Bacon: Health Food or Devil in Delicious Disguise?
It seems I’ve become a bit well-known in my community as “the bacon girl.” Maybe it’s because I always seem to be eating, posting pictures of, and wearing T-shirts proclaiming my love for bacon.
This is my bacon. Get your own!
I’m okay with that nickname, but I have wanted to write this post for quite sometime now in order to explain my choice to consume what appears to many to be copious amounts of cured pork belly. I don’t actually eat bacon EVERY day, it’s just so pretty when I do that I tend to photograph it and share those photos. While I don’t personally stress over or worry about whether or not I’m consuming too much bacon, some seem to question it at times. Those who question whether or not bacon is okay to eat tend to be the same people who are eating wheat or other grains at every (or nearly every) meal thinking it’s a health food, but this post isn’t about wheat, grains, gluten or how damaging those are to our health. Others who oppose bacon may have a much more religious approach to making appropriate food choices than I do. I consider myself to be pretty level-headed and bring a well-rounded, well-founded and practical approach to helping others make the best possible choices for themselves in a lifestyle that promotes health and is something that they can maintain on a consistent and ongoing basis.
"I had a lot of bacon for breakfast today. Also had an EKG, blood work, BP-106/54. The doctor said I'm the healthiest person he has seen in years."
- Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution
When teaching people how to be REAL about choosing healthy food I consistently give them the bottom line on how the food they choose works in their body to either promote health or not, but I also teach a practical approach to prioritizing choices because I understand that:
1. Knowing what the BEST choice is doesn’t mean that you will always make it.
I don’t think this needs much explanation, but the point here is that knowing better doesn’t always = doing better. Hopefully it does 80-90% of the time (ever hear of the 80/20 or 90/10 rule sorta deal?), but to think for one second that every person who knows a lot about proper nutrition will eat following the information they know about health 100% of the time is pretty militant and rigid to me. Take one bite of food in a restaurant and you can be nearly certain you are going to be breaking your own rules. That sounds stressful. Stress is not a health-promoting factor.
2. Knowing how to prioritize a food choice is often WAY more important than just hearing “this food is bad for you, that food is good for you.”
Building on point #1, if we blindly follow rules set by someone else for us without understanding WHY we are following them, well, again, that sounds a lot like something of which I don’t want to be a part: religion. Okay, the anti-religion talk isn’t here to make those of you reading this who are religious feel badly about it, I am talking about it in the realm of food and nutrition. When we become so rigid about what we eat that we can’t live our lives and the food rules we want to live by take the pleasure out of life because we’re too stressed to know what to choose, we’ve failed. I can tell you this much, if I spend any amount of time dining with people who are well-educated on the topic of real/whole food nutrition who know very well how food works in the body (and I do regularly), we eat things that are against the “rules” sometimes. And we laugh about how rigid and silly people become when they get so bent out of shape about following or breaking a rule. Ugh. Live a little, will you?
3. In my experience, helping people to make changes gradually, on their own terms and as they learn they “WHYs” leads to changes to the way that they live most of the time rather than for a month here or there. While I see the value in getting people to challenge themselves in a strict way for a short period of time, say a month or so, that sounds an awful lot like a diet to me, and I am not about putting anyone on a diet. We see time and time again that diets don’t work. And it’s not about one versus another, it’s about simply giving a person a set of rules to follow and setting them up for failure versus teaching them how to make choices that will support the goals that they have day in and day out. That said, if a person is struggling with a medical issue like an autoimmune condition or really needs to see some faster results to convince themselves that the foods they are eating are not helping them to reach their goals, well then okay, go hard on yourself for a month and see where that gets you.
4. Instilling a fear of food in people or demonizing a food (pork, for example) is not my goal. Sure, I will put things like canola oil or gluten on blast, and I do so based on the science of how those foods work in the body or the process by which they are produced, but I don’t think that scaring people away from something that is often a best-choice option to fit into a lifestyle they can maintain is helpful. People can be educated on the facts and then allowed to make a choice based on what they know. I don’t need to instill fear or create some hard and fast rules for people to follow. That sounds too religious to me and I am notoriously not in favor of that type of agenda.
