Research Review: Eggs – worse than fast food?

By Helen Kollias

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Eggs Worse than KFC Double Down (Toronto Sun)

Is Fast Food Healthier Than Eggs? (WTAJ)

Big Mac vs. The Egg (Independent)

Eggs Versus the Double Down: Guess Who Wins? (Globe & Mail)

Those are some of the headlines this week, all covering a new scientific article that has no new information in it. Yes, folks; this is not a study; it’s a summary of other studies that have been around for years.

And all these headlines have it wrong.

In fact, the article authors compared an egg to a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, which is arguably worse than a KFC Double Down and a Big Mac. (In fact, Hardee’s is probably upset that KFC and McDonald’s are getting all this free publicity.)

Research question

This week’s review is going to be a little different, because I’m going to going to a) compare a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger to an egg and b) dig into cholesterol and eggs.

The article of this week’s review and last week’s media storm:

Spence JD, Jenkins DJA, Davignon J. Dietary cholesterol and egg yolks: not for patients at risk of vascular disease. Can J Cardiol. 2010;26:e336-e339

Hang on to your arteries, ladies and gentlemen!

Examining the claims

Hardee’s Monster Thickburger® versus the egg

Before I go into the details of cholesterol and eggs in this review I really have to address the media claim that a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger is healthier than an egg.

If you’re not familiar with these foods, a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger is two 1/3 lb charbroiled 100% Black Angus beef patties, 4 strips of bacon, 3 slices of American cheese (aka processed cheese) and mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun. An egg is, well, an egg.

A quick glance at our two contenders gives us a pretty good idea which is healthier. If you sat down and ate them I’m sure one would make you feel a little sluggish, but let’s compare actual content.

Table 1 below compares the Thickburger and an egg. The info in the chart comes from the Hardee’s website and the insert from a carton of eggs I happen to have in the fridge.

A few highlights of the comparison:

  • a Thickburger has nearly 20 times the calories of an egg
  • a Thickburger has 19 times more grams of fat and 24 times more saturated fat
  • nobody knows how much trans fat there is in a Thickburger, but it can’t be less than an egg, which has 0 g
  • the Thickburger has 3020 mg of sodium — over double the daily 1200 mg of sodium recommended by RDA
  • an egg has less cholesterol than a Thickburger!

Table 1 – Nutritional content of a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger and a large egg.

Thickburger Egg Winner
Serving size (g) 386 53 (1 large egg)
Total Calories 1320 70 Egg
Calories from fat 860 45 Egg
Fat (g) 95 5 Egg
Saturated fat (g) 36 1.5 Egg
Trans fat (g) Unknown 0 ?
Sodium (mg) 3020 65 Egg
Carbohydrates (g) 46 1 Egg
Dietary fibre (g) 2 0 Thickburger
Sugars (g) 6 0 Egg
Protein (g) 70 6 Thickburger
Cholesterol (mg) 210 195 Egg

Hey wait a second… isn’t it the article authors’ big argument that the Thickburger has less cholesterol?

The authors state:

“A single egg yolk contains approximately 215 mg to 275 mg of cholesterol (depending on the size). The egg yolk of a large egg provides more than the 210 mg cholesterol in a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger (Hardee’s Food Systems Inc, USA).”

Where did they get the 215-275 mg of cholesterol? I got my info from my egg carton, which may or may not be 100% accurate, but where did they get their numbers?

In any case, the numbers are close enough. I think what the authors wanted to say is that an egg has more cholesterol than this very unhealthy fast food product (Thickburger), but that statement misses something really important in nutrition and in life — context.

Context matters

Apples contain fructose — fruit sugar. So, if we dissolve fructose in water, that should be exactly the same thing as an apple, right?

Obviously, no. Drinking fructose is not the same thing as eating an apple. By looking only at the gross idea of what makes an apple (or an egg) nutritionally important, you miss a lot.

This is known as overgeneralization. Babies do it a lot. For example, something that is fuzzy and has two eyes, a nose, four legs, and a tail must be a dog. It may be a cat, bear, lion, or any four legged fuzzy creature, but to a baby they are all the same thing. Obviously a cat and a dog are different, but if you don’t know any better and look only at the major parts they do seem the same.

