It’s been a tortuous path for the humble egg. For much of our history, it was a staple of the American breakfast — as in, bacon and eggs. Then, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it began to be disparaged as a dangerous source of artery-clogging cholesterol, a probable culprit behind Americans’ exceptionally high rates of heart attack and stroke. Then, in the past few years, the chicken egg was redeemed and once again touted as an excellent source of protein, unique antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, and many vitamins and minerals, including riboflavin and selenium, all in a fairly low-calorie package.
This March, a study published in JAMA put the egg back on the hot seat. It found that the amount of cholesterol in a bit less than two large eggs a day was associated with an increase in a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and death by 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively. The risks grow with every additional half egg. It was a really large study, too — with nearly 30,000 participants — which suggests it should be fairly reliable.
Other nutrition research critics, such as John Ioannidis of Stanford University, have been similarly scathing in their commentary. They point out that observational nutrition studies are essentially just surveys: Researchers asked a group of study participants — a cohort — what they eat and how often, then they track the cohort over time to see what, if any, health conditions the study participants develop.
The trouble with the approach is that no one really remembers what they ate. You might remember today’s breakfast in some detail. But, breakfast three days ago, in precise amounts? Even the unadventurous creature of habit would probably get it wrong. That tends to make these surveys inaccurate, especially when researchers try to drill down to specific foods.
A good example is the 2005 study that suggested that eating a cup of endive once a week might cut a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer by 76 percent. There was even a possible mechanism to explain the effect: Endive is high in kaempferol, a flavonoid that has shown anticarcinogenic properties in laboratory experiments. It was a big study, based on a cohort of more than 62,000 women. This study was published in the prestigious journal Cancer, and many in the media were convinced. Dr. Mehmet Oz even touted it on his television show.
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