Eggs are one of the most versatile foods out there ― you can cook them in endless ways, they keep you full for hours and they’re a nutritional powerhouse loaded with protein and other nutrients that protect eye, muscle and bone health.
Despite all these benefits, eggs have gotten a bad reputation at times because of the high cholesterol found in their yolks. The information is confusing: One week the news will tell us eggs are perfectly healthy and the next we’re told to stop eating eggs. To find out how many eggs are healthy to eat, we reached out to medical and nutrition experts to help clear up some of the confusion.
Can eggs be part of a healthy diet?
If you’re generally in good health and don’t have heart disease or high cholesterol, eggs can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation. Eggs are good for us for a lot of different reasons ― they’re unprocessed, rich in protein, low in calories and contain healthy fats and other nutrients.
“One egg provides 6 grams of protein ― about the amount found in an ounce of beef, turkey, chicken or fish ― along with other nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and small amounts of iron and vitamin D, all for only 77 calories,” said Lisa Diewald, a registered dietitian and program manager at Villanova University’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education.
Eggs are also relatively inexpensive compared with some other sources of protein, like meat, fish and nuts. In addition, they contribute to a feeling of satiety, which may keep you from reaching for snacks between meals.
But you can easily diminish the health benefits if you’re not careful about what you pair eggs with. People often eat eggs alongside bacon, sausage and other processed foods.
“There is substantial evidence that processed and highly processed foods are associated with overweight and obesity, as well as higher cardiovascular risk,” said Artur Viana, a physician and clinical director of the Metabolic Health and Weight Loss Program at Yale Medicine.
How many eggs are too many eggs?
There’s no magic number when it comes to how many eggs you can each day. This depends on a lot of factors, including your biology and the other foods you eat throughout the day.
Nutrition research and recommendations consistently go back and forth on whether the cholesterol in eggs is bad for human health, and this can be seriously confusing.
Both the 2010 and 2015 versions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans (these recommendations are updated every five years) say a 2,000-calorie diet should include 26 ounces of meat, poultry and eggs each week as part of protein requirements (for reference, a large egg weighs around 1.7 ounces). Beyond that recommendation, there is no information in the guidelines about limiting egg consumption. Diewald said this is because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show a relationship between cholesterol consumption and its impact on blood cholesterol when the guidelines were released in 2015.
But things have changed a bit since then.
“In a recent study in JAMA of close to 30,000 individuals, the consumption of larger amounts of cholesterol and/or eggs was linked with a modest increase in cardiovascular disease risk and death,” Diewald explained, referring to the Journal of the American Medical Association. “On the other hand, a large international prospective study published just this year found no significant associations between eggs and blood cholesterol, risk of death, or other cardiovascular events.”
Pointing to the JAMA study and the fact that egg yolks contain saturated fat, Sean Heffron, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, said it’s best to minimize egg consumption if you struggle with cholesterol. He also noted that eggs, like nearly any other food eaten in moderation, can be part of a heart-healthy diet.
“Eating a dozen eggs a day is probably unhealthy, but a consumption within reason, such as two or three a day, is likely OK” for people who don’t struggle with cholesterol, Viana added.
But people with heart disease or high cholesterol need to be more cautious, Heffron said. If you don’t like eggs, you can cut them out of your diet completely, he said. If you really like eggs, he suggested cutting down as much as you can, to possibly a maximum of one egg a day.
“Some recent data suggest that even one egg daily can increase cardiovascular risk,” Heffron pointed out. “That being said, if the rest of the dietary saturated fat and cholesterol consumption from other sources is reduced, then less of a specific egg restriction might be reasonable.”
The yolk of one large egg contains nearly 200 milligrams of cholesterol ― and we know that cholesterol in the foods we eat may raise levels of LDL cholesterol, which is often known as “bad cholesterol” because it can narrow arteries, reduce blood flow and cause other heart-health problems. The study Heffron and Viana alluded to found a significant association between higher consumption of eggs or dietary cholesterol and higher risk of cardiovascular disease. But other research shows that foods that are high in dietary cholesterol may not impact blood cholesterol significantly.
Overall, Viana doesn’t believe eggs are to blame for cardiovascular problems.
“If somebody has a balanced diet that happens to include eggs daily and lives an overall healthy lifestyle with daily exercise, and no tobacco and only moderate alcohol use, it is unlikely that the cholesterol in eggs will have a major impact in their health,” he said. “Elevated blood cholesterol is associated with negative cardiovascular outcomes, but it is unclear whether cholesterol consumption, especially from eggs, is independently associated with that.”
Another point to keep in mind is that not everyone responds in the same way to dietary cholesterol ― so what might work for one person may not for another.
“Some individuals are genetically predisposed to making more cholesterol, so reductions in dietary cholesterol may not be enough to keep blood cholesterol levels in check,” Diewald said. “Others are ‘hyper-responders,’ meaning increases in dietary cholesterol may quickly be reflected in blood cholesterol measures. Still others can pack away omelet after omelet and see no changes in cholesterol.”
Rather than demonizing eggs or putting them on a pedestal based on the latest studies, Diewald suggests looking at the big picture. Eggs contain a ton of important nutrients, and yes, they also contain a large amount of cholesterol. For the most part, when consumed in moderation, eggs can be part of a nutritious diet alongside other heart-healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, other sources of lean protein and healthy fats. But keep an eye on your blood work, and always pay attention to what your doctor recommends.