For the Last Time: Are Eggs Healthy or What?

Eggs over easy
Laura Hayes/Thrillist
Laura Hayes/Thrillist

Few foods have bounced around the health spectrum as much as the incredible, edible egg.

Vegetarians with glowing skin and balanced diets often get their protein from eggs; on the other side of the coin, eggs have been demonized since the 1960s for their high cholesterol levels; perfectly splitting the difference is the notion that egg white-only omelets are somehow better for you than the version with yolks.

Last year, though, the US Department of Agriculture dropped some big cholesterol news, saying Americans could ignore that limit, since cholesterol in food doesn't raise blood cholesterol levels.

In the midst of this cholesterol furor was the affirmation that the saturated fat in meat is still bad for you, and eggs are… kind of like meat? And yet, they're not, which is why many vegetarians still eat them. Before you reach for steak and eggs at every meal: are eggs now considered healthy, and are they really any better for your body than meat like chicken, beef, and pork?

Eggs are packed with the best kind of protein

There’s a reason why some call eggs the perfect food: at just 70 calories each, eggs are nutrient-packed powerhouses, and one of the best sources of protein humans can eat. Each one contains about 6g , and while that doesn't seem like much, egg protein has the highest biological value compared to other types, which is a fancy way of saying that egg protein is the easiest for the body to synthesize and use.

So not all protein is created equal. And while seafood can give you plenty of heart-healthy omega-3s, it can also contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants. Commonly consumed pork, beef, and poultry pack powerful protein punches, but tend to be high in saturated fat and don't offer the nutrient profile of eggs.  

Poached egg oozing
FullFrame Lab/Shutterstock

OK, so eggs are the healthiest (and cheapest) protein source. What else do I get when I eat one?

Egg yolks are full of good fats and 18 vitamins and beneficial minerals, such as thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B12, and B6, making them a great energy source for athletes and non-athletes alike. They also contain antioxidants that can protect you from a ton of diseases -- like cancer and hypertension -- and their yolks contain carotenoids, organic pigments that give them their yellow color.

But don't think that's just an aesthetic benefit: they also have anti-inflammatory properties that are great for your eyes, protecting you against age-related diseases like macular degeneration and cataract formation.

An egg a day (has a nice ring to it) may also help reduce the risk of stroke, though the study that found the association was funded by the American Egg Board. In other words, take it with a grain of salt, preferably one that you've just placed on your perfectly runny egg yolk. 

Egg in frying pan
Degtiarova Viktoriia/Shutterstock

Nutrition aside, eggs are far more sustainable than meat

Even though meat can have a place in a well-balanced diet, it's clear that we've taken that to another level: Americans eat about triple the global average of meat. Aside from the fact that the World Health Organization has linked meat to cancer, one of the best reasons to cut back is the environment.

You don't have to be one of those tree-hugging people to care. Everyone has a carbon footprint, which is how much your daily activities -- including eating -- add to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Meat eaters have twice the carbon footprint of vegetarians, and even something as small as a cheeseburger has a much larger environmental impact than you might expect. Chickens require much less land to roam freely, and you don't need to kill them to eat their eggs… which is obviously good for them and more sustainable.

The good news is that most restaurants have already committed to reducing meat on their menus, and we're eating less meat than we used to. Even though our dietary guidelines will be looked at again in 2020, the USDA's advisory committee has shown a willingness to adapt to changing science, which could have a huge impact on American eating habits in the future.

Now that the bad rep eggs have had for so long is no cause for concern, go ahead and crack yourself another one… and don't feel bad about it.

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Alison Kotch is a writer and egg eater who prefers hers scrambled, over-easy, or in any type of breakfast omelet. Follow her on Twitter @akotch.