The key point here is: Cholesterol in an egg is not the same thing as cholesterol in a Thickburger.

A baby and a dog. That's a dog, right?
A baby and a dog. That’s a dog, right?

Is all cholesterol the same?

The article authors note:

“Although the low-fat diet originally recommended by the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) was probably not the optimal diet, there were good reasons for its recommendations that patients at risk of cardiovascular disease should limit their cholesterol to 200 mg/day.”

Finally it seems, everybody agrees that a low fat diet is not the way to go and that we need fat (mainly unsaturated fat), but cholesterol is still an issue. The American Heart Association recommends 200 mg as the daily max for people at risk for cardiovascular disease and 300 mg/day for everybody else.

Didn’t we learn anything from the low fat craziness? All fat is not the same, just like eating carbohydrates from broccoli is not the same as eating them from a deep fried, sugar-smothered cake (aka donut).

Eggs and cholesterol

One of the main studies used to support the argument that eating eggs causes high cholesterol was done way back in 1912 (1). It was really straightforward: If you want to know if eggs cause high cholesterol, you feed eggs (specifically yolks) to some animal — in this case, rabbits — and see what happens.

It turned out that eating eggs caused the rabbits to get atherosclerosis (artery hardening). Well that seems pretty clear for the “avoid eggs” argument.

Not so fast. Researchers doing another study also fed pure cholesterol to rabbits and guess what? No atherosclerosis.

The difference is that the egg yolks in the earlier study had oxidized (got some more oxygen) cholesterol, which makes all the difference in the world (2). It’s the oxidized cholesterol that causes all the problems, and which eventually leads to atherosclerosis. (Let’s forget for a moment that rabbits don’t normally eat eggs, either.)

Who the heck is going around oxidizing cholesterol in our eggs?

Mostly, you.

You cause the oxidation by cracking your egg and leaving it exposed to air (which has oxygen). When you cook eggs, the cholesterol oxidizes. Soft boiled or sunny-side-up cooking leads to the least amount of cholesterol oxidation, so less contribution to possible artery hardening.

Another interesting study found that if you had a high saturated fat diet and started eating 2-14 eggs a day for up to twelve weeks, there was no effect on cholesterol (3). What about a low saturated fat diet? Eating a low saturated fat diet plus eating 6-8 eggs/day would raise your cholesterol, but no more than if you ate 2 eggs/day (4).

In another study, eating eggs increased cholesterol, but that included LDL and HDL so the ratio of HDL to LDL stayed the same. This means that eggs do increase cholesterol, but not necessarily in a way that would increase your risk of atherosclerosis. If you eat eggs the LDL particles that you do get tend to be bigger, which is actually healthier (5).

Cholesterol: Genetic differences

Genetics also changes how much cholesterol you can eat and whether or not it increases blood cholesterol.

About 70% of the population has a little or no change in blood cholesterol when they eat dietary cholesterol (egg or Thickburger) (6,7).

Is cholesterol truly to blame?

The other question is whether dietary cholesterol on its own is truly an independent factor in cardiovascular disease. In other words, will eating the cholesterol in eggs in fact lead to atherosclerosis as surely as huffing asbestos will lead to lung cancer?

What things are, in fact, responsible for heart disease? Is an egg really the culprit if your arteries are going crusty?

Bottom line

A Hardee’s Monster Thickburger is not healthier than an egg, but that doesn’t make any headlines.

Consuming eggs in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle does not appear to increase your risk of heart disease.

If you are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, discuss your options with a qualified nutrition professional. When you eat eggs, does your blood cholesterol go up? What size are your LDL particles (yes, they can measure this in an expanded blood profile)? And what about other markers of health, such as inflammation? Remember that context matters.

When you eat eggs, eat them soft boiled or sunny side up, which decreases cholesterol’s oxidation.

gun-egg-fryers

Resources

Research Review: Eggs and cholesterol – is the Easter Bunny out to get you?

Eat and Run: Are Eggs Good or Bad?

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

Learn more

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