5. The idea that a food wasn’t eaten by Paleo man therefore we shouldn’t eat it is a weak defense at best. This is a notion that many of you can understand and have heard tossed around the Paleo-sphere by the likes of Robb Wolf and Mat Lalonde if you listen to The Paleo Solution Podcast at all. We can’t simply make broad, sweeping statements or assumptions like that, present them as truth and expect to be taken seriously. We witness the effects of that kind of nonsense daily when the topic of saturated fat comes up and people run scared from a stick of butter, an egg yolk or coconut oil. And taking the time to explore some of the conventional wisdom around WHY bacon (in this case) has been demonized will hopefully shed some light on what you’ll choose for breakfast the next time you’re faced with the reality of a breakfast buffet: cereal/pancakes/french toast or eggs and bacon.
6. Food is NOT the end-all-be-all of what makes a person healthy. Pleasure in life, in what we choose to eat and positive mental attitude can take a person a LONG way towards being healthy. And, while I ABSOLUTELY see the contribution that our regular daily intake of caloric material makes, I think that the joy, pleasure and contentment that comes from eating whatever it is we choose to eat is not to be dismissed.
"Want a truly heart-healthy breakfast? Ditch your cereal and OJ and eat bacon and eggs instead."
- Chris Kresser, L.Ac, author of The Healthy Skeptic
And now, back to the food in question: Bacon.
Let’s talk about the two biggest reasons why most people are still hesitant to eat cured pork belly.
1. The Fat in Bacon.
Won’t eating fat make me FAT?
No. Though it sounds accurate, that’s not how the metabolism of macronutrients works. For most people, if it’s an issue of a macronutrient that’s making them fat, an over consumption of carbohydrates is what will lead to fat storage in the form of adipose as this overconsumption has a direct effect on the amount of insulin released in that person. The high levels of insulin (a storage hormone) running through our bodies with a relatively low level of glucagon is largely responsible for our storage of calories into body fat. These hormones (insulin and glucagon) can be very tightly regulated by the foods we eat with some exceptions (e.g.: Type 1 Diabetes). There is A LOT to cover on the issue of why simply eating fat doesn’t make you fat, too much to explain in this post, unfortunately. If you want to take the time to learn about why eating fat doesn’t make you fat, you can do any or all of the following:
It’s easy to understand why people are scared of fat. We’ve been fed a lot of misleading information on the metabolism of lipids (fat molecules in food) and fooled into thinking that eating naturally occurring forms will lead to adipose (fat on our body) accumulation. This is so very, very wrong.
Okay, but doesn’t bacon contain a lot of the “bad,” saturated fat?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight right now: (naturally occurring) SATURATED FAT IS NOT BAD FAT.
It is called saturated because of it’s chemical structure that is a completely stable chain of carbon molecules. Saturated fat = stable fat = safe fat to consume, even when heated. In fact, many leading researchers, paleo/primal nutrition experts and generally well-educated scientists who study lipid metabolism (all of whom are mentioned and linked to within this post) will likely show you that the fat content in the diet that they eat is MOSTLY comprised of naturally occurring saturated fat from animal fat or tropical oil sources. Yes, really. Go ahead, ask them.
According to Dr. Kurt Harris,
Dr. Kurt Harris of Archevore.com
“Under the rubric of ‘fat’ we have the perfect human fuels – what I call #1 Diesel – long chain saturated fatty acids (LCSFA) like Myristic (C14), palmitic (C16) and Stearic (C18) acid as found in the milk and meat of ruminants. These are, by no coincidence, the same saturated fatty acids we humans use to store energy in our own bodies – our own internal #1 Diesel. As far as I can tell, there is no limit to the amount of this kind of fat that you can eat, as long as your protein and micronutrient needs are being met. You cannot eat “too much” saturated fat unless you are not getting enough of something else. This is just the principle of displacement, though, and has nothing to do with any toxicity of these fats as food. Of course, these LCSFAs are the very fats that, in the bizarro-world of conventional nutritional wisdom, are supposedly the most dangerous and cause heart disease and cancer. That there is no real evidence for this belief, and that LCSFA are actually one of the most healthful sources of caloric fuel, is what makes embracing them and rejecting the lipid hypothesis the lodestar of PaNu or any rational approach to diet. You can’t take the most important step in improving your diet until you do this.” (source: “There is No Such Thing as a Macronutrient Part 1 – Fats”)
We’ve also been told that eating fat (and primarily saturated fat) would raise our cholesterol which would lead to heart disease.
