Dan Murphy: Egg On Their Faces

Are eggs really the problem with the development of heart disease? ( . )

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

A new research report seems to suggest some damaging data about eggs: Eat enough of ’em, and they can kill you. Sorry, but if this study were an egg, it wouldn’t even be soft-boiled.

Cholesterol has had more star turns in recurring roles as villain/no, good guy/wait … double agent? than Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series.

For decades, the waxy, sterol-type compound essential to cellular and biological functioning was relatively ignored — understandable, as much more of the substance is produced inside the body than is ever consumed in foods.

Then came the surge in cardiac disease during the postwar era, and “high cholesterol” became a catchphrase for doctors and nutritionists targeting the nation’s then-epidemic of heart attacks and strokes.

Next came “good” and “bad” cholesterol, as scientists determined that the LDL (low-density lipid) fraction of cholesterol compounds was bad, and HDL (high-density lipid) fraction was good — which still left cholesterol as a dietary ne’er-do-well to be shunned by right-minded consumers.

But then newer research beginning in the 1990s indicated that for most people, dietary cholesterol intake was not necessarily related to the incidence of cardiovascular disease, meaning that eggs and other high-cholesterol foods could go back onto people’s personal menu plans.

That determination didn’t rule out susceptibility to elevated cholesterol (bad LDL cholesterol) levels that were problematic in terms of cardiovascular risk for certain individuals — think, “gluten-free” — but those findings shifted the spotlight onto saturated fat as a more dangerous nutritional villain.

We won’t go into the whole saga of sat fat’s history as a “benign, no bad, no, maybe good” nutrient.

Suffice to say that a new study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Society has supposedly re-ignited the whole “Is-cholesterol-really-bad debate?” specifically linked to the consumption of eggs.

The new/old egg debate

The researchers from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine reviewed data on food intake from previous studies involving upwards of 30,000 American adults over 17 years. They determined that people who ate a daily average of 1½ eggs, or about 300 milligrams worth of cholesterol, were 17% more likely to develop heart disease than those who didn’t eat eggs.

That might sound awfully sobering, but three variables the researchers couldn’t control make those data highly suspect:

  • They didn’t separate out eggs from other cholesterol-rich foods
  • They couldn’t determine if people were eating eggs hard-boiled, poached, fried or scrambled in butter
  • They were forced to rely on dietary recall data

That last point is the key. Studies purporting to link the type and quantities of foods people SAY they eat with actual medical outcomes are notoriously unreliable. Can you remember what you had last week on Tuesday for breakfast, lunch and dinner? I can’t.

Finally, even if studies could be designed to accurately assess what people eat over long periods of time, they still could not be used to definitively finger specific foods as culprits in the development of disease conditions. The so-called chronic illnesses (as distinguished from infectious disease), such as cardiovascular conditions, arise from a multiplicity of factors, of which diet is but one among many.

Instead, here are two alternative activities that can A). Lend some valuable insight into the validity of nutritional claims about the (alleged) damage said to occur from eating animal foods; and B). Apply such insight to one’s own personal health status.

Activity No. 1 involves a very simple, very straightforward observational study, similar to the ones anthropologists conduct when examining the cultural mores of indigenous peoples around the world. Just go to your local supermarket or superstore or wherever you buy your groceries, and instead of searching for the shortest line at checkout, find the longest one — hang with me here; it’ll only cost a couple extra minutes.

Spend those additional few moments actively studying what people have sitting in their carts and what products they’re dumping on the belt at the checkout stand. Take note of the proportion of “fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans” — you know, the healthy foods we’re supposed to load up on — versus packaged, microwaveable products, snack and candy items and all manner of soft drinks and bottled beverages.

Then ask yourself: Are eggs really the problem with the development of heart disease?

Second, forget the culinary controversies for a moment, and take stock of your own situation. How do you feel after eating certain foods versus other choices? How’s that “watching your weight” thing going? How much restful sleep are you averaging per night (or day)?

And finally, are you seriously going to pretend you lead an “active lifestyle” when the staff at the local gym or health club of which you’re technically a member greet you with, “Hey, welcome back; long time, no see!” when you occasionally stroll in?

Medical science can and should continue to research how various foods and dietary concepts affect our health and longevity.

But in the end, it’s less about what grocers decide to display in the cold case and more about what we choose to shove in our mouths.

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