There was a recent article in the Washington Post on how the US may drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food. After so many years of telling us to watch our cholesterol intake, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is seeing that not all cholesterol is created equal and we can eat our egg yolks again. Hurray!
This may create some major confusion for many people who have long been told by their doctors to avoid excess cholesterol to manage their heart health. And that’s where a bit of education on cholesterol would be nice, right?
What’s cholesterol anyways?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is essential for life. Its many functions include keeping your cell walls intact, provide antioxidant protection, repairing inflammation, producing hormones, and synthesizing vitamin D3 in your skin from sunlight exposure.
There is LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), and HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol – remember it as “H” for happy). High levels of LDL leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries and that means clogged arteries. The good HDL cholesterol carries your excess cholesterol from other parts of your body back to the digestive tract, where it gets removed from your body, given that you consume enough fiber.
Both are needed for a healthy balance. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but it’s also found in some of the foods you eat, hence the advice on “watching your cholesterol intake”.
It is not so much the level of cholesterol in the blood that can cause adverse effects on your health – it is whether that cholesterol is in an oxidized form. What causes oxidized cholesterol?
• Chronic stress
• Cigarette smoking
• Excess consumption of coffee, alcohol, polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and refined carbohydrates and sugar
• Diet lacking in anti-inflammatory plant foods (–> fiber) and other essential nutrients
Chronically elevated oxidized cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) as well as other circulatory problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and risk of excessive clotting.
This small but important difference is often overlooked and cholesterol is thrown in the bad-for-you-foods bucket altogether.
There are a lot of food myths out there that sometimes steer us in the wrong direction and confuse people on what’s healthy or not. Eating healthy shouldn’t be confusing or difficult – it should come natural.
Unfortunately our world of fast & convenient has largely reduced our knowledge of food and cooking. We love to eat, but we don’t know enough about our food.
Which takes me back to the eggs. I have a colleague that is trying to lose weight and she’s even working with a personal trainer. He told her to eat low fat turkey burgers, spinach, and egg whites for lunch 3-5 days a week. How do you expect anyone to enjoy food if they have to eat the same thing 3-5 times a week? I know I couldn’t. But aside from this lunchtime monotony, I was bothered to hear someone condemn the egg yolks again. Was this about the cholesterol again? I think it’s time to give egg yolks their due credit:
What makes the yolks so good for you is their rich content of choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, the brain neurotransmitter that keeps us alert, intellectually sharp, and with excellent short-term memory and problem solving abilities.
Choline also keeps cholesterol emulsified, elevating your (good) HDL levels, while clearing the (bad) LDL cholesterol. The cholesterol in eggs actually helps us to manage stress, as it is a precursor for balanced adrenal and reproductive hormones. Eggs improve fertility, while balancing the female menstrual cycle. (7–10 eggs/week is a good upper limit, as it’s not good to overconsume any food.)
Eggs from hormone-, antibiotic-, and pesticide-free hens are an inexpensive, nutrient rich food, which provide an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins, including ample vitamin B-12. Eggs even have the highest biological protein value at 93.
Wait, what value? The biological value of a protein is a number from 100 down to 0, that describes how well it is absorbed by the body. More precisely, it is a measure of the percentage of the protein that is actually incorporated into the proteins of the human body. We need to remember that just because we eat a certain amount of nutrients, we don’t actually absorb 100% of them. The biological value of beans for example is only about 58.
Eat the yolks!
And eat them soft boiled or runny to keep its goodness as much intact as possible. Overcooked hard boiled eggs that crumble, or have a grayish outer layer, are not the ideal.
So, now that the cholesterol question is cleared up and we’ve learned that eggs are an amazing source of highly absorbable protein, it’s time to learn about the whole buying and storing topic:
How to buy the right eggs and why are some eggs so darn expensive?
The packaging of eggs has some of the most confusing (and meaningless) terms that can easily mislead consumers and can cost too much money or too much of your health. First off is the color. Whether the egg has a white or a brown shell does not matter at all. The nutritional value can be the same. In the case of nutritional value, the chicken comes first!
More specifically, how the chicken was raised. The following guide is from an article on Takepart.com by Jane Lear:
Cage-Free: Under USDA regulations, birds are free to roam inside barns and engage in many natural behaviors, but in general don’t have access to the outdoors and the space per bird is only about 1 sqft. Although a definite improvement over battery confinement, the term tells consumers nothing about what the birds are fed or antibiotic inputs.
Free-Range/Free-Roaming: Birds must be allowed access to the outdoors—a concrete slab counts, as does a single small door in a barn that houses thousands of birds. The term does not signify what the birds are fed. Average space per bird: 2 sqft
Pasture-Raised/Pastured: This term implies that the laying hens get to hunt, peck, and graze outdoors on various greens and insects (their natural diet). In 2007, an egg testing study of 14 flocks around the country by Mother Earth News found that, compared to USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain: 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. Pastured eggs are available at farmers markets and, less commonly, at the supermarket. Average space per bird: 108 sqft
Antibiotic-Free/No Added Antibiotics/Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics: According to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, this claim can be only be made by egg producers who choose not to use any antibiotics in feed or water during the growing period of pullets or while hens are laying eggs. The term isn’t USDA approved, but under USDA regulations, poultry (and meat) products can be labeled as “no antibiotics added” if documentation is provided showing that the hens were raised without antibiotics.
Certified Organic: A USDA-certified organic label means the eggs come from cage-free hens with outdoor access (the amount and duration, however, aren’t well defined), and the hens are fed certified-organic feed. Forced molting and debeaking are permitted. Antibiotics are prohibited, although in a loophole reported by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, the standard kicks in on “the second day of life” for chicks, including those on organic farms.
Hormone-Free: This claim is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Egg-laying hens are not given hormones.
Natural: As defined by the USDA, all this term means is that nothing was added to the egg. It doesn’t indicate how the hen was raised, what it was fed, or the use of antibiotics. All eggs are “natural.”
Omega-3 Enriched: These eggs are from hens (caged unless otherwise noted) fed a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids, which help sustain eye, heart, and nerve health. The omega-3s usually come from flax seeds and/or fish oil. Check the nutrition panel on the carton before paying a premium for enriched eggs: Factory-farmed eggs naturally have about 50 milligrams of omega-3s, and many “enriched” eggs have that same amount. If you have a choice, opt for pastured eggs instead—they have up to twice the amount of omega-3s as factory-farmed eggs and come from happier birds.
Vegetarian-Fed/Vegetarian: This term means that the birds’ feed does not contain the animal byproducts that may be found in conventional feed, such as chicken litter, feather meal, and other unsavories that give a whole new meaning to “waste not, want not.” Chickens are not naturally vegetarian, however; their idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet includes insects, worms, and grubs.