Wrong again. But conveniently enough, the idea that high cholesterol is dangerous to our bodies and that lowering it might be beneficial sells a heck of a lot of drugs. $29 billion worth each year in fact. That sounds a lot easier than, oh, I don’t know, changing the LIFESTYLE factors that DO contribute to elevated cholesterol in an inflammatory environment that may be responsible for disease. Things like STRESS, smoking, drinking alcohol, consuming excess carbohydrates primarily in the form of sugar and refined foods – all of which, by the way, just create more systemic stress for your body.
According to Stephen Guyenet, Ph. D (biochemist/neurobiologist author of Whole Health Source), “When investigators analyzed the relationship between saturated fat intake, serum cholesterol and heart attack risk, they were so disappointed that they never formally published the results. We know from multiple sources that they found no significant relationship between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol or heart attack risk… Overall, the literature does not offer much support for the idea that long term saturated fat intake has a significant effect on the concentration of blood cholesterol. If it’s a factor at all, it must be rather weak, which is consistent with what has been observed in multiple non-human species.” (source: “Does Dietary Saturated Fat Increase Blood Cholesterol? An Informal Review of Observational Studies.”)
Additionally, according to Chris Kresser, La.C (author of The Healthy Skeptic),
- Eating saturated fat and cholesterol reduces the type of cholesterol associated with heart disease.
- Replacing saturated fat and cholesterol with carbohydrates lowers “good” (HDL) cholesterol, raises triglyceride levels, and increases our risk of heart disease. (source: “The most important thing you probably don’t know about cholesterol.”)
But that’s sort of not the point here because the majority of the fat in bacon (50%) is MONOUNSATURATED fat.
Consider reading this.
Yes, the same primary fat that you find in olive oil. Most people aren’t walking around holding on to a notion that olive oil is unhealthy for them, but somehow they have been convinced that lard is. According to Dr. Mary Enig, author of “Know Your Fats,” lard “can either be a firm fat or a soft fat depending on what the pig is fed” and its fatty acid profile is usually about: 40% saturated fatty acids (SFA) 50% monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Olive oil, for the record, is usually about 16% SFA, over 70% MUFA and the remaining roughly 14% PUFA. We know that heating olive oil, or any primarily monounsaturated fats for that matter, over their smoke point causes oxidation (damage) to the oil and oxidized oils are unhealthy to consume. So while I don’t generally recommend people cook with olive oil for it’s high MUFA content, I don’t make that exact same case against bacon fat or lard largely because, though lard is 50% MUFA, it is also 40% SFA. So joining the the less stable fat in the lard is a highly stable saturated fat versus in olive oil where the ratios highly favor the less stable MUFA. That said, I don’t recommend using and re-using the same bacon fat or lard over and over to the point where it will become damaged or oxidized and therefore an unhealthy fat to consume. Both olive oil and lard have pretty similar PUFA content so arguing the matter there comes down to some more details related to 1) the quality of the meat you’re buying and 2) the overall balance of the rest of your diet when it comes to essential fatty acids EFAs.
The EFAs: A few words on the n6:n3 ratio in pork fat.
(Okay, well a few maybe more than a few. If you know Mat, brevity is not his thing, but thoroughness certainly is!)
Mat Lalonde: showing us how he feels about bacon.
