There have been a lot of memorable eggs in my life but I suppose the best of them would be those I gathered myself from the little henhouse we kept at the edge of the meadow for a couple of summers. I’d knock off this chore (and I never thought of it as that) first thing in the morning, and those eggs would be breakfast. The yolks were closer to orange than yellow and exceedingly firm. Delicious, of course. Especially with thick-sliced bacon.
It did not seem possible to me, when I was eating one of these ambrosial breakfasts, that I was committing slow suicide. And as a matter of fact, I didn’t believe it. Didn’t care what the legion of food scolds—the most prominent of them on the government payroll—were saying. I put my faith in eggs. And butter. And salt.
They had “science” on their side, and the machinery of government, which they used to demonize the egg and proselytize for something called the “food pyramid.” Against their “science,” I had only my faith. But it was strong and I held to it.
Now, it seems, we egg lovers have been vindicated.
Something called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee of the Department of Health and Human Services has finally decided that you may go ahead and eat eggs without fear. This, after 40 years of warnings that a couple over-easy in the morning was a kind of slow walk down the road to a coronary.
Since I had never stopped eating eggs, my reaction to the news was not to feel as though I had been liberated but wonder who, if anyone, would pay for getting it so wrong. When the government started issuing edicts about what constitutes a “healthy diet,” and warning people off eggs and red meat and shellfish and pointing them down the path of cereal and pesto, one person in seven in the United States was obese. The number is now one in three.
A lot of people who got that way thought that they were following a government-approved diet.
Egg consumption declined by over 30 percent when the government put them on its dietary blacklist. People have to eat, so they substituted other things for eggs. Things that helped to make them fat. The eggs they did not eat would not, it turns out, have clogged their arteries and killed them. The stuff they substituted for those eggs, however, might well have caused them to suffer from type 2 diabetes and worse.
It is not as though there were no dissenting voices raised against the dietary scolds and hall monitors. The study that could be said to have started it all was challenged. Critics pointed out that its author, Ancel Keys, did broad surveys and comparisons of populations, regarding what they ate and the prevalence of heart disease in each. The United States came out looking bad, and he put the blame on cholesterol. But Keys cherry-picked his subjects and did not include West Germany and France and other nations that favored diets high in cholesterol but did not suffer from especially high incidences of heart disease. He got the results he was looking for, and Americans were told to lay off the eggs.
Among the skeptics were James W. Vaupel and John D. Graham, who published an essay—wonderfully titled Egg in Your Bier?—in the Winter 1980 number of The Public Interest. Vaupel and Graham did both the heavy statistical lifting and the skeptical risk assessment that the anti-egg sentimentalists had neglected in their crusade. The nub of the argument is captured nicely in this paragraph:
For a 40-year-old U.S. male the probability of death from coronary heart disease is about 4 in 10,000; for an 80-year-old male the probability increases to a bit more than 3 percent. A one-third of 1 percent reduction in these probabilities would reduce the chances of death by about one in a million for the 40-year-old and one in 10,000 for the 80-year-old. From this perspective, eggs hardly seem to be worth worrying much about.
But we were made to worry by those whose profession is to incite worry. They had a mission and it was to keep the rest of us safe. They were, and are, apparatchiks of the Nanny State.
It is, I suppose, fair to wonder if what you eat or drink is going to make you ill or even kill you. But the least trusted source and guide if you are asking that question would seem to be the government. There are all kinds of theories and schools of thought on the matter of nutrition. There are crackpots and trained scientists peddling their particular dietary doctrines. You can go with vegan, or paleo, or even high-carb if you are into retro. But if you are looking for authority to settle the question, good luck.