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After years of being marginalized, eggs are staging a slight comeback. And that is either a good thing or a worrisome trend, depending on who weighs in on the topic.
In 2007, 13 percent of at-home breakfasts included eggs -- about a 1 percent increase from 2006, according to the NPD Group, a company that tracks consumer trends. The leading breakfast item at fast-food chains and restaurants is the breakfast sandwich, according to NPD. Its main ingredient? Eggs.
Spring -- the season of Easter and Passover -- is the time of highest egg consumption because of the use of eggs in these religious celebrations, according to the American Egg Board. Weekly consumption jumps from about 94 million dozen eggs per week nationwide to nearly 136 million dozen during Easter week.
There's widespread agreement that eggs are a cheap source of protein. Costing about 20 cents, one large egg contains 72 calories, 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat.
Cholesterol, found only in the egg's yolk, is the downside. The American Heart Association (AHA), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines all advise Americans to limit dietary cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams or less per day. Those who already have elevated blood cholesterol levels or type 2 diabetes are urged to keep cholesterol intake at 200 milligrams or lower per day.
Dine on just one jumbo egg with 266 milligrams per yolk, and it's easy to hit or exceed those limits. (A large egg has 212 milligrams of cholesterol per yolk; an extra large egg, 237 milligrams.)
But there's also growing research to suggest that eating a few eggs per week does not raise the risk of heart disease or stroke in otherwise healthy people. For Walter Willett, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, eggs can be a smarter choice for breakfast. Willett would rather see people eat scrambled eggs cooked in corn oil than a bagel with jam.
Watch those side orders
What worries Lawrence Appel, chair of the AHA's nutrition committee, is "what people eat eggs with." Egg dishes come with sides of bacon or sausage. Omelets are often flavored with cheese and ham. Ditto for breakfast sandwiches. All add unhealthy saturated fat that helps to raise levels of low-density lipoprotein, the most dangerous type of blood cholesterol. And they may be cooked in trans fat, which also hikes lipoprotein levels.
"We are not saying to ban eggs," says Appel, a professor at Johns Hopkins. "But what I am concerned about is that some people will think that the exception is the rule. So they will eat an omelet on the weekend and then grab a breakfast sandwich on the run on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. We don't want people to reverse the strides that have been made."
There are ways to have your eggs and eat them, too. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, 93, and physician Dean Ornish, author of books on reversing heart disease, both eat eggs. But neither eats the yolk. LaLanne orders egg-white omelets nightly for dinner. And when I dined with Ornish a number of years ago, he carefully removed each hard-boiled yolk from his salad but ate the whites with gusto.
There are other options too. Egg Beaters, made mostly from egg whites, are among a growing number of products available for those who want to eat eggs but need to eat less dietary cholesterol.
It's even possible to eat some eggs raw these days without risking a case of salmonella. Davidson's Safest Choice eggs are pasteurized in the shell to eliminate bacteria and viruses. They're not low in cholesterol, but they can be used to make a traditional Caesar salad and other dishes that use raw eggs.
As for eggs that come with extra omega-3 fatty acids -- a healthy fat that is good for your heart, your brain and your joints -- they may not be all that they're cracked up to be. In June 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the Food and Drug Administration to stop seven egg producers from implying that their eggs could reduce the risk of heart disease. Lab tests commissioned by the consumer advocacy group found that some eggs contained less of the omega-3s than advertised. CSPI argued that both the cholesterol and the saturated fat found in all eggs do not make them heart-healthy.
To make sense of all this scrambled nutrition information, here's the bottom line: If you're healthy and you like eggs, eat them in moderation. If you have high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes, skip the yolks.
You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.