Breaking: Eggs not bad for you and the NYT is on it

posted at 9:35 pm on January 28, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

You see what I did there?

Oh, the poor maligned egg. Formerly a cherished staple of American breakfasts, it has in the last several decades been blamed for high cholesterol, heart attacks, and obesity. But not anymore, sayeth the New York Times. You’ll be glad to know that if common sense had convinced you eating eggs was probably a-okay—even the yolk!— you are safe. The New York Times is allowing “Eggs [to] Regain Their Reputation.”

Egg yolks are high in cholesterol, but a new analysis adds to the evidence that they are not the dietary sin we once thought they were. The review suggests that for most people, eating one egg a day is not bad for the heart.

Researchers reviewed eight prospective studies including 263,938 subjects and pooled the data for analysis. They found no evidence that eating up to an egg a day increased the risk of heart disease or stroke. The results were the same for men and women and in all age ranges.

Diabetic patients were the only exception. For them, high egg consumption was associated with an increased risk of heart disease and a reduced risk for hemorrhagic stroke. But there were too few diabetics in the studies to draw reliable conclusions.

A little further down in this story we find this:

A co-author of the study, Dr. Frank B. Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, said that eating two or three or more eggs a day might be harmful, in theory, although there are no data on that.

So, one egg a day doesn’t increase the likelihood of disease and there’s “no data” to suggest even three eggs a day would. But a quick perusal of the New York Times‘ own archives seems to suggest it certainly thought there was plenty of data to scare us off of eggs. I’m amazed again and again how conventional wisdom on foods that are “bad for you” solidifies with so little data to support it. Please see: salt, which I’ve been trying to convince people isn’t necessarily unhealthy for years, but the conventional wisdom is so strong, people think I’m a conspiracy theorist. The New York Times recently came around on this one, too. Let’s follow eggs’ journey.

“A Heart Expert’s Prescription for the Nation,” 1989:

“We want you to concentrate on the biggest enemy,” Dr. Castelli said. ”If I take saturated fat out of your diet, I automatically don’t have to take out the cholesterol, with a couple of exceptions.” The exceptions are foods like egg yolks and organ meats. ”We’re not against the egg, just against the yolk,” he said. ”White is sensational protein. You can fry up all the whites you want.”

“Report Urges Low-Fat Diet for Everyone,” 1990: A front-page story on a federal commission’s recommendations, including an egg condemnation:

The new report recommends that all Americans from age 2 onwards consume no more than 30 percent of their calories as fat, a decrease of about 15 percent from the fats that most adults consume today. For children, a 30 percent fat diet is a ‘goal’ and for adults it is a maximum. The group also said that unsaturated fats, which, like butter, are solids at room temperature, should constitute no more than 10 percent of the calories consumed. The average American diet now obtains 13 percent of its calories from these fats. Polyunsatuated fats like corn oil should constitute up to 10 percent of fats consumed, and monounsaturated fats like olive oil should constitute the rest of fat calories.

The report also recommends that Americans consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day, a decline from the average 304 milligrams a day for women and 435 milligrams a day for men. The yolk from a large egg contains 274 milligrams of cholesterol.

The recommended diet would contain more fruits, vegetables and grains, and more skim milk than the average American diet today. It would contain fewer egg yolks and less meat. People are advised to keep the fat content of foods firmly in mind as they select foods at grocery stores and restaurants.

“The Joy of Eggs (in Moderation, of Course) Is Rediscovered,” 1993 allows a recipe that includes eggs, with the proper apologies, of course.

“Heart Ills and Cholesterol May Not Be Linked in Old Age,” 1994, suggests that egg = high cholesterol = heart attacks is not the simple equation nutritionists and reporters had assumed it was:

At first glance, the questioning of cholesterol’s effects may sound odd, heart disease researchers said. After all, if large amounts of cholesterol in the blood encourage the buildup of artery-clogging plaque in middle-aged people and even in people as old as 65, why would they not do the same in the very old?

One possible explanation, said Dr. David Kritchevsky, a cholesterol researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, is that anyone who reaches 80 or so with a high cholesterol level and no evident heart disease may be immune to cholesterol’s effects. “The bullet has missed you,” he said.

But Dr. Kritchevsky said many people did not want to hear that they could ignore cholesterol after reaching a certain age. “What has happened is that the risk factor has become the disease,” he said. High cholesterol levels themselves have come to be viewed as a pathology.

Dr. Kritchevsky said many old people and their doctors were so convinced that high cholesterol levels were dangerous at any age that the question of whether to measure them, or try to lower them if they were high, might never come up. “My own father, who is 82, announced to me that he was going to stop eating eggs,” Dr. Kritchevsky said. “I told him, ‘Eating eggs is what got you here.’ “

A piece entitled “Personal Health,” suggests the NYT was on this story, and should have stayed on it, as far back as 1995:

In recent decades the egg, like Humpty Dumpty, has had a great fall. Since the mid-1940′s, concern about cholesterol and heart disease has sent per capita consumption plummeting from more than 400 eggs a year to only 235 in 1992, according to the latest figures available.

