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Why whole eggs are the perfect food according to a registered dietitian

Why whole eggs are the perfect food according to a registered dietitian

By Registered Dietitian Mia Syn, MS, RDN

Are eggs healthy?” is one of the most frequently asked nutrition questions I hear as a registered dietitian. While like any food, it is important to look at it in the context of an entire diet, on their own, they are what I consider a “superfood”. Here is why I believe that whole eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat.

The nutrition of an egg

Eggs may be small in size, but they pack a significant nutritional punch. It can be argued that eggs are among the most nutrient-dense foods ever meaning they provide a significant number of vitamins and minerals relative to their calories. In fact, eggs contain nearly every vitamin and mineral that the human body requires (with one exception being vitamin C). (1)

Nutrition facts for 1 large egg (50 g) (2)

Calories: 72

Carbohydrates: 0 grams

Protein: 6 grams

Fat: 5 g

Saturated fat: 1.6 grams

Cholesterol: 186 mg

Sodium: 71 mg

Choline: 147 mg

Protein:

Eggs are a good source of high-quality, complete protein with 6 grams per 1 large egg. Whole eggs contain the highest biological value for protein meaning they contain all essential amino acids, the building blocks that make up a complete protein.

Protein is an important part of an overall healthy diet. Diets higher in protein help support satiety, weight management and muscle recovery and repair.

Fat:

One large egg contains 5 grams of fat - the majority of which is concentrated in the yolk. Of the fats they contain, only 1.6 grams is saturated and the remaining is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which are considered “good fats” since they have been shown to help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, thereby supporting heart health.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to no more than 6% of total daily calories for heart health. Keep in mind that how you prepare eggs will affect total fat such as if they are cooked in butter or oil.

Vitamins and minerals:

Egg provides important vitamins and minerals – many of which are hard to get from other foods. Some particular standouts include:

  • Choline: Choline is an essential nutrient needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for mood, memory, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions. The body also uses it to synthesize cell membranes. While our bodies can produce some choline, the amount produced is not sufficient to meet our needs. Therefore, we must get it from the diet. (3)

A recent study showed that about 90% of adults including pregnant women, do not consume enough choline in their daily diet. (4) Choline is not found in high quantities in many foods typically consumed by Americans however, a healthy eating pattern that includes eggs can help supply adequate choline. Be sure to enjoy the whole egg, including the yolk, where choline is found. Eggs are the single best dietary source of choline in the American diet. (4)

  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for normal vision, the immune system, and proper functioning of the heart, lungs, and kidneys. It is available in two forms in the human diet: pre-formed vitamin A found in animal foods and provitamin A carotenoids found in plant foods like yellow, orange, and red produce such as sweet potatoes and carrots.

In order to use them, the body has to convert provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene to vitamin A, and that conversion process is largely inefficient. The equivalency for beta-carotene (found in plant foods) to vitamin A in animal foods is estimated to be 12:1, meaning you would have to consume 12 micrograms of beta-carotene to equal 1 microgram of vitamin A. (5) Eggs are a good source of bioavailable vitamin A that are body can readily absorb and utilize.

  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for the health of our bones, muscles, immune system and nervous system. We acquire vitamin D by two methods: from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays striking our skin and triggering vitamin D synthesis, and from the food we eat.

Vitamin D3 increases serum 25(OH)D levels (used to measure vitamin D status) to a greater extent and maintains these levels longer than vitamin D2.

Few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D3, and the ones that are, are animal derived - eggs being one of them.

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the blood and nerve cells healthy and is essential for preventing megaloblastic anemia, a blood condition that makes people tired and weak.

This water-soluble vitamin is found naturally in foods of animal origin, including eggs.

  • Vitamin E: Vitamin E is a naturally occurring, fat-soluble nutrient that contributes to the prevention of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Eggs provide small amounts of this key nutrient.

