One of my earliest breakfast memories is of a soft-boiled egg, served in a special dish that seemed as common in family kitchens as cereal bowls are today. Mom carefully cracked and peeled back the top of the shell. My brother and I eagerly grabbed spoons to scoop out the warm, sustaining contents. I can still taste the slightly runny yolk and hear the sound of the spoon scraping the shell's bottom.
For my mother -- and many like-minded others of the baby boom era -- eating an egg was the only nutritionally correct way for children to start the day. Packed with protein, eggs are easy to cook and fit nearly every budget. Then, like Humpty Dumpty, they fell from favor, their reputation cracked by delivering nearly a day's worth of artery-clogging cholesterol per yolk.
After years of being marginalized, eggs are staging a slight comeback, which is either a good thing or a worrisome trend, depending on who weighs in on the topic.
In 2007, 13 percent of at-home breakfasts included eggs -- a slight increase from 2006, according to the NPD Group, a company that tracks consumer trends. About 10 percent of children who ate breakfast at home ate eggs in 2007, and the number-one fast-food and restaurant breakfast item is the breakfast sandwich, according to NPD. Its main ingredient? Eggs.
Spring -- the season of Easter and Passover -- is the time of highest egg consumption because of the use of eggs in these religious celebrations, according to the National Egg Council. In 2007, consumption jumped from an average of about 94 million dozen eggs weekly to 115 million dozen the week before Easter and nearly 136 million during Easter week.
Eggs are a cheap source of protein. For about 20 cents each, a large egg contains six grams of protein, along with five grams of fat and 72 calories.
Cholesterol, found only in the egg's yolk, is its downside. The American Heart Association, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines all advise Americans to limit cholesterol intake to 300 milligrams or less per day. Those with elevated blood cholesterol levels or Type 2 diabetes are urged to keep cholesterol intake at 200 milligrams or lower per day.
Dine on just one jumbo egg with 266 milligrams per yolk, though, and it's easy to hit or exceed that limit. (A large egg has 212 milligrams of cholesterol per yolk; an extra large egg, 237.)
But there's also growing research to suggest that eating a few eggs per week does not raise risk of heart disease or stroke in otherwise healthy people. For Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, eggs can be a smarter choice for breakfast than other popular fare.
"A lot of people think that a plain bagel with jam can be a healthy thing to eat in the morning," Willett notes on the Harvard School of Public Health Web site, "but actually that is one of the unhealthiest duos you can eat because it has a high glycemic load [which spikes blood sugar levels]. You'd be better off with scrambled eggs cooked in corn oil or a whole-grain cereal."
What worries Lawrence Appel, chair of the heart association's nutrition committee, is "what people eat eggs with." Scrambled eggs typically come with sides of bacon or sausage. Omelets are often flavored with cheese and ham. Ditto for breakfast sandwiches. All add unhealthy saturated fat, which helps to raise levels of low-density lipoprotein, the most dangerous type of blood cholesterol. And many of these foods are cooked in trans fat, which also hikes LDL levels.
"We are not saying to ban eggs," says Appel, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But what I am concerned about is that some people will think that the exception is the rule. So they will eat an omelet on the weekend and then grab a breakfast sandwich on the run on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. We don't want people to reverse the strides that have been made."
There are ways to have your eggs and eat them, too. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, 93, and physician Dean Ornish, author of "The Spectrum" and other books on reversing heart disease, both eat eggs. But neither of them eats the yolk. LaLanne orders egg-white omelets nightly for dinner at his favorite California restaurant. And when I dined with Ornish a number of years ago, he carefully removed each hard-boiled yolk from his salad but ate the whites with gusto.
There are other options, too. Egg Beaters, made mostly from egg whites, are just one of a growing number of products available to those who want to eat eggs but need to cut back on cholesterol.
It's even possible to eat some eggs raw these days without risking salmonella. Davidson's Safest Choice eggs are pasteurized in the shell to eliminate bacteria and viruses. They're not low in cholesterol, but they can be used to make a traditional Caesar salad and other dishes that use raw eggs.
As for fortified eggs from hens whose feed is enriched with extra omega-3 fatty acids-- a fat that is good for your heart, your brain and your joints -- they may not be all that they're cracked up to be. In June 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the Food and Drug Administration to stop seven egg producers from implying that their souped-up eggs can reduce the risk of heart disease. Lab tests commissioned by the consumer advocacy group found that some of the eggs, said to have come from hens that had eaten feed rich in omega-3s -- contained less of the beneficial fat than advertised.
To make sense of all this, here's the bottom line: If you're healthy and you like eggs, eat them in moderation. If you've got high cholesterol or Type 2 diabetes, skip the yolks or limit your intake to no more than one per day.