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Eggs May Actually Lower Risk of Heart Disease

Instead of contributing to cardiovascular disease (CVD), eggs actually lower your risk, several recent studies suggest.

Eggs are rich in the nutrient betaine, which researchers from the Netherlands report can reduce levels of homocysteine, a molecule that is directly damaging to blood vessel walls and is considered an even more important risk factor for CVD than cholesterol.

Much research has demonstrated that teamwork among the B vitamins, folate, vitamin B6, and B12, can lower levels of homocysteine, but this study is the first to show that betaine also has this capacity, even in healthy volunteers.

Worried about eggs’ cholesterol? The latest study to evaluate this concern (summarized below in our Research Review) shows that people who eat 4 eggs per week have lower mean serum cholesterol levels than those who eat 1 egg per week or less.

Practical Tips

In his review of the latest egg studies, Dr. J Mercola notes, “Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. However, it is important that you eat organic eggs.”

Mercola believes it is especially important to eat organic eggs since when commercially fed chickens are given grains (usually bioengineered corn) sprayed with pesticides, much of the starch in the grains is converted into saturated fat, and ingested pesticides are stored in fat. This pesticide-laden fat will then end up in the yolk of the eggs these chickens produce.

In contrast, range-fed chickens given organically grown flaxseed will lay eggs high in its healthful omega-3 fats. Thus, says Dr. Mercola, “There is a HUGE difference between organic eggs and commercial eggs. They are worth every penny you pay for them. They are two different foods.”

Here are a few World’s Healthiest Foods idea to help you enjoy eggs more often:

  • To more easily add eggs to your healthy way of eating, try hard boiling a dozen. That way you’ll have them on hand for egg salad sandwiches, potato salad, or to use as a healthful topping for green salads.
  • Say olé to the day with a huevos ranchero breakfast. Add chili peppers to scrambled eggs and serve with black beans and corn tortillas.
  • Soak your favorite whole grain bread in beaten eggs and make the classic breakfast treat—French toast.

To learn more about the egg, truly one of the World’s Healthiest Foods, simply click eggs. For some exceptionally quick, easy and delicious recipes featuring eggs, click on the Recipe Assistant, select eggs on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing eggs will appear immediately below.

Research Review

Researchers evaluated 15 healthy patients aged 18 to 35 years, who were given 6 grams of betaine daily (3 grams, twice daily) for 3 weeks. Blood samples were collected after an overnight fast at the start of the study, at 2 weeks, and at the end of the study at 3 weeks.

At the outset, the patients’ mean total plasma homocysteine level was 10.9 µmol/L— more than 10%. After 2 weeks of betaine supplementation, homocysteine levels had decreased to 0.9 µmol/L or slightly greater than 8%, and after 3 weeks by 0.6 µmol/L or 5.5%.

The authors conclude that "Betaine supplementation decreases plasma total homocysteine concentrations in healthy volunteers. However, the extent of the decrease is much smaller in healthy volunteers than in patients with homocystinuria (a condition characterized by excessively high levels of homocysteine). In such patients, with plasma total homocysteine concentrations above 50 µmol/L, betaine supplementation significantly lowered plasma total homocysteine concentrations, by up to 75%."

Just like folic acid, betaine facilitates the remethylation of dangerous homocysteine into useful methionine. However, the researchers noted that "…the folate-dependent remethylation takes place in all cells, whereas the betaine-dependent remethylation reaction is mainly confined to the liver."

Researchers also noted that "The homocysteine-lowering effect seems smaller than that established by interventions with folic acid," but the beneficial effect of betaine is substantial—approximately a 50% reduction in homocysteine levels in healthy volunteers.

Since elevated blood levels of homocysteine are considered a risk factor for giving birth to a child with neural tube defects as well as for cardiovascular disease, making eggs a frequent contributor to your healthy way of eating may be a good idea.

Especially as other studies have also reported no evidence of a significant association between egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease or stroke in either men or women who ate one egg per day.