But after a half-century of hard knocks, 1995 may be the year that the egg, unlike Humpty, gets put together again. After three decades of blanket dietary advice to keep daily cholesterol intake below 300 milligrams and to limit egg consumption to four yolks a week, some experts on diet and heart disease are considering a more individualized approach that would allow a large portion of the population to eat more eggs, as well as other foods, like shrimp, that are relatively high in cholesterol but low in fat.

The interest in eggs stems from several incontrovertible facts. Eggs are inexpensive, readily available, easy to chew and digest, simple to prepare, relatively low in calories, and rich in protein, iron and many other essential nutrients. Unfortunately, eggs are also rich in cholesterol. The yolk of one large egg (the whites are free of both fat and cholesterol) has 213 milligrams of cholesterol and 5 grams of fat; 2 of them are saturated fat, which can raise blood levels of cholesterol.

“Go Ahead and Have Another Egg, Ads Say,” 1997, features the federal government running a campaign to goose the egg industry after derping it into despair.

A national advertising campaign this summer says it has the final word on eggs and cholesterol. “The good news about eggs just got better,” the headline boasts.

“More studies say eggs are O.K.,” the advertisement continues, showing a mouth-watering picture of a green pepper-and-mushroom omelet. “The conclusion: If you’re healthy, go right ahead and enjoy your eggs. Your cholesterol will probably stay about the same.”

Nutritionists caution, however, that people with cholesterol problems — and those with heart disease — should still be careful about how many eggs they eat.
The advertising campaign was approved by the Agriculture Department, which also publishes guidelines recommending that people try to control their cholesterol. The agency said the advertisements had been reviewed by a panel of scientists and by the Food and Drug Administration before being released.

A pro-egg era continues with 1997′s “Scientists Ease up on Fear of Eggs.”

When it comes to eggs, few medical experts are neutral. Either they want to see the entire population, young, old, women, children, those with low cholesterol levels and those with high cholesterol levels, assiduously restricting egg consumption. Or they dismiss the anti-egg movement as so much dogmatism by heart disease fanatics.

The truth, as scientists now view it, seems to be not in the middle but more to the side of those who would like to see Americans relax about eggs — a sentiment that is growing.

Yes, eggs contain about 215 milligrams of cholesterol in their yolks.

Yes, cholesterol in the diet is capable of raising the levels of cholesterol in the blood.

But individual responses to cholesterol in food vary so greatly that some people show virtually no effect. And in any event, the primary culprit is not cholesterol in the diet but saturated fat in the diet.

Also, genetics play a much larger role in how one’s body responds to cholesterol than diet. There is some more interesting data in this story, which seems to refute Dr. Hu’s assertion today that there’s “no data” on what three to four eggs a day might do to a person. Or, perhaps he just meant there’s “no data” to prove it harmful:

But two studies by Dr. Henry N. Ginsberg at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found that young men and women who ate as many as three to four eggs a day for weeks on end had virtually no change in their blood cholesterol levels.

This is pretty good information to include in any piece that mentions eggs and cholesterol.

1998: OH, GAWD, WE HAVE NO FARGING IDEA! “Feeding Frenzy; It’s Good. No, It’s Bad. No, It’s Good. Really. I Think.”

EGGS: Once condemned for their high cholesterol content, eggs might be okay after all for most people, who can safely eat a few a week without worrying about their blood-cholesterol level.

Along the way, throughout the early 2000s, there were a handful of very concerned feature stories about people with heart disease, which blithely condemned eggs without mentioning that actual data printed in the New York Times suggested conventional wisdom on eggs was incorrect and that they have different implications for different populations.

And, in 1999, we have “Eggs Eaten in Moderation Pass Muster, Study Finds,” which may sound familiar:

An egg a day is O.K. for most people, according to researchers who found that healthy people eating up to seven eggs a week did not increase their risk of heart attack or stroke.

“Our study doesn’t mean that people should go back to the typical Western diet — a breakfast with two eggs, bacon, sausage, butter and toast,” said Dr. Frank B. Hu, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, who led the research. “This kind of diet is very unhealthy. But eggs per se, I don’t think they deserve such a bad reputation.”

Diabetics, however, do face higher risks of heart attack or stroke with increased egg consumption, according to the study, which is being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

A spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, which was not involved in the study, said the findings would not change the association’s belief that Americans should limit their dietary cholesterol.

“These new data do not conflict with the American Heart Association’s recommendations that healthy individuals consume no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day,” said the spokeswoman, Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein of the Department of Agriculture’s nutrition center at Tufts University.

That’s the same Dr. Hu who is the co-author of the meta-analysis which sparked today’s “Eggs Regain Reputation.” Maybe they can keep it this time.

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