If it is Easter or Passover, You Have Egg on Your Plate

I bumped into my neighbor at the supermarket checkout line, and commented on the three dozen eggs she was buying.

“I know!” she said. “What am I doing with all these eggs?” And then she recounted what she was going to be doing: one dozen or more for the egg hunt for her young nieces and nephews, two ricotta cheese pies that used at least 6 eggs each, also an egg yolk and flour mixture, deep fried and coated with honey, that’s called struffoli that used a dozen eggs. It’s early springtime holiday season, as evidenced by that a few days later? Another friend told me her menu for the Passover Seder she was hosting. Her use of eggs put my Italian neighbor to shame. The first course was hardboiled eggs in salt water, her soup had matza balls made with eggs, two vegetable casseroles made with matza pieces use several eggs as binding agents, and the meal was concluding with her mother’s recipe for a 12 egg sponge cake.

My cholesterol seems to bubble up in sympathy with this vast egg consumption.

Egg consumption statistics for 2015 found that across the United States, about 6.3 billion eggs were eaten during the Easter and Passover holidays (which fell that year between March 2 and April 5.) In Israel the average egg intake per person went from 20 to 22 a month during Passover, and that small country is the fourth largest consumer of eggs in the world.

So is there a problem with this? (No one is asking the chickens.)  A few years ago the answer may have been yes, because of the high cholesterol content of eggs. One egg yolk has 200 mg of cholesterol and until 2015, the recommended intake of cholesterol per day was 300 mg. Eat one egg for breakfast and you had better restrict your cholesterol intake from other foods such as dairy products and meat to very little.  Don’t even consider having bacon with that egg.

But recently, this has completely changed. A committee composed of nutrition, health, and medical experts decided that cholesterol from the diet was not a concern and had no bearing on levels of cholesterol in the blood.  (1, 2) This committee, The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (“DGAC”) believes that cholesterol intake from an egg is not harmful if egg consumption is kept to moderate levels. Moreover, they regard the egg as an important and inexpensive source of nutrients. A large egg contains about 7 grams of protein ( more for extra large and jumbo), 70 calories,  about 5 grams of fat (mostly non-saturated, i.e. the good kind), vitamins A, D, E, and B12, as well as folate, selenium, choline , lutein and zeaxanthin. (These last two nutrients may be helpful in reducing age-related eye diseases).  Egg protein is considered the gold standard of protein because of its amino acid profile; the amino acids seems to meet our human protein needs as much as those of the developing chick inside a fertilized egg.

I asked a cardiologist friend who has been practicing long enough to have seen this drastic change in egg eating what he recommends to his patients.  “Eating two eggs a day, three times a week is fine,” was the response. “But don’t overdo it.” The DGAC says that eating one egg a day poses no risk to one’s heart health.  No one commented on how to handle the Easter/Passover glut of egg eating opportunities.

It would seem reasonable, however, for the more than 25% of Americans who are taking cholesterol lowering drugs ( according to 2010-11 statistics) to consider whether a second piece of ricotta cheese pie, or a second matza ball should be eaten.

“Heart disease and stroke remain the leading cause of illness and death in the United States,” said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  But is there any relationship between the incidence of cardiovascular events and egg consumption habits during the spring holiday season?  Advice on egg consumption consistently limits egg intake to no more than 7 eggs per week. Eight days of Passover may easily double that amount because eggs are used in so many dishes to provide leavening, or a lightening of traditional Passover dishes. An Easter weekend of feasting may also result in week’s worth of egg intake over 36 hours. Might the holiday excessive egg consumer reap the negative effects months or years later by increased vulnerability to a heart attack or stroke?

An obvious solution is to maintain the healthy food choices that (one hopes) describe eating during the other 51 weeks of the year. Fortunately, spring increases the number of fresh vegetable and fruit options, and there is no law, religious or otherwise, stating that a 12 egg sponge cake or fried egg yolk and flour fritters must be consumed as part of a holiday celebration. These holidays are celebrated in a tradition spanning centuries of a baked foods with excessive numbers of eggs. Decreasing egg intake to more reasonable amounts will benefit the health of those celebrating them.

Sources for the scientific data reference are available upon request.

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