People have been eating eggs since there were chickens and people. It didn’t take long for early man to realize that, while a chicken dinner was nice, eggs were the real booty for feeding a hungry family. The protein-packed egg contains all the nutrients needed to produce a baby chick, so how has it become the bad boy of the table after being enjoyed for centuries? In a word: cholesterol.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a naturally occurring sterol synthesized by animal tissue. It is a lipid molecule, and is essential in maintaining cellular membranes. The body also uses cholesterol as the basis for making steroids, bile, and vitamin D. The liver turns cholesterol into bile. Bile, in turn, solubilizes fats so they can be absorbed in the digestive tract. Without cholesterol, our bodies would not be able to absorb and utilize fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K.

When Did Cholesterol Turn Bad?

Just like oil and water don’t mix well, cholesterol, as a type of lipid (fat), doesn’t blend well with the watery blood system. So, cholesterol travels through the blood as a lipoprotein. A lipoprotein has an outer surface that is water soluble and an inner core that is lipid.

When you have a blood test called a cholesterol test or lipid panel, it measures the amounts of these lipoproteins in your blood. There are two types of lipids of concern. Low-density lipoproteins, or LDLs, transport cholesterol to tissues. LDL is often called “bad” cholesterol because it is associated with increased risk of stroke and heart attack. High-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, remove excess cholesterol and transport it back to the liver where it can be excreted. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol.

Why Beat Up the Egg?

Back in the early 1960s, the roles of LDL and HDL weren’t as clear as they are today. As a result, the government issued dietary guidelines warning about the risks of cholesterol-laden foods. Although cholesterol is found in all dairy, meats and cheeses, eggs have a very high level around 200milligrams. Since the suggested daily intake of cholesterol for a healthy person was 300 milligrams, two eggs exceed the limit. The only foods with higher cholesterol levels are shrimp, beef liver and chicken liver—not surprising since the liver excretes cholesterol.

Rebirth of the Egg

Today, with the new knowledge of LDL and HDL, many nutritionists are rethinking their views on eggs and cholesterol. New studies seem to indicate that eating a diet high in cholesterol does not affect the level of cholesterol in the blood. What may be more important in determining the risk of heart disease are other types of saturated fats. So, it’s okay…crack an egg!