Bacon, The Prom, and (Nutritional) Maturity
Enough With the ******* Bacon
We’re Killjoys. Sorry.
We are probably not the first nutrition educators to rain on your parade. At some point, someone probably told you that your steel-cut oats and low-fat yogurt, while delicious, were not very good for you. So you shifted towards Paleo nutrition, and a diet in favor of nutrient-dense whole foods that promote a healthy metabolism and minimize inflammation. And then, someone even meaner told you that fruit came with some caveats, coffee isn’t a free-for-all and almonds weren’t your best fat choice, either. (If you’ve been to one of our workshops or read our 9 Blog for any length of time, we might have been those killjoys. Sorry.)
Here’s a key point: we say those things not because we’re trying to woo you into Paleoland, or (as some might accuse us) because we want to ruin your life. We share our knowledge and experience with you because we feel compelled to do the best we can to make your lives healthier, simpler and happier.T hat being said, we’d like to share our perspective on something near and dear to the hearts of many Paleo eaters – bacon.
Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?
Bacon used to be seen as the epitome of unhealthy eating, a sort of hedonistic culinary irresponsibility. After all, it was full of saturated fat, loaded with sodium, and infused with questionable preservatives. But as many of us have since learned, saturated fat is not, in fact, the enemy. (In fact, there’s some research that suggests some types of saturated fats have health-promoting properties.) And in the context of eliminating most packaged, processed food from our diet, we’ve also eliminated most of the sodium, which, for most people, makes salty foods not so bad on occasion. Some folks even say that nitrates and nitrites are totally fine (but we’re not quite sold on that idea).
So, wait… bacon is actually totally healthy? Not so fast. It may not be the devil’s creation , but despite the insane number of nutrition blogs devoted to the stuff (Googling “Paleo + bacon” brings up 456,000 results), we still don’t promote bacon as health food, or everyday food.
To be clear, we are not here to disparage bacon, or those who love bacon, or to recommend you never eat bacon (or pork in general). This is a post about why you won’t see us promoting bacon at every opportunity. Or, really, at all. And while we know we’ll not be winning any popularity contests with this post… we’re here to make you healthier, not be voted the Paleo Prom King and Queen.
The Bacon Rebellion
Why are we picking on bacon? Because we’ve got more and more new readers coming to our site every day, and we want to make sure they’re getting the right kind of “good food” message. See, we’ve noticed a common, predictable pattern in Paleoland: fervent defiance against conventional wisdom, with bacon as the rebellious gateway. “You conventional thinkers believe bacon is unhealthy? Ha. Watch me eat a pound of it for breakfast.” There is no easier way to position yourself as a counter-culture Paleo disciple than to eat more bacon – and then publicize it on your blog.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Andy Deas, author of the Chasing Capacity blog and general Smart Dude, says, “In our early Paleo days, we all had our fling with bacon. We were practically mainlining bacon. But as we learned more and gained more experience with Paleo nutrition, we figured out that bacon probably isn’t the healthiest thing to be eating that much of. We grew up, nutritionally speaking.”
So, while we’re not telling you that you should eliminate bacon the way you eliminated your Diet Coke (that is, now and forever), we want our readers – especially those new-ish to Paleo – to stop and think about what they’re eating. We strive to have coherent, consistent thought processes that underlie all of our nutritional recommendations, whether you agree with them or not. And offering “counter-culture”, popular sales pitches designed to lure people into our way of eating is simply not part of that thought process. For those of you wondering why we don’t promote bacon as part of a good, healthy diet… here’s why.
The Bummer Part
You see, bacon, however delicious it might be, has some downsides. First, factory-farmed bacon (approximately 95% of the bacon purchased in the US, according to 2007 data) is, nutritionally speaking, garbage. It’s the fattiest cut of an inhumanely treated, poorly fed, often sickly animal, and it’s loaded with unhealthy (i.e. contaminated) fats, preservatives and additives. We’d venture to call it toxic meat, but then again, we love hyperbole. Nonetheless, we think nobody should eat factory-farmed bacon – ever.
Even in family farms where the animals are treated well, their diets are not always conducive to our optimal health. Even “pastured” pigs’ diets are often supplemented with corn, grains and soybeans. This makes this kind of pastured pork the equivalent of grain-fed cattle that get to eat a little bit of grass – and we would not designate that meat as optimally healthy for you. Because we believe high-quality, grass-finished, organic meat from ruminants (like beef, lamb and elk) is the most healthy protein source available, promoting lots of lesser quality meats like bacon – even from mostly pastured pork – doesn’t make much sense. (Nonetheless, this is not a case against pork. In a rotation of high-quality meats, 100% pastured, organic pork may have its place.)
So why aren’t we promoting 100% pastured, organic, family-farmed bacon? Here’s where our experience comes in. Historically, when we give people a nutritional inch, they take a nutritional mile. And like a Paleo version of “telephone”, our message tends to degrade the further it spreads. When we mention that we use 100% egg white powder when we travel, people take that to mean, “It’s okay to drink protein shakes!” We say pastured, organic, clarified butter is a good food choice, they pass along, “Whole9 says eat more butter!” Which is exactly why you’ll never hear us mention bacon.