  • Iron: Iron is an essential mineral used to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all other parts of the body. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes iron deficiency as the most common cause of anemia in the world and notes that it is particularly prevalent in developing countries where diets are predominantly plant-based. This can pose a particular issue to those of childbearing age, whose iron needs are the highest.

Iron exists in two forms: heme iron found in animal foods and non- heme iron found in plant foods. Depending on an individual’s iron stores, 15 to 35 percent of heme iron gets absorbed, compared to 2 to 20 percent of non-heme iron. (6) Eggs are a source of bioavailable heme iron.

  • Vitamin K2: Many people may not realize that just like omega-3 fats, vitamin K exists in multiple forms. Vitamin K1, needed primarily for blood clotting, is the form found in plant foods (think leafy greens). Vitamin K2 is just as important for different functions—namely integrating calcium into bones, which helps prevent blood vessel calcification that can be harmful to the heart. It is found primarily in animal foods—with natto (fermented soybeans) being the best plant-based source. Depending on what the hens were fed, egg yolks can be a significant source of vitamin K2.

  • Biotin: Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin and essential nutrient. This B vitamin plays an important role in converting food into usable energy. Eggs are a source of biotin, with the majority being concentrated in the yolk.

  • Antioxidant lutein and zeaxanthin: Lutein and zeaxanthin are dietary carotenoids particularly important for visual health. These two carotenoids are selectively taken up into the macula – the central area at the back of the eye and comprise macular pigment, which provides the sharp central vision we need for daily activities. (7)

Plant foods like fruits and vegetables tend to get all the carotenoid glory. However, because carotenoids are fat-soluble, they are better absorbed when consumed with fat which makes egg yolks a great bioavailable source. (8)

Health benefits of eggs

Brain health and development:

It is estimated that the majority of Americans fall short of the recommended intake of choline, and that intake declines with age. (9) Studies suggest that adults over 71 years old consume only about half their daily requirement of choline on average. Low concentrations of choline in the blood have been associated with poor cognitive performance in older adults.

The brain converts choline into acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps brain cells communicate with each other. Studies have linked it to better memory and mental function. Eggs are among the few foods that supply both choline and lutein, key nutrients that are important for brain development, memory and learning at all stages of life. Lutein has been shown to play a role in cognition in older adults and academic performance in children. (10)

Other key nutrients that eggs provide that are important for brain health and development include vitamins B6, B12 and folate. While vitamin B6 and B12 may help reduce your risk of dementia, heart disease, and cancer, folate is important for the nervous system affecting mood and cognitive function especially in older people. (11)

Pregnancy:

While choline is important for healthy adults, it is especially important for those who are pregnant. In utero, choline helps the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop properly. (12) Choline plays a role in early brain development during pregnancy and infancy, particularly in areas of the brain that are used for memory and learning. Studies suggest that most pregnant women do not consume enough choline in their daily diet.

Eye health:

Eggs are a notable source of lutein which accumulates in the eye and boosts eye health by providing protection against diseases including cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. (13)

Muscle mass

Eggs are a source of high-quality complete protein which provides the “building blocks” your body needs to grow and perform properly. The amount and quality of protein you eat directly affects muscle mass, strength and function. While the majority of protein resides in the whites, the yolk is what packs the majority of key vitamins and minerals.

In one study, researchers examined the effects of whole egg consumption compared to egg whites in healthy young men following exercise. They found that, despite containing the same amount of protein (16 grams), whole eggs resulted in significantly greater muscle protein synthesis versus egg whites. (14)

Weight loss:

A recent study showed that eating eggs for breakfast can help overweight dieters lose more weight and shrink their waist more than people who eat a bagel breakfast of equal calories. Those who ate eggs for breakfast felt more satisfied and ate fewer calories at the following meal. (15)

What about cholesterol?