Public health advocates have long recommended that individuals limit their cholesterol consumption to 300 milligrams per day. Eggs contain approximately 213 milligrams of cholesterol each, leading to the traditional advice about limiting egg intake. But when researchers used data from the most recent National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES III, 1988-94) to compare the nutritional intake of diets that contained eggs with those that did not, they found that dietary cholesterol was not related to serum cholesterol concentration. As a matter of fact, in this study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who reported eating 4 eggs per week had a significantly lower mean serum cholesterol concentration than those who reported eating 1 egg per week (193 mg/dL vs. 197 mg/dL).

In addition, daily nutrient intake of people consuming eggs was significantly greater than non-egg eaters for all nutrients studied, except dietary fiber and vitamin B6.

In the egg group, eggs contributed more than 10% of the daily intake of vitamin B6; 10% to 20% of folate; 20% to 30% of vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin B12.

Individuals who did not eat eggs had higher rates of inadequate intake for vitamin B12 (10% vs. 21%), vitamin A (16% vs. 21%), vitamin E (14% vs. 22%), and vitamin C (15% vs. 20%).

In addition to these nutrients, eggs contain substantial amounts of protein, carotenoids and choline.

Eggs are rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that are yellow or orange carotenoids known as xanthophylls, according to Suzen M. Moeller, MS, and colleagues at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. These carotenoids are known to accumulate in the eye lens and macular region of the retina, where concentrations are the highest. Some research suggests that these carotenoids may protect the eyes, due to their ability to quench a type of free radical called reactive oxygen species that is generated in the eye as a consequence of exposure to ultraviolet light.

Studies have shown that high dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin is associated with a an up to 20% reduction in the risk for cataract and an up to 40% reduction in the risk for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older Americans.

The importance of the egg's supply of the essential nutrient choline was the subject of a presentation by Dr. Steven H. Zeisel, MD, PhD, of the School of Public Health, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, entitled "Choline: Needed For Normal Development of Memory.” According to Dr. Zeisel,

  • Choline is a dietary component essential for normal function of all cells
  • Choline is responsible for the structural integrity and signaling functions of cell membranes.
  • Choline is the major source of methyl-groups in the diet (as noted above, betaine, one of choline's metabolites, remethylates the potentially damaging molecule homocysteine into the useful amino acid methionine).
  • Choline directly affects nerve signaling, cell signaling and lipid (fat) transport and metabolism.

In 1998, the National Academy of Sciences, USA, issued a report identifying choline as a required nutrient for humans and recommended daily intake amounts. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, more choline may be required as the mother's reserves are depleted. An adequate supply is critical because choline is essential for normal brain development.

In experimental in rats, newborn rats who received choline supplements, either in utero or during the second week of life, showed improved brain functioning and greater lifelong memory capabilities, probably due to changes in the development of the memory center (hippocampus) in the brain.

"The mother's dietary choline during a critical period in brain development of her infant influences the rate of birth and death of nerve cells in this center," according to Dr. Zeisel. "These changes are so important that we can pick out the groups of animals whose mothers had extra choline even when these animals are elderly."

If this association holds true in humans, this means that the memory capacity of an adult is greatly influenced by the diet that his or her mother ate while pregnant.

Dr. Zeisel notes that this critical need for choline during early brain development is very similar to the need for folate during early gestation as well. "If folate isn't available in the first few weeks of pregnancy, the brain does not form normally," he states.

Therefore Zeisel stresses that pregnancy is a critical period during which special attention has to be paid to ensure adequate dietary intake of various nutrients—and eating an egg several times each week is one good way to do so.

References: Brouwer I, Verhoef P, Urgert R. Betaine Supplementation and Plasma Homocysteine in Healthy Volunteers. Arch Intern Med, September 11, 2000; 160. Where would we be without the egg? A conference about nature's original functional food. February 25-27, 2000, .J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Oct;19(5 Suppl):495S-562S. Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Rimm EB, Manson JE, Ascherio A, Colditz GA, Rosner BA, Spiegelman D, Speizer FE, Sacks FM, Hennekens CH, Willett WC. A prospective study of egg consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease in men and women. JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1387-94. Mercola J. E-Healthy News You Can Use: Egg a Day Ok for Healthy People; Don't Be Chicken of the Egg.

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