BACON: Delicious or Devilish?

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breakfastFor many years a healthy, balanced breakfast consisted of a few eggs, a couple strips of
bacon, a serving of fruit, and a single piece of toast.

But, for the last few decades, the public has been told to rely upon endless servings of processed, sugar-laden foods such as a bagels, muffins, cereals, and juices.  

As I’ve said before, health and fitness beliefs seem to operate as a pendulum. First things are amazing, then they become less popular, until they are outright feared, before they return in popularity.

Bacon is no different – a few years ago is was beguiled as a cause of cancer but nowadays you can’t go to a market without seeing an organic package of bacon for over $10 a pound, or a local restaurant that doesn’t have bacon as a side for at least 1 of their dishes.

What are the real facts surrounding this food? It is a whole food that anyone could make, found in nature. But it also goes through processing methods that may increase its downsides.

Well, today let’s break things down and explore the objective facts of bacon.bacon-chart

Just to clarify, bacon, regardless of producer or source, is made from the belly of a pig. It is often cured using salt and spices, before being cooked or smoked at a very low temperature for multiple hours. It is then cut into thin strips, packaged, and later fried in a pan.

Let’s start by looking at the actual nutritional quality of bacon – what does it provide us with, for better or worse?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s use 3 strips of bacon as a single serving. Although it is very easy to consume an entire package in one sitting (and I have before), bacon is typically a side or garnish. Below is the nutritional data for 3 strips, or about 1 ounce of bacon:

135 calories

0 grams of carbs, 9 grams of protein, and 11 grams of fat, including:

3.5 grams saturated, 5 grams monounsaturated, 1.5 grams polyunsaturated fat

The 3 strips fulfill the daily needs of the following vitamins / minerals:

12% Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

6% Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)

6% Vitamin B12

3% Vitamin B6, B2 (Riboflavin), and Panthothenic Acid

21% Selenium

21% Sodium

12% Phosphurus

6% Zinc, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, and Copper

What we see here certainly doesn’t qualify bacon as an empty source of calories, but neither does it show bacon to be the most nutritional-dense food.

Similar to any meat or seafood, it has a significant and balanced amount of B Vitamins. It also contains useful minerals that are not found in a lot of modern foods (specifically selenium, zinc, magnesium, and copper).

It contains no carbs which may be good for a typical person working a desk-job, but it also means bacon lacks any fiber to improve gut health. However, it offers a substantial amount of naturally occurring fat and a moderate amount of protein, which could benefit most Americans.

What about the negatives?

During the curing process, a significant amount of sodium is added. While sodium is an essential nutrient, vital for maintaining proper hydration and electrolyte levels, it is very easy to over consume.

Also, most producers add sweeteners (to once again promote overconsumption) and preservatives that may have concerning health effects.

However, the nitrates/nitrites are not the biggest issue. These actually occur naturally in all plant foods, and you’ll even see that “no nitrite added” bacon will list “naturally occurring nitrites from celery salt” in the ingredients. The fact of the matter is, the average person will consume far more nitrites/nitrates from veggies than they ever will from bacon!

Really, the most concerning issue is the sourcing of the meat.

32fd64b0a87000487ecda0019781c3e1If you raise a pig with plenty of land, allow it to root around for fruit, plants, nuts, small rodents, and occasionally supplement its feed with food scraps from the family dinner table, then the resulting meat will be amazingly nutritious. Pigs raised this way can have as much omega 3 as some fish!

However, if the pig is raised in a commercial feedlot, unable to move or avoid its own waste, pumped full of corn, soy, and wheat, then its meat will have higher levels of inflammatory omega 6 fats and less nutrient-density. Not to mention the disastrous effects this style of “farming” has on the environment!  

Now that the objective facts are listed, the decision to include bacon is up to you.

Is the crunch, amazing flavor, and even more addicting smell of fried bacon worth the couple hundred calories (and sodium) it may contain?

For me and my goals, 3 strips of bacon every day for a week is a perfectly healthy incorporation. Then, for the sake of variety, maybe I’ll have breakfast sausages or smoked salmon the following week.

Maybe one Sunday I’ll fry up half a pound of bacon with a massive amount of broccoli and eat it as one meal…but again, I probably won’t have it again for another month or two.  

But I also consume no other processed meats or foods with added sodium. If you are eating cold-cuts, you are already consuming the exact same molecules and inputs as bacon, with maybe half the flavor!

So, try to find a local farm with properly raised pigs, buy a few packages of bacon when they are available, and enjoy a few strips now and again – I promise your taste buds will thank you!

