By By Jill Castle, MS, RDN | Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Many athletes love eggs. They use them as a quick pop of protein. Whether scrambled, hard-boiled, or doubled in baked goods, eggs are a mainstay in the diet of athletes, young and old.
Eggs have had a questionable past, and are currently enjoying a promising future. Fat and cholesterol content and the risk for heart disease have been the leading concerns surrounding eggs, while protein and nutrients like vitamin D, choline and brain function are leading the charge around their health benefits.
One week, I noticed I had prepared eggs every morning for my own young athlete. I had cooked an easy dozen for him during the week, and I while I was very familiar with the benefits of eggs, I started to wonder if I was exceeding a healthy amount.
Can an athlete eat eggs every day? What are the recommendations and the upper limit for eggs in the growing athlete?
Eggs and Heart Health
In the 1970s, the belief was that eggs were a health hazard. The thinking was if eaten in excess (more than 3 per week), then the risk for high cholesterol and heart disease shot up. Flash forward to the present and the recommendation for egg consumption has been scrambled and flipped, landing sunny-side up.
According to the newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), "available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and [blood] cholesterol ... Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
The 2015-2020 DGA lifted the former recommendation of no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day because the recent research suggests that food sources of cholesterol have only a modest effect on raising blood levels of cholesterol. However, the DGA maintain the advice that individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible. Translated: foods like eggs, shrimp and bacon should be limited.
Not everyone agrees with this, though. Other researchers argue that some individuals (about 30%) are “hyper-responsive” to the cholesterol found in food. These individuals experience spikes in their blood cholesterol levels after ingesting foods with high cholesterol content. Most experts agree that these “hyper-responders” need to be especially diligent about limiting cholesterol consumption.
Some elements in food seem to affect blood cholesterol levels universally and negatively, including foods containing appreciable amounts of sugar, trans-saturated fat and saturated fat. These can be more harmful to cholesterol levels than eating foods high in cholesterol itself.
The “incredible, edible egg” is full of nutrition. Protein is found in both parts of the egg, with 60 percent protein in the egg white and 40 percent in the yolk. One large egg contains 270 international units (IU) of vitamin A, 41 IU of vitamin D, 6 g of protein and 72 calories. Other nutrients include riboflavin, folate, vitamin B-12 and iron.
The yolk contains heart-healthy unsaturated fat, including omega-3 fats. Plus, the yolk contains nutrients such as choline, selenium, zeaxanthin and lutein. Choline plays a role in fetal brain development and selenium is a trace mineral involved in the immune system and hormone balance. Both zeaxanthin and lutein have been shown to play a role in eye health.
An egg contains about 213 milligrams of cholesterol.
Eating an egg each day is not thought to raise blood cholesterol levels. Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and an author of two studies investigating cholesterol and heart health acknowledges that large amounts of dietary cholesterol might lead to “small increases” in blood cholesterol. However, he believes the beneficial nutrients in eggs, especially in the yolk, may counter the effects of cholesterol.
A Practical Approach
The question about eggs is less about eating too many cholesterol-containing foods and more about limiting sources of saturated fat, trans-saturated fat and sugar in the diet. The recommendation to limit eating eggs reflects on the general tendency of Americans to eat too much protein in the diet, much of which includes unhealthy sources of fat. The antidote: eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead.
When applying this principle to growing athletes, look to the recommended protein intake for them. For example, school age children, aged 9-13, should get 5-ounce equivalents of protein each day. This, combined with 3 servings of dairy foods (which contain protein), make up the lion share of protein in the diet. Young athletes need just a bit more protein than this, depending on their age and stage of growth.
So, how many eggs can the young athlete eat? It depends.
The point is to be “on point” with overall protein in the diet. Some athletes (young and old) become over-zealous with including protein in their diet, and may be making choices that also incorporate considerable amounts of unhealthy fat in their diet.
The other point is to balance all sources of protein within the diet, including eggs.
Tips for Eating Eggs:
1. Eat the whole egg to get the full range of nutritional benefits.
2. An egg a day is safe for most young athletes.
3. If eating more than one egg a day, be sure to watch total amounts of other protein sources in the diet.
4. Choose lean sources of protein most of the time.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at www.jillcastle.com, her resources for athletes, and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids here. Coming soon! Eat Like a Champion class for young athletes and their parents.