While the saturated fat in eggs is relatively low, foods that often accompany eggs — bacon, butter, etc. — are high in saturated fat. (Getty Images)

Economical and easy to prepare in many ways, eggs appear to be perfect little protein packages. But the advice on eating them seems to change frequently, especially concerning whether their cholesterol content is safe for people with cardiovascular disease. So what’s a health-
conscious consumer supposed to do?

The yolk of a large egg has 186 milligrams of cholesterol, while the egg white is cholesterol-free. A 2012 study suggested a link between egg-yolk consumption and plaque buildup in the carotid artery, a significant predictor of heart disease. That study contrasts with earlier research that found no evidence linking egg consumption with coronary disease.

“What appears to be more important than an individual food is total cholesterol intake, regardless of whether it comes from eggs or other food sources such as full-fat dairy products or meat,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

But be careful about confusing dietary cholesterol with blood cholesterol (LDL, HDL, and triglycerides). “The major determinant of blood LDL cholesterol is saturated fat,” Lichtenstein says. “There is a recommendation to limit dietary sources of saturated fat, primarily found in dairy and meat fat.” Although the saturated fat in eggs is relatively low compared with that in many other animal-based protein sources (one large egg has just under two grams of saturated fat), many of the foods that often accompany eggs (such as bacon, butter, cheese and sausage) are high in saturated fat.

The government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day (less than 200 a day if you’re at high risk of cardiovascular disease). The guidelines also state that one egg a day should be fine for healthy people. The American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic agree with those guidelines, although they advise limiting cholesterol from other sources to compensate for the cholesterol contained in the egg.

Remember that eggs are contained in many foods, including bread, cakes, ice cream, muffins and even such entrees as breaded fish, meat dishes and meatloaf. Each of those might add just a fraction of an egg per serving, but together they can increase your cholesterol intake, especially since many of those items contain other ingredients that can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, such as butter or cream.

On the plus side, eggs have many nutritional benefits. They’re a good source of high-quality protein, with relatively few calories (6.3 grams of protein for only 72 calories in a large egg). Eggs also contain vitamins B12 and D, and several essential micronutrients, including choline (important for brain health) and lutein (for eye health).

Bottom line: It’s not necessary to avoid eggs completely, especially if you’re healthy. But eat them in moderation and try to keep your bigger dietary picture in mind. For instance, swap the sausage, bacon or ham in your quiche for mushrooms, spinach and green or red peppers. Or consider holding the cheese from your next egg sandwich.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.