Even just reading word can make your mouth water. From International Bacon Day (that’s the Saturday before Labor Day), to countless bacon-related recipes, television shows, books, and other (edible and inedible products), bacon has sizzled as a trend for the past few years. And, as you probably know, bacon is both a meal and a mantra for much of the CrossFit and Paleo enthusiast world. There’s even a CrossFit Bacon affiliate (in New Jersey), a Bacon Beatdown competition, and, yes, in 2014 there was Reebok Paleo-approved Bacon.
Just as the egg was lifted out of its 1980s infamy as a major causer of high cholesterol, CrossFit enthusiasts and Paleo bloggers practically gathered up slabs of bacon and raised them to the sky like Olympic torches, sometimes even owing their own incredible feats of strength and endurance to slices of cured pork. Bacon may be the figural beating heart of functional fitness and nutrition, but is it a risk to biological heart health? Bacon is admittedly chocked full of saturated fat, and relatively high in sodium, but: are these bad, and should we worry that the world’s tastiest food poses serious health risks?
Even Time Magazine, which ran the infamous 1984 egg-demonizing cover that declared the “bad news” about cholesterol, recently proclaimed we “Eat Butter,” indicating their enthusiastic participation in the crusade toward “Ending the War on Fat.” The Wall Street Journal has followed suit, challenging the “dubious” science behind what become an incredibly popular anti-fat cause.
Dubious as it may be, the popular scientific idea was that food high in saturated fat raised cholesterol levels, leading to increased heart disease risk. This lead to the enduring idea that Fat Makes You Fat (and Sick), and everything from egg yolks to real butter got tossed for processed substitutes, like margarine and containers of “real eggs,” and high-carbohydrate diets. Since the USDA codified the anti-fat science in its dietary goals, bacon and eggs became negative icons of high cholesterol and fat—a heart attack on a plate.
New, and arguably more rigorous and reliable, scientific research challenges the link between high cholesterol and heart disease. Whether carbohydrates are the new evil cause of heart disease (and obesity, and poor mental health, etc) is an issue for another post, so let’s get back to bacon.
What is bacon? Bacon is cut from different pig parts, usually the fatty pork belly, which is then dry- or brine-cured in large amounts of salt. Not all bacon is made equal. “Fatback” is almost all fat (like it sounds), whereas pork loin is much more lean. A lot of packaged bacon includes harmful additives like nitrates and MSG; and bacon from free-range pigs is most likely a lot healthier for you, and the environment, than bacon from factory-raised pigs. One slice of bacon (unless you buy the low-sodium variety), has about 190 milligrams of sodium, meaning that four to five bacon slices gets you near the halfway mark of USDA daily recommended sodium intake. A teaspoon of bacon grease (the delicious, liquefied fat that bacon releases when heated) is about 40% saturated fat, and fat makes up about 68% of bacon’s total calories.
Though usually thought to have little nutritional value, bacon has potentially beneficial vitamins, like Vitamin B3.
Vitamin B3 (also known as Niacin) appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It does this by increasing your HDL cholesterol, which we will discuss in further detail below.
Paleo helped bring bacon back onto a balanced, healthy plate, but should we still be worried about high cholesterol? And how much bacon is too much? Furthermore, can a low carb diet like Paleo increase cholesterol levels, and should you be concerned? Due to individual differences like family disease history and hormones (for instance, see the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which pointed out the significant difference in men and women’s heart disease risk factors), and others, there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all answer to any of these questions. The scientific debate is still alive and well on these topics. Luckily, though, some recommend rather easy adjustments for lowering cholesterol (like replacing some saturated fats with unsaturated fats, or removing bulletproof coffee from your diet) that don’t include avoiding bacon (phew!). If, by small chance, you’ve overloaded on bacon and are looking for bacon-like alternatives to throw in the mix, Dr. Loren Cordain suggests pasture-raised porkchops, which blow bacon out of the pan nutrition-wise (including offering much lower levels of sodium).
So, we’re not saying you should stop loving bacon (or, heaven forbid, switch to turkey bacon), but there’s nothing wrong with balancing that love with a better understanding of your own “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels (and particle size/number), blood pressure, and individual risk factors for heart and other diseases. Considering that the current unbounded passion for bacon might have been a little inflated to make amends for bacon’s longtime mostly unfounded vilification, perhaps it’s time to consider adding some variety back into your diet…you know, in case you went a little too whole-hog on the bacon trend.