The Scenario: "Wow, I wish I could eat that," your friend says as you stuff your face with a bear claw, the morning habit responsible for your cushy midsection. Meanwhile, he's on his high horse downing a three-egg omelet, boasting about how his health comes first. Sure, next to your glorified cake, his eggs look like the breakfast of champions—but what about all that cholesterol?
The Reality: Eggs are low in calories, packed with protein, and free from sugars and carbs. But that golden yolk is crawling with about 200 milligrams of cholesterol. That's concerning if it raises your body's levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the "bad" kind that can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
But that's a big "if." Most studies don't prosecute eggs completely: Some show they have no effect on heart disease risk factors, while others show a weak relationship. (As we've said before, bad cholesterol isn't always bad.) One particular study from 2016 cracked the case even more: Finnish researchers tracked 230 men for 21 years and found that neither eating one egg every day nor overall cholesterol intake—which averaged 400 mg per day—had any effect on heart disease.
For healthy people, the cholesterol might be less of a problem than what comes along with it. "Two-thirds of dietary cholesterol intake is associated with saturated fat, which we know raises LDL cholesterol," says Robert Eckel, a professor at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine and former president of the American Heart Association.
Eggs, which make up about 25 percent of the cholesterol in the American diet, are low in saturated fat—so they actually don't pose a risk in that way, Eckel says. But there is a scenario or two in which the 600 mg of cholesterol in three eggs could be too much for your body in one day.
The Worst That Could Happen: Well, we suppose you could eventually die from a heart attack or suffer a stroke—but it all very much depends on your own health situation. Your friend's omelet habit, in other words, could be worse for him than for other people. "About a quarter of the population can be considered 'hyper-responders' to dietary cholesterol," says Jyrki Virtanen, an adjunct professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland. People with diabetes and people who carry a certain gene—the apolipoprotein E type 4 (APOE4) allele—absorb dietary cholesterol more readily, so a daily triple-egg omelet is more likely to make their LDL cholesterol soar. (If you're worried, a gene test should be able to help you identify it.)
What Will Probably Happen: It's hard to say, exactly—but maybe nothing. "If he has no family history of disease, no risk factors, normal blood pressure, and overall lives an active and healthy life, I can't claim strongly that he'll be harmed eating three eggs per day," Eckel says. If your friend is the perfect patient, he might see a slight rise in his bad cholesterol over several years, but there's no long-term research to prove it.
What You Should Tell Your Friend: Give him some credit: His three-egg omelet definitely trumps having a sugar-packed bear claw in the health department. Still, he might want to at least consider cutting back. The science isn't yet clear on how years of eating an egg-heavy diet affects your health, and Eckel doesn't condone eating 600 mg of cholesterol from eggs every day. He suggests eating no more than 300 mg of cholesterol daily, and mixing egg whites—which have lots of protein and no cholesterol—with one yolk if you need the fat for mouthfeel and taste. Virtanen agrees: "I wouldn't recommend regularly eating lots of whole eggs," he says, "until we have more research about their long-term effects."
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