For those paying attention, the official word regarding almost every aspect of health seems to change on an almost daily basis. One minute ‘X’ type of food is good for us and to be encouraged, the next minute we’re being told to eat as less of it as possible.
Some things you might think would be safe from this kind of mind-changing though and you might expect certain ‘truths’ never to change. Take bacon for example. Bacon has always been considered one of the fattiest and least healthiest things you can eat… surely that won’t have changed?
Well, actually… the jury is out. According to some sources bacon may in fact be relatively healthy for you after all. It all depends on who you ask and which studies you read. Let’s take a look at the evidence and try to come to some kind of logical conclusion.
Why Bacon Is Bad for You
The reason bacon has been considered bad for us for so long is simply down to the fact that it’s high in fat. And that’s saturated fat, which we have long considered to be evil. Conventionally, saturated fat has been considered a big culprit for heart disease and blood pressure. Saturated fat is also high calorie, which is why three strips of pan-fried bacon will get you 120 calories.
On top of this, bacon is a highly processed meat. This means that it could contain nitrates, which have been linked to cancer in some studies (1). That said, sausages are even worse than bacon in that way.
Bacon is also high in salt, which has generally been said to be another contributor to heart disease. One slice of bacon contains about 190 milligrams of sodium, while the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 2,300 grams per day. Four-five slices of bacon and you’re already at 50% of the RDA.
Why Bacon Is Good for You
So far it’s looking pretty bad for bacon, which seems to clog up the arteries, contribute to unwanted weight gain and increase our chances of cancer and heart attacks.
But hold on just a moment: several other studies it seems actually call many of these ideas into question…
For starters, several more recent findings now suggest that saturated fat doesn’t lead to increased cholesterol or heart disease. In fact in some studies it has even been found to lower LDL cholesterol (2, 3, 4). Apparently the traditional view was actually the result of looking at correlations and falsely attributing causality… oops! What saturated fat can do, is to make you feel fuller, provide you with a slower supply of energy throughout the day and aid protein absorption.
Likewise, it seems that sodium may also have been something of a scapegoat. Sodium restriction can lower blood pressure, but it doesn’t seem to lower the risk of heart disease or lengthen life expectancy. And reportedly the RDA is completely arbitrary – it’s thought that we can safely go considerably above that amount (5, 6).
Meanwhile, bacon is high in vitamin B3 (niacin) which may help increase longevity. This is based on a study in which worms were given niacin and seen to live for one tenth longer (7). It’s unlikely we’d get enough niacin from bacon to see changes in our own lifespans, but it’s certainly a nice bonus to consider.
Bacon is also a great source of protein, which your body needs in order to build muscle, repair wounds and injuries and fuel the brain.
So How Should You Proceed?
That’s some conflicting advice right there, so what’s the best way to proceed? What do we conclude from all this?
The main conclusion to take away is that no health ‘fact’ should be taken as gospel – anything can change. We must act in accordance with the information we have available, because that’s all we can do, but we also need to be open to change and we need to listen to our own bodies to see what works for us.
As for bacon itself, it appears that it’s probably not as unhealthy as we have been led to believe in the past – even if it’s still not ideal. There are still those nitrates to consider as well as those calories. The take-home then should be to stop feeling guilty about enjoying bacon, but not to go crazy either. The best way to improve your chances of getting everything you need from your food is to eat a varied and balanced diet. And that means everything in moderation…