Even heart surgeons can be wrong about nutrition. And this particular surgeon was evidently wrong about the dangers of egg yolks...or at least badly misinformed.
When I was 13 or 14 we had our family friends, the Armstrongs, over for dinner. Mr. Armstrong was funny and engaging and a lively story-teller. In his typical colorful way, he told us about the time he attended a business conference where breakfast was served. He watched as the man seated next to him very carefully and deliberately cut the yolks out of each of the fried eggs on his plate and placed them to the side before eating the egg whites.
Mr. Armstrong demonstrated how he leaned over to the man and asked, "Excuse me, sir, I notice you're very methodical about the way you're eating your eggs. Is there any particular reason you eat them like that?"
The answer was blunt, and Mr. Armstrong delivered it in the deadpan way the man himself must have said it, as a mundane matter of fact. "I'm a heart surgeon."
Mr. Armstrong stopped, raised his eyebrows, nodded and said, "OK." And from that day forward, he explained, he always made sure to avoid egg yolks.
It was a simple little story, but for some reason I still vividly recall that occasion (more than two decades ago now) when he told it. I have often thought about it while eating eggs over the years and vaguely wondering if I should feel bad about eating the yolks.
But you know what? Even heart surgeons can be wrong about nutrition. And this particular surgeon was evidently wrong about the dangers of egg yolks...or at least badly misinformed.
But don't listen to me! Listen to "the experts":
-A 2009 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry demonstrated how the digestion of cooked eggs could actually help prevent cardiovascular disease.
-A 2011 study in Food Chemistry detailed the antioxidant properties of the free aromatic amino acids found in egg yolks.
-A 2013 study in the BMJ found "Higher consumption of eggs (up to one egg per day) is not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke."
-A study earlier this year from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no association between egg or cholesterol intake and coronary artery disease risk, even among highly susceptible individuals.
As Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health summarizes on its website:
Long vilified by well-meaning doctors and scientists for their high cholesterol content, eggs are now making a bit of a comeback. While it’s true that egg yolks have a lot of cholesterol—and so may weakly affect blood cholesterol levels—eggs also contain nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, and folate.
A solid body of research shows that for most people, cholesterol in food has a much smaller effect on blood levels of total cholesterol and harmful LDL cholesterol than does the mix of fats in the diet. Recent research has shown that moderate egg consumption—up to one a day—does not increase heart disease risk in healthy individuals (1, 2) and can be part of a healthy diet.
But wait. Hold on. Exactly why did these "well-meaning doctors and scientists" go around raising an entire generation on the dangers of eggs? Are you telling me that it took decades of research for these "well-meaning" doctors and scientists to finally conclude that consumption of dietary cholesterol is only weakly related to levels of cholesterol in the blood? Or that this might be counteracted by other health benefits conferred by eating eggs? That's outrageous!
"So what?" you're saying. "So the nutritionists put out some bad advice on eggs. It's only one food. And look, it's self-correcting in the end anyway. That's how science works."
Well, tell that to the people who have been diligently cutting the yolks out of their eggs for the last 20 years. And it's not just eggs, anyway.
Remember when drinking coffee was bad for your heart? You know, before moderate coffee consumption turned out to be good for your heart? But then again it increases your risk of urinary tract cancer. And it may be linked to increased risk for lung cancer...unless you're a non-smoker in which case it might lower risk for lung cancer. But go ahead and drink at least 4 cups a day if you want to reduce your risk of stroke...and maybe reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Confused? Don't worry, there's an entire website devoted to explaining the latest science on coffee and health...funded by a "not-for-profit" consortium of Europe's biggest coffee companies, of course.
Remember when Danish researchers discovered that the fatty acids in the whale blubber that Inuits eat was the magic health fix we were all missing? And so the fish oil supplement craze started with miracle promises to improve memory? And then do you remember when it turned out that whole craze was based on a single brain-imaging study of fatty acids...derived from algae? And then remember when fish oil supplements were linked to heightened risk of prostate cancer? And then when it was revealed that the original Danish researchers' report was itself deeply flawed? Well, don't worry! The latest studies indicate their may be different ways to make fish oil pills that will make them actually work!
Remember when saturated fats were bad for your heart and polyunsaturated fats were good? Well as it turns out there was no good evidence for that. In fact, a recent meta-analysis finds "no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD." But don't rejoice yet. The press is also eager to tell us that "scientists" don't want you to put to much faith in these studies because people test subjects usually lie about their diet during the study and scientists usually extrapolate lifetime eating habits from a few days of data.
Wait...what? Scientists are telling us not to listen to scientific studies because scientists are sloppy and the data is mostly lies? Yup, you heard right.
But wait, it's even worse! In 2015 a "team of German researchers" discovered the miracle diet we'd all been waiting for: losing weight by eating chocolate! That's right, a dietary study had found that people who supplemented their diet with bitter chocolate lost weight 10% faster, had lower cholesterol and (less surprisingly) were happier than a control group. Predictably, the results made headlines around the world...until the brain behind the paper admitted it was a hoax. Oh, it was a real study with real participants and real data. But they just did what any enterprising young researcher looking to make a name for themself does: they measured 18 different variables (weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein, etc.) and just cherry-picked the most surprising "statistically significant" result. It was every bit as "legit" as any other dietary study...but it was all designed as a big ploy to show the media how easy it is to hype nonsense nutrition findings.
This is the "science" of nutrition. It is, no doubt, populated by many "well-meaning" scientists and nutritionists who are looking to help the public...and make a name and career for themselves in the process. So they feel the pressure to publish. So they publish questionable research that has big implications in the hopes of making it big. And then that questionable research becomes the prevailing dogma...until someone bothers to actually get around to testing it.
What we ultimately end up with is a tyranny of "experts." "Scientists say..." "Nutritionists advise..." "The latest study shows..." These are the sentences by which we have been deciding what to eat and what not to eat for at least half a century now. And those decisions have been influenced by shoddy research, industry-funded research, or just plain old cherry-picked "statistically significant" nonsense.
And if things are this bad when it comes to the question of whether or not to eat an egg tomorrow morning, can you imagine how many millions of times more difficult it is to answer the question of how a diet of GMOs over the next 30 years is likely to impact your health? Or what the global average temperature is going to be in the year 2100?
Which brings us back to Mr. Armstrong. He spent decades of his life cutting yolks out of his eggs because he'd seen a heart surgeon do it once. Maybe he still does. And all of it for nought...maybe. I don't know about you, but I'm going to enjoy my egg sunny side up tomorrow.