02/22/2016 06:47 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 05:12 EST

Eggs: Get The Most From This Power Protein

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Close up of fried egg with cracked eggshell

Eggs are an often-overlooked power protein. Which is why you need them more than you realize.

Unlike most natural vegetarian foods, they're packed with muscle-building nutrients, including protein (up to 8 grams per egg). And they contain generous amounts of energy-generating vitamin B12, as well as the mineral choline, which your body uses to break down fat for energy.

This all makes them an excellent protein source for people on a low-meat diet or who don't eat animals at all.

But you need to choose carefully what kind you eat for optimal health benefits. In fact, a good rule of thumb is the healthier the hen is, the higher the nutritional content its eggs will be. So it's a smart idea to choose eggs from organic "free-range" hens whenever possible.

These are birds that roam freely inside a barn and have access to the outdoors. When buying these more expensive but superior-quality eggs, check the labeling to ensure that they're also drug-free.

Also, watch out for "free-run" labeling, which doesn't mean the same thing as free-range. Instead, this refers to hens that can move freely inside barns, assuming their living conditions aren't too crowded.

The problem is free-run chickens have no access to the outdoors and all the fresh air and sunlight (which produces vitamin-D-rich eggs) that it provides. That said, these birds typically live in more humane conditions that battery-caged hens.

In North America, the most commonly-produced eggs are from battery-caged hens. These pitiful creatures live their whole lives crammed as many as five or six at a time into tiny wire cages, where they can barely move. This way they can't get any health-promoting exercise.

And they often experience extreme stress, especially when they can't build nests for laying their eggs. All of which helps explain why this controversial form of egg production was banned by the European Union in 2012.

California followed suit last year, which will make it the first U.S state to do so.

These mass-produced eggs are certainly the cheapest kind that you'll find at your corner grocery store or nearest supermarket. But are the savings of two or three dollars a dozen really worth it? Especially since their nutritional content is considerably inferior to free-range eggs.

Take note that this healthier option contains approximately double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and significantly more antioxidants. Free-range eggs even have up to a third less cholesterol, according to studies. And they have about 25% less saturated fat than eggs laid by confined, battery-caged hens.

Finally, don't be fooled by the cunning labeling that's often used to flog these inferior eggs. Be wary of terms like "farm fresh" or "all natural" which are virtually meaningless and offer no health benefits to either the chickens or the consumer.

In fact, these supposedly natural, non-organic eggs often contain antibiotic residues, just like factory-farmed meat.

Let's face it: Free range eggs aren't much more expensive than the factory-farmed varieties that are mass-produced as cheaply as possible. So can you afford a couple of extra bucks to enjoy the health-promoting advantages of free range eggs?

Or in other words, are you worth it? Of course you are. Just remember that the next time you're at your local grocery store.

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