There’s one staple that I make sure I never run out of; it’s a nutritional powerhouse, yet it doesn’t get the credit it deserves — step forward the humble egg. I happily eat a couple most days, but a lot of people still treat them with caution.
That’s because eggs had a bit of an image problem for a while — we used to think they raised cholesterol (more on that later), and then they took a further battering when, in 1988, Edwina Currie (as a health minister) said ‘most’ egg production was affected by salmonella. Even though this was incorrect, sales slumped 60 per cent overnight.
But far from being bad for us, eggs pack a nutritional punch above their weight, in a handy, portion-controlled shell.
An egg provides more than 25 per cent of your daily selenium (an antioxidant linked to a reduced risk of cancer); around 20 per cent of your vitamin B12 (which helps counter fatigue); as well as plant compounds such as lutein and zeaxanthin (vital for eye health).
While these nutrients are also found in many vegetables, our bodies absorb them better when they come from an egg — that’s because they’re fat-soluble, meaning they dissolve best in the presence of fat, which is found in yolk, and this enhances absorption.
An egg provides more than 25 per cent of your daily selenium (an antioxidant linked to a reduced risk of cancer); around 20 per cent of your vitamin B12 (which helps counter fatigue)
While these nutrients are also found in many vegetables, our bodies absorb them better when they come from an egg — that’s because they’re fat-soluble
Eggs are a great source of protein, too.
There is a common misconception that in the UK we have ample protein in our diets — but a lot of older people, in particular, don’t get nearly enough.
Did you know?
If the thought of a peanut butter sandwich gives you the heebie-jeebies, you’re not alone. There’s a name for it: arachibutyrophobia. It’s the fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth, and it’s more common than you might think, ranked in the top 25 phobias.
A 2020 study of those aged 65 to 89 in the South Yorkshire area found that fewer than 50 per cent were getting the recommended amount of protein a day, i.e. 0.75g per kg of body weight. For an average woman weighing 60kg (9st 6lb) that would mean 45g a day; for an average man weighing 75kg (11st 11lb), it’s 56g. (For context, 100g of cooked chicken breast provides around 30g of protein.)
And the thing is that many people, like me, believe that UK protein guidelines are set too low.
Most international guidelines recommend 1.2g per kg of body weight — and only 15 per cent of those in the South Yorkshire study got anywhere near that kind of intake. Their breakfasts were especially low in protein: a boiled egg is the perfect solution.
One egg has around 6g of protein, meaning a couple a day provide more than a quarter of an average-sized woman’s daily needs.
And the protein in eggs is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the nine essential amino acids needed as building blocks to repair muscles and tissues, as well as to make hormones. The body can’t make these amino acids, they have to come from our diet.
But if you’re over 65, spread your intake throughout the day. Protein needs to be broken down into amino acids and, as you get older, this process slows unless you regularly ‘feed’ it with more protein. It’s a bit like throwing another log on the fire to keep it burning. So if you eat just one protein-rich meal a day, the chances are your body won’t utilise it as effectively.
That’s where eggs come in handy as you can have them as part of a meal or as a snack to boost your intake throughout the day.
Are free-range eggs worth the extra money? I would say a big yes
Another important nutrient in eggs is choline, a compound some experts fear the UK diet is lacking. In fact, in 2019 the British Medical Journal ran an article asking, ‘Could we be overlooking a potential choline crisis in the UK?’. My view is that we probably are. You might not have heard of it but choline props up a lot of key functions.
In the brain, it helps with memory and mood; it’s also involved in the production of red blood cells (so fights fatigue) and supports liver function.
Women need more choline during pregnancy and breastfeeding (it helps the baby’s brain develop) — worryingly, a lot of women I see in clinic aren’t getting even half of the recommended amounts.
The best sources of choline include, you guessed it, eggs, but fish, chicken and dairy are also valuable sources.
My guess is that this lack of choline isn’t isolated to my clients, but the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, a rolling survey the Government commissions to assess our intake of various nutrients doesn’t include choline.
