Eggs – they’re what’s for dinner

(photo: Molly DG via Flickr)

I learned some interesting things about diet and cholesterol recently, from a webinar sponsored by one of my professional associations:

  1. Interesting Fact #1: the diet mantra in the US is a limit of 300 mg cholesterol per day.  Where did that number come from?  Is it based on some solid research showing that people who ate, say, 310 mg of cholesterol/day had way more heart attacks than those who ate a mere 290 mg/day?  No.  Dr. Maria Luz Fernandez, nutrition professor at the University of Connecticut, described the scenario like this in the webinar: years ago, a bunch of medical experts were sitting around figuring out what to say about diet and heard disease.  Some of them noted that there was really no good evidence that eating typical amounts of cholesterol raised blood cholesterol in any meaningful way.  They thought any limit should be around 600 mg/day, which reflected the typical intake.  But other experts thought the recommendation should be zero, just because.  Result: a compromise — 300 mg.  Did that help?  Well, egg consumption went down.  But judging from the massive increase in use of statins to lower cholesterol, the answer is no, eating less cholesterol didn’t help.
  2. Interesting Fact #2: most people do not respond much to dietary cholesterol.  In fact, eating cholesterol tends to make the dreaded LDL molecules bigger, and when LDL is bigger, it isn’t as dangerous.  Small LDL molecules are more atherogenic, because they easily invade blood vessel walls and create havoc.
  3. Interesting Fact #3: roughly 1/4 of the population are what Dr. Fernandez calls hyper-responders to dietary cholesterol.  Their cholesterol, both LDL and HDL, increase more than average with high cholesterol intake.  The other 75% of the population are hypo-responders: eating cholesterol doesn’t change blood cholesterol in any signifiant way.
  4. Interesting Fact #4: no other country has any guidelines or limits set on cholesterol intake.  Strangely, despite their failure to recommend limits on cholesterol intake, those countries don’t have heart disease problems like in the US.

A very tiny bit of sanity prevails in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines:

…evidence suggests that one egg per day does not result in increased blood cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people.

So if you aren’t a hyper-responder to dietary cholesterol, and you don’t have heart disease, eating eggs is reasonable.  Eggs are one of the main sources of dietary choline, a key factor in production of certain brain neurotransmitters.  Ironically, choline deficiency is linked to atherosclerosis, the very disease the egg-avoiders thought they were preventing.

As for dinner, eggs have to be the easiest and quickest high protein food you can cook.  Serve up an omelet, frittata or just some scrambled eggs in about 5 minutes, with little fuss or special equipment.  Egg dishes can be the main feature of a low calorie meal, or part of a larger meal, with salad, vegetables and a grain dish.  And more good news: you can cook egg dishes in olive oil, instead of butter or (gah!) margarine, making them even healthier.  Here are some really easy egg-based dinners:

  • omelet: for one person, use 2 eggs.  You don’t need gobs of cheese.  Just one ounce (1/4 cup grated) will do, or even less if you like.  Or don’t use cheese.  Saute some seasonal vegetables and fold those into the omelet, such as summer squash, onions, peppers, greens like spinach, onions, chopped tomatoes or eggplant.  Other ideas: thin slices of cooked potatoes, chopped broccoli, celery or sprouts.
  • Frittata (sort of like an omelet that isn’t folded over): saute some vegetables, and whisk up the eggs.  Pour over the vegetables and turn down the heat so the eggs cook slowly.  Sprinkle a bit of cheese on top.  You can finish it off under the broiler, to cook the top and melt the cheese a bit.
  • Plain old scrambled eggs.  Serve with a sauteed vegetable or salad for a quick and easy healthy dinner.  Or add scrambled eggs to other dishes, like Pad Thai or fried rice.
  • Quiche: this is more complicated and involves a pie crust.  A good choice when you’re feeding more than 2 people.

I personally think eggs are nutritionally significant enough to create a whole new style of diet: the Vegg-an, a plant-based diet that includes eggs.  And even better, local eggs, which taste vastly better than factory eggs.

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