Eggs were previously associated with heart disease risk because of their high cholesterol content. Up until the 2015– 2020 version, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended restricting dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams per day for heart health. However, there is now convincing research to show that for most healthy people, cholesterol in food has a minimal impact on blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. (16) Research on egg consumption in two large prospective cohort studies that looked at nearly 120,000 combined healthy men and women, found that up to one egg per day is not associated with an increased heart disease risk. (17)

Today, there is no specific recommended limit for dietary cholesterol. Instead, studies suggest that it is more important to limit the amount of saturated fat you eat which can raise the cholesterol in the blood and have a greater effect on blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, heart disease risk.

The takeaway is that most healthy people can eat eggs as long as they are part of a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat.

Buying eggs

Does egg color matter?

The first thing many people look at when shopping for eggs is the color. Are brown eggs better than white eggs, or vice versa? The answer is that shell color has nothing to do with the nutrition of the egg, it depends on how the hens are raised and what they are fed.

Generally speaking, brown-shelled eggs are laid by brown-feathered hens, while white-shelled eggs come from hens with white feathers. The reason brown eggs tend to cost more is that the hens that lay brown eggs are typically larger and eat more food.

Eggs are the lowest-cost animal source of protein, vitamin A, iron, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and choline. (1)

How to read egg labels

  • Cage-free: Cage-free eggs come from hens that are not confined to cages but allowed to roam in a room or open area. They are not required to have access to the outdoors.

  • Free-range: These eggs come from cage-free hens housed in a building, room or area that allows continuous access to the outdoors during the laying cycle with at least 2 square feet of outdoor access on grass per hen.

  • Vegetarian-fed: These eggs are laid by hens that are kept in cages or pens indoors and are fed a vegetarian diet. Note that hens are natural omnivores so a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily better.

  • Omega-3 enriched: These eggs are laid by hens whose diets include omega-3 rich foods such as flaxseeds, algae and fish oil. This results in eggs that are higher in omega-3 fats boosting them up to 100-200 milligrams per egg as opposed to the 30 milligrams found on average.

  • Organic: Organic eggs are laid by cage-free hens that are free to roam with access to outdoors and are fed a diet of organic feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.

  • No added hormones: Poultry producers are not allowed to give hormones to hens and therefore this is an unnecessary label. If this language is used on a label, it must be accompanied by a statement making it clear that federal regulations ban the use of hormones.

  • 100% natural or all-natural: All eggs must meet this criterion so it is not a necessary label. It means that nothing was added to the egg like flavoring or coloring.

  • Pasture-raised: While not yet a USDA-regulated term, this label if accompanied by “Certified Humane” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved” stamps, means that each hen was given 108 square feet of outdoor space as well as barn space indoors. Since these hens can forage on grass and bugs in addition to commercial organic feed, these eggs tend to be particularly rich in certain nutrients including vitamin E, vitamin A and omega-3 fats.

Egg storage and food safety:

Use eggs within 3 weeks of purchasing for the best quality. When purchasing eggs, avoid those cartons with cracked eggs which can increased bacterial contamination risk.

It is best to store eggs in the coolest part of the refrigerator and avoid side doors where temperature will vary. It is recommended to cook eggs until the whites and yolks have solidified to help prevent potential food-borne illness. Egg dishes should reach an internal temperature of 160 F and not sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Refrigerate leftover cooked egg dishes and use within 3 to 4 days. (18)

So, what’s the best eggs to buy? Whatever fits your preference. No matter

what eggs you buy, know that you are getting an especially impressive package of nutrients at a relatively low price point.

10 nutritious ways to incorporate eggs

 

1. Veggie omelet: Veggie omelets are an easy meal to prepare that pairs high quality protein from eggs and fiber-rich produce. Plus, they are customizable to meet your taste preferences using whatever vegetables you have in your fridge such as mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and spinach.

2. Hard-boiled: For an on-the-go pop of protein, pair hard-boiled eggs with a piece of fruit to build a balanced and energizing snack. The benefit of hard-boiled eggs is that they can be prepared without added fat like oil or butter.

