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Eggs are one of the best value and most nutrient-packed sources of protein available

19/05/2011

Eggs are one of the cheapest but most nutrient-rich sources of protein available and have an incredible ability to boost health and even help tackle obesity, health professionals are being told.

A new report, to be published in the May 19 issue of the nurses’ journal the Nursing Standard, reveals that eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense but cost-effective foods around and contain greater concentrations of a host of vital vitamins and minerals compared to chicken, beef, fish or tofu. In addition eggs are cheaper to buy per 100g of protein than nearly all protein-rich foods.

When compared to other protein foods - minced beef, pork, tofu, chicken and white fish – eggs have a similarly high level of protein yet cost far less. The report reveals that the cost of providing 45g of protein – a woman’s daily requirement – is just 96p for eggs but £1.40 for fish, £1.47 for pork, £1.68 for chicken and £2.50 for tofu. Only supermarket value-range minced beef was cheaper than eggs for the same level of protein, at 82p for 45g of protein, but contained far more saturated fat than eggs. In addition, when compared with four other protein-rich foods – chicken, beef, fish and tofu – eggs were found to be the richest in vitamin A, folate, biotin and iodine, and the second richest in vitamin D.

The new report also shows that eggs could play a significant role in weight management and dieting, and can even help prevent age-related macular degeneration – an eye condition that often leads to blindness. Report author Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian and registered public health nutritionist, says: “There are clear nutritional benefits to eating eggs on a regular basis. Not only do they represent an inexpensive source of protein, eggs are low in fat and saturated fat, and are a great source of many key nutrients, such as vitamin A, folate, selenium, vitamin D and iodine.”

The latest news follows recent research that identified eggs as a ‘superfood’, thanks to their nutritional benefits and high vitamin D levels. In the latest paper, Dr Ruxton analysed data from 66 previously published research papers and reference documents that examined egg nutritional data and the dietary role of eggs. She discovered that, despite being low in calories, eggs are a rich source of protein and are packed with essential nutrients, being particularly rich in vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, biotin and iodine. Her report also confirms that among protein foods, eggs were found to be a good source of vitamin A, folate, choline, phosphorus and selenium.

There is a direct link between eating eggs and levels of key nutrients. The report reveals that people who ate three or more eggs a week had significantly higher intakes of vitamins B12, A and D, niacin (B3), iodine, zinc and magnesium compared to those who didn’t regularly eat eggs. Another key finding, taken from research in the US, is that people who ate eggs had higher intakes of all nutrients (except vitamin B6 and dietary fibre) compared with non-egg eaters.

Eating eggs is also thought to help boost eye health, the report says. The antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin - found in large amounts in egg yolk - accumulate in the human retina where they are believed to help lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of blindness. One study found significant increases in levels of lutein and zeaxanthin when patients ate at least one egg daily for five weeks. Another study revealed that eating six eggs weekly for 12 weeks raised zeaxanthin levels and increased macular pigment optical density. The authors say that these studies indicate that egg consumption may be important in helping to prevent AMD.

Exploding the myths

The latest research updates advice about the role of eggs in the diet following last year’s news of the removal of the previous limits on consumption, originally due to worries over cholesterol content. More than four decades ago researchers wrongly believed that cholesterol in eggs could increase the risk of coronary heart disease, but this link has now been disproved by new and better research.

In the new report, Dr Ruxton highlights a number of previous US studies which confirm that egg consumption does not significantly raise the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke in healthy adults, or even those with pre-existing high-cholesterol levels. One study even found that cholesterol levels were lower in those who frequently ate eggs.

In the UK, there is now no limit on egg consumption with the emphasis on reducing cholesterol placed on cutting saturated fats and trans fats in the diet. Dr Ruxton says that the latest findings suggest that one or two eggs a day can be eaten with no effect on total cholesterol levels for most people. The exception is the small number of people with genetically high cholesterol, who should stick to two to three eggs a week.

Weight management and dieting

A medium-sized egg has less than 80 kcals – less than a small bag of crisps and about half the calories of a chocolate bar. There is now emerging evidence that the high protein content of eggs may play a useful role in weight management and dieting. This is thought to be because of the high levels of protein in eggs, with a link between protein and satiety - a feeling of fullness.

The report highlights a study that found eating two scrambled eggs for breakfast can contribute to greater satiety - a feeling of fullness - while reducing calorie intake over the following 36 hours. Another trial found that eating two eggs for breakfast every day could significantly lower body weight when combined with a low-energy diet over two months.

Dr Ruxton says: “Eggs are inexpensive and high in protein and rich in key vitamins and minerals. Compared with other protein sources, eggs are particularly nutrient dense and contain a relatively higher level of certain vitamins and minerals per 100g. Emerging evidence on the potential role of nutrients in eggs suggests that they could make a useful contribution to health within a balanced diet. The high protein, low fat composition of eggs and the ease of controlling calories, since eggs are naturally portion controlled, makes them a suitable food for including in a weight-management diet.

“New evidence now suggests that although eggs provide dietary cholesterol, other lifestyle factors - such as smoking, drinking, exercise levels, obesity and especially the amount of saturated fat in the diet - are far stronger risk factors for heart disease. For most people, egg consumption will have little or no influence on cholesterol levels or coronary heart disease risk.

“For the general population, there are clear nutritional benefits to eating eggs on a regular basis. Research suggests that eggs may be beneficial for satiety, weight control and eye health. With previous limits on egg consumption lifted, most people would benefit from a return to the days of going to work on an egg.”

Editor’s notes

The report, entitled ‘Recommendations for the use of eggs in the diet’, was conducted by Dr Carrie Ruxton, independent dietitian. The review was funded by the British Egg Industry Council whose employees played no role in the research or writing. The content of the review solely reflects the opinions of the authors.