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Meal Comparison, Part 1: Breakfast

Over the last year, news headlines showcased that saturated fat is not dangerous, animal products are not inherently unhealthy, and most of our health problems stem from over-consumption of refined carbohydrates.

However, change takes time. For the last 50 years, the public has been taught to fear fat and cholesterol, and to eat meals built around dense sources of carbs – particularly grains.

The science is now widely available showing that grains disrupt healthy gut function, provide an enormous carb load with few nutrients, and are inflammatory. But even with this information, many people are bewildered by recommendations to choose healthier options.

I can post in-depth articles discussing anti-nutrients, biological mechanisms, and studies…but sometimes a side-by-side comparison is more effective.

So, today I will post part 1 of a series comparing the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) with a grain-free approach. Each post will compare two meal options, starting with breakfast!

Since I clearly favor a grain-free approach, I have taken the following steps to ensure objectivity:

I picked the healthiest standard breakfast options doctors and dietitians recommend. This includes:

oatmeal1 cup of oatmeal (not instant; fortified and enriched)

1 cup of orange juice (not from concentrate; fortified)

½ cup of skim milk (fortified with vitamins A & D)

1 handful of raisins

For the grain-free breakfast, I picked foods that conventional wisdom would classify as too “high calorie” or “unhealthy”, including:

omelet1 omelet made with 4 whole eggs, spinach, and sweet red peppers

1/2 avocado

1 tomato

2 slices of bacon

Both meals provide 600 calories and take less than 15 minutes to prepare.

After running all the foods through a nutrient spreadsheet, here are the total offerings of each meal:

Meal Carbs Fiber Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
Standard Breakfast 136 9 15 1 1.5 50 2000
Grain-Free Breakfast 25 13 35 10 20 1300 3500

The oatmeal breakfast provides a major carb bolus, with very little fiber or fat to mitigate the resulting blood sugar spike. At over 100 grams of sugar per meal, it’s no surprise that almost 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes.

These carbs also increase small, dense LDL, causing atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, the grain-free breakfast provides 13 grams of fiber, along with 10 grams of saturated fat and 20 grams of monounsaturated, both raising HDL, or “good” cholesterol.

I included a column for omega 3 and omega 6. These are both essential fats, but O-3 has an anti-inflammatory affect while O-6 causes inflammation, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Historically, humans consumed a 1-to-2 or 1-to-4 ratio of O3-to-O6. The oatmeal breakfast skews this massively, with a ratio of 1-to-40, while the omelet and guacamole is more ideal (1-to-3).

Clearly the grain-free breakfast is healthier in terms of cardiovascular function, inflammation levels, and blood sugar control. But what about vitamin content?

Meal Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate Choline
American Breakfast 2700* 125 50* 0.4* 3* 1 0.5 280 70
Grain-Free Breakfast 10000 250 70 8 184 2 3 330 560

Once again, the omelet, bacon, and guacamole trump the oatmeal and fruit in every category!

You’ll also notice an asterisk in the vitamin A, D, K, and E categories. The oatmeal breakfast offers less of these vitamins but also lacks the fat and cholesterol necessary to activate and absorb these 4 fat-soluble vitamins.

The American breakfast offers far less B vitamins, and folate, which is problematic since carbohydrates use up B vitamins in their processing. It is common for Americans that don’t consume enough animal products, yet eat a large amount of grains, to require vitamin b supplements and sometimes even injections.

Finally, let’s look at the minerals offered by each meal:

Meal Calcium Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
American Breakfast 500* 160 590 1300 2.9 0.5 2 24
Grain-Free Breakfast 170 120 600 1700 4.4 0.8 0.8 75

The oatmeal and fruit offers more in 3 categories! Grains are an excellent source of magnesium and manganese, while dairy provides a substantial amount of calcium.

I have once again put an asterisk next to calcium. Dairy and grains create a very acidic environment in the body, potentially leaching calcium from the bones.

The omelet and guacamole offer more minerals in total…but a daily serving of nuts may help shore up the few shortcomings.

As evidenced by this side-by-side comparison of a Standard American Diet breakfast, and a breakfast based around plants, animal products, and healthy fats, grains are not necessary.

There are a few minerals that are more abundant in grains which may support an argument for their occasional inclusion, but the idea that we should eat 6 to 11 servings a day is ludicrous.

Whether we look at carbohydrate load, inflammatory factors, or nutrients, grains clearly are not the “heart healthy” option we have been told.

Next time you’re contemplating what to make for breakfast, crack a few eggs and fry up some bacon – I’ve never heard someone complain that these foods aren’t more tasty…and now we know they are healthier too!