According to Mat Lalonde, Ph. D. in organic chemistry and all-around nutritional biochemistry geek regarding bacon, “Specifically, I want to discuss the quality of the fat. It has been shown in ruminants that the diet (grass versus grain) has a substantial impact on the levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vaccenic acid, as well as conjugated linoleic acid found in the meat. Consumption of these fatty acids has proven, substantial health benefits. The meat and milk of grass-fed animals contains more omega-3 fatty acids, vaccenic acid, and conjugated linoleic acid than the meat of grain-fed animals. Interestingly, the meat of grass-fed and grain-fed animals contained similar amounts of a short chain omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid. (see: A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal 2010, 9, 10)
So if an individual consumes meat from a grain-fed animal, particularly fatty cuts of meat, that individual is getting all of the bad fats with none of the good ones. This has an effect on the fatty acid profile of the consumer. (see: Red Meat From Animals Offered a Grass Diet Increases Plasma and Platelet n-3 PUFA in Healthy Consumers. British Journal of Nutrition, 2011, 105, 80-89) Now pigs are not ruminants, so I am making an assumption by saying that the meat of grain-fed pork will have a lower concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, and vaccenic acid. Nevertheless, I feel like this is a very safe assumption.
Now, would I recommend limitless consumption of bacon that originates from grain-fed, factory-farmed pigs? No! Absolutely not! Would I recommend some consumption of bacon that originates from pastured pigs fed an omnivorous diet that does not contain grain. Yes! Absolutely! I don’t think that occasionally eating bacon from grain-fed, factory-farmed pigs is bad if the consumer has an otherwise good diet.
My definiton of a good diet is one that is comprised of meat from grass-fed or pastured animals, vegetables, roots, tubers, and bulbs with limited fruit, nut, seed, and fermented dairy consumption and no grain, legume or milk consumption.“
Hear, hear, Mat!
I’ve been making recommendations to my readers, clients and workshop attendees about prioritizing the quality of their food choices (and ESPECIALLY sources of fats in their diet) regarding food quality first and foremost whenever possible and even created this handy PDF guide to Food Quality and how to choose what’s best. I certainly don’t recommend people go out and eat loads of cheap, potentially chemical-laden bacon at a time. Heck no! I’ve been promoting bacon from pastured pig sources from day 1 and sharing information on where I source my own bacon to every person who asks – noting the sources of pretty much all of the other meat I eat as well for that matter. I don’t think I have a single reader, fan, follower, whathaveyou who doesn’t know what the best kind of bacon to buy is. If they’re unclear maybe it’s motivation for me to create a “Start Here” page to get them up to speed. That said, would I recommend that someone at an airport, traveling or in an outside of the home dining experience eat bacon of an unknown source? Well, if it’s bacon or bread, yes, I say bacon. Hands down, regardless of the source. That’s how I prioritize for myself based on my education of how food works in the (and yes, primarily MY) body, and so that is what I teach to others. They can take that advice or leave it. Most of them take it.
"I make no attempt whatsoever to avoid the bacon that has the nitrates in it because that's all nonsense anyway. There's no harm to eating the nitrates in bacon."
- Kurt Harris, MD - who lists bacon amongst the things he eats nearly daily.
2. The Nitrates in Bacon.
We come back to Stephen Guyenet who makes the following points about the feared compounds:
“Nitrate (NO3) is a molecule that has received a lot of bad press over the years. It was initially thought to promote digestive cancers, in part due to its ability to form carcinogens in the digestive tract. As it’s used as a preservative in processed meats, and there is a link between processed meats and gastric cancer (1), nitrate was viewed with suspicion and a number of countries imposed strict limits on its use as a food additive. But what if I told you that by far the greatest source of nitrate in the modern diet isn’t processed meat– but vegetables, particularly leafy greens (2)? And that the evidence specifically linking nitrate consumption to gastric cancer has largely failed to materialize? For example, one study found no difference in the incidence of gastric cancer between nitrate fertilizer plant workers and the general population (3). Most other studies in animals and humans have not supported the hypothesis that nitrate itself is carcinogenic (4, 5, 6). This, combined with recent findings on nitrate biology, has the experts singing a different tune in the last few years.” (source: “Nitrate: A Protective Factor in Leafy Greens.”)
