Eggs dominate the menus of all sorts of breakfast spots, from fast-food chains to organic cafes. But the humble egg comes with a lot of questions: Will eggs raise your cholesterol? Should you order an egg-white omelet or embrace the yolks? And what about organic eggs — are they really more nutritious?
Scientists have long debated the health benefits and risks of eggs — and the controversy continues. A recent study published in JAMA linked the dietary cholesterol in eggs to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and early death, even when people ate relatively few of them.
There’s still a lot that scientists need to learn about eggs. But whether you eat them every day or just occasionally, there’s plenty that experts already know about how to incorporate eggs into a healthy diet. Here, dietitians weigh in on what you need to know about nutrition in eggs.
Are eggs healthy?
Nutrition experts agree that the protein and vitamins in eggs make them a healthy option. “I would say eggs are very healthy, with 13 essential vitamins and minerals,” says registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin. “Plus, they are a good source of high-quality protein, which is what our bodies use to build and maintain strong, healthy muscles.” One large egg has about 6 grams of protein, according to the USDA’s nutrition database. One large egg also contains only 72 calories, providing a lot of nutrition in a small caloric package.
Eggs are also rich in nutrients including biotin (which helps you convert food into usable energy), choline (an essential micronutrient involved in metabolism, among other functions), vitamin A (important for the immune system) and lutein and zeaxanthin (antioxidants that help protect your body from free radicals), says registered dietitian Ryan Maciel.
“Eggs are also one of the only foods that naturally have vitamin D,” Zeitlin says, “which helps to keep bones strong.”
Should I eat egg yolks?
One of the biggest points of confusion is whether egg yolks are good or bad for you. For years, yolks had a negative reputation because of their dietary cholesterol, which experts warned was damaging for health. One large egg contains 186 mg cholesterol; the recommended daily value for cholesterol is less than 300 mg.
“It was once thought that eggs were associated with an increased risk of heart disease because of their high cholesterol content,” says Maciel. “Current research shows that for most people, dietary cholesterol may not significantly affect the cholesterol levels in your blood.”
But the cholesterol debate is ongoing. In a recent study, researchers looked at the dietary habits of nearly 30,000 adults in the U.S. and tracked them for up to 31 years. They found that egg consumption was linked to a higher risk of heart problems and premature death — likely because of eggs’ high cholesterol content. For each half-egg eaten per day — meaning just three to four more eggs per week — a person’s cardiovascular disease risk increased by 6%, and their risk of early death went up by 8%, the researchers found.
The research isn’t definitive; more is needed. But for now, experts recommend talking to your doctor when trying to decide on a reasonable number of eggs to eat.
In addition to cholesterol, the yolk also contains many of the egg’s nutrients. Egg yolk benefits also include high amounts of iron, folate, vitamins, lutein and zeaxanthin. “While the yolk contains less protein than egg whites, it does provide several healthy nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids and antioxidants,” says Maciel.
Should I eat egg whites?
The egg-white craze — anchored by foods like egg-white-only omelets, cookies and waffles — was once considered healthy. But the nutrition of egg whites begins and ends with protein and some B vitamins, says Maciel, which is why many experts encourage eating the whole egg.
“For one, your omelets will be more delicious when you include the yolk,” says Zeitlin. “But you’re losing almost half the amount of protein in the egg when you ditch the yolk. You’re also missing out on those essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins D, E, A, choline and antioxidants.”
Will eggs raise my cholesterol?
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, dietary cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern when it comes to raising a person’s blood cholesterol. “Risk factors that are more likely related to heart disease risk include genetics, lack of exercise and lifestyle choices like smoking and alcohol consumption,” Zeitlin says.
In fact, recent research found that people who ate about one egg a day had lower rates of heart disease and stroke, possibly because of eggs’ ability to increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which can help fight fat buildup in blood vessels. Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also found that eating one egg a day wasn’t a problem for people who were at greater risk for heart and cholesterol problems.
However, the latest research on the topic once again stoked concern that dietary cholesterol (like the kind that comes from eggs) may be bad for the heart. Research is ongoing.
Should I buy organic eggs?
There are legitimate reasons to consider organic eggs. Research shows that organic farming practices can be better for the environment, and cage-free, free-range and organic eggs are typically better for animal welfare compared to conventional eggs, Maciel says. Buying organic reduces the risk of consuming antibiotics, chemicals and heavy metals, too, he says.
But if you’re trying to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses — since earlier this year, 200 million eggs were recalled after a Salmonella outbreak — buying organic won’t guarantee that the eggs will be safe. “The risk of an egg being contaminated with Salmonella is very low and has nothing to do with whether or not it is organic,” Zeitlin says. “The best way to avoid food poisoning is to cook eggs to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter and following other basic food safety practices.”
What’s the healthiest way to prepare eggs?
Cooking your eggs is good for you, and not just because doing so reduces the risk of food poisoning. “Cooking eggs make the protein more digestible and increases the bioavailability of biotin,” says Maciel.
When it comes to getting the most nutrition from your eggs, you have plenty of equally good choices. “You can really eat your eggs however you prefer: scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, omelet or poached,” Zeitlin says. “As long as you are eating the whole egg, you’ll be getting all the nutrition the egg has to offer.”
There are, of course, ways to make eggs even more nutritious, like pairing them with vegetables. “Omelets are a great way to include more veggies in your diet while getting in a rich source of protein,” says Maciel. Zeitlin also likes to combine eggs with a good source of fiber, like veggies, fruit or whole grains. “The combination of protein and fiber will keep hunger pangs at bay for a longer period of time,” she says. “If I’m having a hard-boiled egg for a snack, I like to include a clementine or some grapes for a little fiber.”
Correction, Dec. 11
The original version of this story mischaracterized HDL cholesterol, which is created in the body. Eggs can increase levels of HDL cholesterol in the body, but they contain dietary cholesterol, not HDL cholesterol.