I recently saw the independent film Tracktown, written by professional runner and filmmaker Alexi Pappas. In it, Pappas' character, Plumb, is also a professional runner. Every morning before she leaves for her run, she cracks open a few raw eggs and slurps up the insides from a bowl. The image made me cringe.
My mother is a nurse, so I grew up with claims that everyone who orders their meat rare at restaurants "hasn't taken microbiology." Watching Plumb tip back a bowl and inhale its raw contents shocked me. Then I recalled Rocky Balboa's raw eggs in his pre-run protein shaker. It's Rocky, so there's has to be something to it.
As much as I want to dash up some stairs with my sweaty, muscular arms triumphantly raised, I've never even considered eating a raw egg before a run. I'm a former Division I and now top amateur runner, so I decided to read up online, and it seems that some health blogs do, in fact, encourage eating raw eggs, their argument being that you lose some of the key nutrients in an egg once you cook it. Not all health blogs agree, given the increased risk of contracting salmonella. And obviously, since they're blogs rather than research, I approach each one with a healthy dose of side-eye. Still, the idea did get me thinking: Should I actually try this new breakfast technique, or do the risks outweigh the benefits?
For years, eggs weren't considered to be the healthiest breakfast option due to their high levels of cholesterol. In the past decade, research has shown otherwise. Recent studies from the UK show that a medium egg contains about 100 mg of cholesterol, a third of the 300 mg recommended daily limit. More research shows that saturated fat—not dietary cholesterol—influences blood cholesterol levels the most.
Eggs in any form are a good source of inexpensive, high quality 'complete' protein—they contain all eight essential amino acids, the ones that we cannot synthesize in our bodies and must obtain from our diet. And while a bunch of health blogs can't be trusted to advise us on when we should be going raw, Manabu Nakamura, associate professor of nutrition at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees that nutrients are lost when the eggs are cooked. "Anytime you cook food, you lose nutrients," he says. "In eggs, B vitamins, such as folate, along with other vitamins can be degraded when you cook them."
But is the nutrient loss worth the risk of contracting Salmonella?
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"Salmonella is always a legitimate concern," says Nashville-based food scientist Shelby Magnuson. "The bacteria is something that's in raw eggs and actually in the chickens themselves—it's in the chicken, it's in the feces and can even get on the eggshell." Getting any food up to a certain temperature can help eliminate all kinds of shady living things lurking in or on an egg. A common foodborne illness in the country, salmonella affects one million people every year in the United States alone. And out of the one million, there are 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths every year.
"You get sick pretty quickly," Magnuson says, regarding the time it takes to start feeling like crap after contracting the illness. "There are different strains. Most people are usually very sick to their stomachs and experience vomiting and diarrhea. Some cases are more serious and, if not treated, can cause death."
Some health blogs make the argument that the salmonella contraction risks diminish if the eggs are pasteurized, cage-free, or organic. In the pasteurization process, fresh eggs are placed in a water bath. The combination of time and temperature heats the eggs in their shells to the exact temperature needed to help destroy bacteria, without actually cooking the egg.
"As far as pasteurized eggs go, they're technically not raw anymore," Magnuson says. "There's still more of a risk of Salmonella on the eggshell, depending on the pasteurization process. In terms of cage-free and organic eggs, both still have salmonella risks."
After some more research on going raw that sufficiently freaked me out, I began to wonder if there is some type of middle ground. What about cooking your eggs sunny side up versus cooking them all the way through in, say, an omelet? Perhaps that could maintain some of the nutrients and save me from a fate of some explosive bubble gut. Buuut, it turns out that there's still a significantly greater risk of contracting salmonella when going sunny-side up.
"A cooked egg is better than raw one," Nakamura says. "In a cooked egg, the chances [of salmonella] are very low, but still there. If you completely cook the egg, it's probably fine. Lightly cooked is an in-between—there's still a risk."
Nakamura has another way for those concerned with losing the vitamins and nutrients when they cook eggs to combat their worries: supplement. "Anytime you cook something, not only eggs, vitamins are destroyed, but eggs aren't the only source of these vitamins," Nakamura says. "You can get them from other sources. Many other foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are higher sources of these vitamins. Furthermore, nowadays vitamin deficiencies are easily prevented by vitamin supplements." So basically, whatever I kill off in the cast iron can be earned back my diversifying my breakfast choices.
Well, I wanted raw eggs to enhance my run, not give me the runs or damn near kill me. So at the end of the day, even if nutrients are lost in the cooking process, the benefits of eating raw eggs—along with being as hardcore as Rocky—just don't seem to outweigh the risks.
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