One of the challenges I have found in my classes is with helping people overcome their intellectual and emotional obstacles to eating real foods, especially in their full fat, cholesterol-laden glory. For decades, researchers, nutritionists, media, our mothers, and friends have repeated the conventional dietary mantra that fat and cholesterol are baaaad. Unfortunately, much conventional thinking about what we should eat is not based on sound research. There are many reasons why different nutrients and even whole foods become lionized or demonized and it’s easy to fall into conspiracy theories, placing blame on Big Food, Big Pharma, or Big Guv’ment, but there is more to it than the big guys. There is also our own desire to find simple answers to complex questions about nutrition, health, and sustainability and a loss of traditional knowledge about growing, preparing, and eating food.
In the coming months, I will address different demonized foods and what new (and old) thinking has to say about why we might reconsider including them in our diets. As I upset the apple cart, I don’t expect you accept what I have to say without question. Quite the contrary, while I hope to give you some food for thought, I encourage you to do your own research and spend some time thinking for yourself.
This month, between our six hens all laying for us everyday, taking a Ukrainian egg decorating class at Gossamer, and teaching an egg cookery class at Friendly Haven Farm, I have eggs on the brain. So for my first installment of Rethinking Conventional Thinking, the eggs have it…let’s learn more about the egg’s most misunderstood and maligned nutrient, cholesterol.
Growing up in the 1970s, the first time I heard the term “cholesterol” was in news stories reporting that eggs, especially egg yolks, were dangerously high in this supposedly artery-clogging substance. I remember seeing egg-white omelets appear on menus and egg replacements next to the real eggs in grocery stores. I never gave up on real eggs and continued to enjoy them scrambled, fried, hard-boiled, in omelets, quiches, and custards. For me, this was the beginning of a lifelong practice of questioning and eschewing conventional dietary “wisdom” whenever it suggested that people should quit eating foods that humans around the world have enjoyed for millennia. As a child and a teenager, I didn’t have any good reasons for ignoring such warnings, except my gut telling me that that foods my grandparents (who all lived into their 80s and 90s) enjoyed regularly couldn’t be all that bad. Despite decades of throwing caution to the wind, I have always had relatively low cholesterol levels. Well, it as it turns out eating real eggs has nothing to do with cholesterol levels, but the thinking that lead to warnings about eggs and cholesterol has everything to do with bad science and political expedience.
In the 1960s, researchers were using powdered eggs in their studies, but the process of turning an egg into powder—liquifying, pasteurizing, and spray-drying—oxidizes the cholesterol in the egg. Dr. Kilmer McCully, an expert on cholesterol metabolism, says that scientists have known since the 1950s that oxidized cholesterol causing atherosclerosis, but natural cholesterol does not. The animals used in these studies, rabbits, are herbivores that do not have the capacity to metabolize cholesterol. What these studies found is that force-feeding creatures a substance that isn’t naturally part of their diet causes them to develop arterial cholesterol deposits. The basic science behind these studies was fundamentally flawed. Researchers around the world agree that natural, non-oxidized dietary cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Rather, our modern Western diet full of processed foods and deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, vitamins B, C, and E and other nutrients cause heart disease (which did not exist before 1900).
And why did eggs in particular become so maligned? In 1968, food scientists met to discuss dietary cholesterol and determined that people should consume no more than 300 mg cholesterol a day. They came to that number not by observing the reversal of heart disease in people who limited their average daily dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg, but by simply halving the average daily consumption of 568 mg. With over 200 mg of cholesterol in the yolk of a large egg, an inexpensive, traditional food became a guilty pleasure for some and an excuse for Big Food to come up with new, cholesterol-free products.
What are we missing out on when we give up eggs? Fresh, real eggs are an excellent source of protein, with a ratio of amino acids very close to the ideal for human nutrition. Egg yolks contain lecithin, which helps the body digest fat and cholesterol. Lecithin is the source of choline, a B vitamin-like agent vital to the fetal brain. Eggs contain many antioxidants, including gluathione, which helps other antioxidants fight cancer and prevents oxidation of LDL. Yolks are rich in the antioxidant lutein, which is more readily absorbed than the lutein found in spinach. Yolks have the highest concentrations of biotin—a B vitamin essential for healthy hair, skins, and nerves and the digestion of fat and protein—of any food.
Eggs from pastured birds are superior to those from hens raised indoors. Pastured yolks are rich in betacarotene from the green plants that truly free-ranging hens eat in abundance. The eggs from my own chickens, who are outside all day, every day, are unquestionably orange. They also contain more vitamins A and E, folic acid, lutein, and beta-carotene. Pastured eggs are dramatically richer in omega-3 fats, which prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in pastured eggs in ideal (about 1:1), while an indoor egg has almost 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats.
Some eggs are advertised as vegetarians, but as any keeper of free-range chickens knows, chickens delight in eating worms, grubs, insects and kitchen scraps that contain meat, cheese, or sour milk. The “vegetarian” label came about in the late 1990s after Mad Cow disease scares spurred a demand for eggs and meat from animals that had not been fed protein from ground-up pigs, cows, and chickens. While it’s laudable to keep such feed out of the diet of livestock, what all these animals need is their natural diet, found on pasture, and a life in the open air. For your health and the welfare of animals, look for eggs, meat, and dairy products from pastured animals and don’t be afraid of real food!
To learn more about cholesterol, read any of the numerous articles at The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics web site, Real Food by Nina Planck, Ending the Cholesterol-Heart Disease Myth by Andreas Moritz, or The Benefits of High Cholesterol by Dr. Uffa Ravnskov.