That means we can’t even estimate how many people may have an insufficient intake: men need 550mg per day, women who aren’t pregnant, 425mg — and an egg provides in the region of 150mg, a helpful amount.
But what about the elephant in the room: eggs and cholesterol?
It’s true eggs are high in cholesterol, and it wasn’t long ago that doctors would advise anyone with raised cholesterol levels to avoid them. But we now know that cholesterol found naturally in foods (‘dietary’ cholesterol) doesn’t tend to raise levels in our blood significantly (unless you have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, or familial hypercholesterolaemia).
That’s because your liver produces all the cholesterol you need, and that process shuts down when you eat cholesterol-rich foods.
What does raise our cholesterol is saturated fat and ultra-processed foods — they turn off the receptors in the liver that help dispose of cholesterol, and it builds up in the blood. So steer clear of having your eggs fried and served with steak and chips!
Some studies have shown that people who eat a lot of eggs have an increased risk of heart disease, but these studies also show that people who eat more eggs also tend to eat more red meat. Take red meat out of the equation and the analysis shows the risk tends to disappear.
As for salmonella, this should not be an issue with any egg bearing the lion mark, as these come from chickens that have been vaccinated against the bacteria.
Another misconception about eggs is that they encourage inflammation. This idea derives from the fact they contain a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, linked with inflammation, and the internet is awash with people suggesting that cutting eggs out of your diet could help with arthritis, for example.
However, the science says otherwise — one review of 21 studies, published in the Journal of Food and Agriculture in 2019, found no link between egg consumption and inflammation.
And finally, are free-range eggs worth the extra money?
I would say a big yes, both for the welfare of the chickens that lay them and for the health benefits of the eggs themselves: research shows that free-range eggs have more nutrients.
So happier chickens make more nutritious eggs, it’s a win win!
Try this: Mediterranean frittata
Packed with ten different plants, with a hefty protein punch from eggs and tofu, this is a delicious way to ensure you’re hitting your veg and protein quotas for the day.
l 250g courgette, chopped
l 1 aubergine, chopped
l 1 sweet potato, chopped
l 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
l 3 tbsp harissa
l 1 tsp oregano
l 2 red onions, cut into wedges
l 280g firm tofu, cut into cubes
l 10 eggs
l Handful of coriander, chopped
l 4 sundried tomatoes, halved
l 5 cherry tomatoes, halved
l Mixed salad leaves, to serve
Preheat oven to 180c fan/350f and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the courgette, aubergine, sweet potato, oil, 2tbsp harissa and oregano into the tin and toss to coat. Spread evenly and roast for 20-25 minutes, turning halfway through. Add onions and roast for a further 15 minutes.
Toss the tofu in the remaining harissa paste and set aside.
Beat eggs with the coriander, then pour into the tin with the tofu, and dot around the sundried and cherry tomatoes.
Cook for 25-35 minutes, until the egg is set. Leave to cool for 5 minutes and then remove. Serve with mixed leaves.
An acquaintance told me he’s benefited from vitamin infusions — apparently this way you get optimal absorption into the body (compared with via the gut). Is there a case for such infusions? If so, how often should they be given?
Dan Hegarty, by email.
Despite the hype around intravenous (IV) vitamin drips, they’re nothing new — they’ve traditionally been used in hospitals to help hydrate and nourish patients unable to eat or drink. So yes, we know they work.
However, for those who can eat and drink it seems a costly and risky way of getting nutrients you can obtain from safer sources, i.e. the standard oral route. Not only does it not involve needles (which increase your risk of infection), but the gut contains filters that stop you absorbing too much of a particular vitamin if you overdo it.
The research doesn’t support many over-hyped health claims either. For example, one study by Yale University compared weekly IV vitamin drips with placebo drips for 12 weeks and found both groups of participants reported equivalent benefits. This suggests the placebo effect may be at work rather than any physiological gains.
Contact Dr Megan Rossi
Email [email protected] or write to Good Health, Daily Mail, 9 Derry Street, London, W8 5HY — include contact details. Dr Megan Rossi cannot enter into personal correspondence. Replies should be taken in a general context; always consult your GP with health worries.