoids need to be eaten with fat in order for the body to more fully absorb them, and a whole egg is the total package. Eat them, and you’ll get more of these nutrients—not just from the eggs, but from the stuff you eat it with, too. Two large eggs provide 143 calories, 13 grams of protein and almost 10 grams of fat.
A study last year found that when people ate eggs on a raw vegetable salad, their bodies absorbed about 9 times the carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin from the eggs and alpha carotene, beta carotene and lycopene from the veggies. A new one from the same authors found the same effect on vitamin E absorption as well.
Americans are notoriously bad at eating vegetables; a full 87% of them eat less than the recommended amount. If they can wring more nutrients from those they do eat by adding an egg, yolks could do a lot of good, says Purdue University nutrition researcher and study author Jung Eun Kim. “There's no fat in egg white, so you are not going to observe the same effect.”
So next time you crack open an egg, don't let the fatty, cholesterol-choked yolk slip away. Mix it in for good texture—and even better health.