3. Eggs-in-a-hole: Enjoy an egg soft-cooked in the center of a piece of whole grain toast or slice of acorn squash for a fun and satisfying breakfast option.

4. Fried egg on avocado toast: Bump up the protein and nutrition of your avocado toast by adding a fried egg. When made with whole grain bread, this breakfast or snack is perfectly balanced with filling fiber, good fats and high-quality protein plus a significant dose of bioavailable nutrients.

5. Baked into recipes: Eggs play an important role in baking. From cakes and cookies, to casserole dishes. Not only do eggs add fat which results an extra rich flavor and velvety texture, they add structure, act as a leavening agent, and of course bump up the overall nutrition of the dish.

Eggs also help ingredients mix better by acting as an emulsifier. This emulsion process helps create a more homogenous mix of ingredients — aiding in an even distribution of liquid and fats throughout a recipe for smooth batters.

When egg whites are used by themselves, they perform a different role from the yolks, especially when whipped. Whipping egg whites means incorporating thousands of air bubbles within the white which creates a stable foam that can be used to make everything from soufflés to meringue. Adding an acidic element such as cream of tartar or lemon juice can help stabilize the foam further.

6. Scrambled in fried rice: Fried rice can make a nutritious side dish or even complete meal when prepared with the right ingredients. Using brown rice instead of white rice will boost the fiber, while finely chopped vegetables help add flavor, texture and volume. Eggs are another great addition to homemade fried rice that boosts the protein and helps round out the dish.

7. Egg muffin cups: If you are a health-enthusiast, this recipe may already be a staple in your weekly meal prep rotation. Egg cups are easy to snack on when you are in a pinch and easily pair with nutritious carbohydrate sources like whole grain bread or fruit to build a complete meal. Plus, you can customize the using whatever vegetables and spices you have on hand.

8. Breakfast sandwiches: Eggs are synonymous with breakfast as they are an easy way to prepare and incorporate high quality complete protein. Cook a sheet pan of eggs to cut into square patties to easily add to breakfast sandwiches throughout the week. Keep them frozen for time saving convenience.

9. Ovation Foods Chicken Sticks: Ovation Foods Chicken Sticks are a convenient way to reap the benefits of whole egg nutrition including over 35 essential nutrients. These sticks are made with 100% boneless, skinless chicken breast and one whole egg. They also come in crave-worthy flavors: chili lime, no soy teriyaki and smokehouse.

10. Eggsentials: Ovation Food’s Eggsentials whole egg ingredient is an easy way the get the benefits of whole egg nutrition including over 35 naturally-occurring nutrients. This beaded egg product can be baked, mixed, blended or stirred into meals and recipes without changing the complexity, flavor, or weight, or competing with other ingredients for moisture. Plus, it is shelf-stable, easy to store and easy to use.

Conclusion:

There is no question that whole eggs are a nutrient dense food to include in your diet. No matter how you enjoy them or which ones you purchase at the grocery store, know that you are reaping the benefits of over 35 naturally occurring nutrients including bioavailable vitamin B12, choline, vitamin A, iron and vitamin D all while supporting brain health, vision, muscle mass, weight management and more.

References:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6470839/

2. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171287/nutrients

3. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/

4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24476840/

5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222318/

6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3290310/

7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5944649/

8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4480671/

9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782876/

10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6629295/

11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4312724/

12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2441939/

13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705341/

14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28978542/

15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755181/

16. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/cholesterol/

17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32132002/

18. https://www.fda.gov/media/82227/download  

Mia Syn, MS, RDN Bio:

Mia Syn is nationally recognized registered dietitian and nutrition expert, Health Advisory Board Member at Forbes and founder of Nutrition By Mia, a popular online wellness destination. She has a master’s in human nutrition from Columbia University and has been featured by dozens of major media outlets including Cosmopolitan and SHAPE and was named one of the top registered dietitians to follow on Instagram by Women’s Health Magazine.

 

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