So if we mentioned 100% pastured, organic, nitrate/nitrite-free , family-farmed bacon in every web article, Facebook post and Twitter tweet, well… readers, followers, and workshop attendees would hear (and tell others), “Whole9 say eat bacon!” And then they’d tell their friends, family members and blog readers to eat more bacon, and then you’ve got a whole group of Paleo newbies buying pounds of Oscar Mayer – and consuming what could, in fact, be the unhealthiest meat product out there (besides Spam) in copious amounts. Oops. So that’s one reason we don’t pimp bacon.
6:3 (You Knew We’d Go There)
Some authors, including the highly-respected Dr. Michael Eades, compare the fatty acid profile of bacon to olive oil and conclude that they are very similar. A few percentage points of monounsaturated fat (MUFA) or saturated fat (SFA) aside, we’ll agree. Furthermore, the total polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) content of bacon fat and olive oil are almost identical. (Weird, right?) So here’s where we come back to having a consistent thought process for our recommendations.
We generally recommend against cooking with olive oil… so why would we champion cooking with bacon?
Here’s the back-story. We (and lots of Smart People like Chris Kresser and Chris Masterjohn ) recommend aggressively limiting your polyunsaturated fat intake because those fragile fats undergo peroxidation most easily (compared to MUFA and SFA). The oxidation process forms damaging free radicals that promote inflammation, contribute to aging, and increase the risk of cancer. Heating these fats and exposing them to air (oxygen) dramatically increases the rate that these fats oxidize. So, logically, we recommend that you avoid heating or cooking with fats (like olive oil) that contain these fragile, prone-to-oxidation PUFAs.
So if we believe olive oil should not be heated, and bacon and olive oil have almost the same PUFA content, why would we portray bacon as a healthy choice, given that no one eats their bacon carpaccio-style? Bacon is generally cooked in the open air at fairly high temperatures until “well done”, which smells like oxidized PUFA to us. (And given that their PUFA profile is practically identical, it also doesn’t make sense for us to recommend against cooking with olive oil, but then to give cooking with bacon fat the green light.)
The kicker is that the amount of total fat (and thus PUFA, as a percentage of the total) in a manly-sized serving of bacon is much greater than you’d get from a tablespoon-sized serving of olive oil. (Remember, it’s not just about the ratio of 6:3 in any given food or meal – it’s more about the total dose.) So dissing EVOO for cooking but crispifying a pound of bacon every morning – or frying all your food in bacon fat – just doesn’t add up to us.
Delicous Isn’t Good Enough.
Our concern is not just with the amount of – or 6:3 ratio of – pastured vs. conventional bacon – it’s not just about the fat. (And we don’t really want to debate the potential harm of nitrates/nitrites that are commonly used to preserve bacon. That smacks of justification.) The final reason we don’t promote bacon is because even if you buy the uncured, organic, 100% pastured, nitrate-free stuff, it’s still not your best protein choice. (It doesn’t even make our Top Ten, in fact.) Amy Kubal, RD, says “Many consider bacon a quality source of protein, but this is not necessarily the case compared to beef or chicken. In fact, bacon is often just as much fat as protein. Bacon is delicious – don’t get me wrong. It’s my favorite ‘condiment’ and should be treated as just that – a condiment. A slice or two every now and then is great, but as an everyday protein option, you can do better.”
As nutrition educators, it’s our job to present what we think is your best-case nutritional scenario. So for us to rabidly promote something that isn’t even everyday-food-worthy just doesn’t make sense to us. As Amy said, sure, it’s delicious – but we don’t think that “delicious” should be a determining factor on which foods we promote as healthy. (That’s the Bad Cop speaking). We do, of course, think the Delicious Factor is a critical piece of what treats you choose, but treats and everyday health food are not the same thing.
Spread the Good Food Word
We believe promoting bacon as a recurring theme in our nutritional recommendations would be missing the mark. While it might be (well) intended to turn conventional wisdom on its head and draw others in to open a more complete dialogue, we don’t believe it’s an accurate or responsible way to “sell” Paleo to friends, family, or folks who look to us for nutritional advice. Just as we’d never promote handfuls of dried fruit as healthy, we can’t see the logic in promoting bacon as the epitome of health food, either. (And we believe that mentioning bacon at every opportunity is, by association, misrepresenting the health aspects of it.)
So if you want to open a discussion with friends about saturated fat, chronic disease, and conventional (medical) wisdom, we applaud you. But the “shock and awe” approach, where you repeatedly scarf down large amounts of bacon to “prove” to them that it won’t give you an instant heart attack, usually only serves to confirm your friends’ and family’s suspicions that you are, in fact, totally nuts. We’re trying to work Good Food into the Everyman’s life, not reinforce the idea that Paleo folks are a bizarre subculture.
If you’ve got a blog or serve as a local or online resource for people seeking information about healthy eating, and you’re using bacon as a tool to earn popularity or ease people into Paleo, consider whether you’re doing those people a disservice. The next time someone asks you what they should eat for breakfast in place of their Kashi GoLean cereal and soy milk, consider saying something besides “[insert large amount here] of bacon.” Sure, it would get a positive (and fun) reaction out of them, but it’s probably not the most healthful, honest representation of Eating Good Food.
Thank you for reading. Kindly direct questions, voodoo curses and hate mail to comments below.
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