And Mat Lalonde explains that:
“Nitrites were originally thought to be harmful because sodium nitrite or potassium nitrite can form nitrous acid under acidic conditions. In fact, the conversion of nitrite salts to nitrous acid is typically performed with hydrochloric acid, which is found in the human stomach. Nitrous acid can subsequently be converted to the nitrosyl cation under acidic conditions. The nitrosyl cation can react with amine functional groups, such as those found in amino acids and many other biomolecules, to form N-nitrosamines. The oxygen atom of the nitroso functional group can be protonated under acidic conditions, which results in the formation of a potent alkylating agent that can transfer alkyl groups to nucleophilic sites in biological molecules such as DNA. The carcinogenic activity of nicotine, for example, is due to the reaction of the tertiary cyclic amine of nicotine with the nitrosyl cation followed by ring opening. This leads to 4-(N-methyl-N-nitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone and 4-(N-methyl-N-nitrosamino)-4-(3-pyridyl)butanal, both of which become potent methyl transferring reagents upon protonation. The reaction of nitrite salts with hydrochloric acid that I described above occurs in vitro (i.e. in a reaction flask in a laboratory fume hood). It was assumed for the longest time that the same thing would happen in vivo upon ingestion of dietary nitrate or nitrite. One should never assume that the results of in vitro experiments will be replicated in vivo or that the results of in vitro experiments have predictive power with regards to the results of in vivo experiments. The in vitro work is merely performed to justify in vivo studies.
So what happened when the experiment was performed in vivo? It was determined that nitrate was reduced to nitrite, which was reduced to nitric oxide (a.k.a. NO) via bioconversion in the entero-salivary circulation. Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator and responsible for the blood pressure lowering effects of vegetable consumption. See: Inorganic Nitrate Suplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans: Role for Nitrite-Derived NO Hypertension, 2010, 56, 274-271 and Dietary Inorganic Nitrate Improves Mitochondrial Efficiency in Humans.Cell Metabolism, 2011, 13, 149-159.
So dietary nitrates and nitrites are not problematic. If the in vivo effects of nitrates and nitrites were comparable to the effects in vitro, then consumption of vegetables would not be recommended.“
For even more information on nitrates, bacon and hot dogs you can check out this article from Chris Kresser and this article as well.
"I don't think bacon is the ideal food to eat on a daily basis because of the smoking and other processing and the relatively high temperatures usually used to cook it, but the hard facts are that it is not only a good source of choline, but downright delicious and thus an important part of making breakfast or a grass-fed cheeseburger taste awesome. It is also bendable into heart shapes for a loved one. Bacon should therefore not be shunned or ignored."
- Chris Masterjohn of Cholesterol and Health & The Daily Lipid
Demonizing cured pork belly for reasons that are unsubstantiated by science is dogmatic and downright reeks of conventional wisdom.
Pigs at pasture.
My advice to my readers, fans, clients, workshop attendees, etc. is and has always been this:
- Consider whether or not the food in question is a whole, real food from nature. If a process has been applied to it, is it one that you can recreate fairly simply in your own kitchen? In the case of bacon (cured pork belly), yes it is.
- Focus on the quality of the food you are buying and buy from local and sustainable farms who raise their animals on pasture whenever possible. By doing this you not only support your own health, but the health of the earth and a system that desperately NEEDS our support. When local/pastured isn’t an option due to finances or availability, use my food quality guide to prioritize from there.
- Make choices about the food you’re eating based on which will bring you the most health while carrying the fewest detrimental effects along with it. Don’t compromise your digestion in order to avoid consuming an animal that may not itself have eaten a perfect diet.
- Enjoy the foods you choose to eat. If you get through each day with choices that make you feel angry, upset, deprived or disappointed, your health will suffer regardless of the quality of the food you eat. Food is not just about caloric material on a plate. Food is about things that feed us, physically as well as emotionally and spiritually.
I wear this shirt with pride.
“Bacon is rad. Gluten is bad.” Sport it on a T-shirt.