Bacon has gained a bad reputation in mainstream media. There are three main reasons for that:
- it has high level of saturated fat
- it has high level of sodium
- it contains nitrates (sodium and potassium nitrates)
Let's talk about each one of them...
1) Saturated fat
As I highlighted in an article about saturated fat, there is NO evidence that:
- too much saturated fat raises cholesterol
- saturated fat causes heart disease
- high cholesterol causes heart disease
- lowering cholesterol reduces heart disease
- there is a correlation between obesity rates and the amount of fat consumption
- there is a correlation between obesity rates and the amount of protein consumption
The types of fat you should be worried about are toxic trans fats and polyunsaturated fats, particularly high omega 6 / omega 3 ratio.
Bottom line: Don't be afraid of saurated fat.
2) Sodium and low-carb diets
It's a fact that bacon is high in sodium, but is it bad for us? The general advise is to keep sodium low. However, for low-carb ketogenic diets, an increased amount is desired.
The RDA of sodium according to the USDA is 2,300 mg, which may not be enough for a low-carb diet. The reason is that insulin, which also has the effect of reducing the rate at which sodium is extracted through kidneys, drops and it can cause sodium levels to drop significantly, too. Also, as you eliminate processed foods from your diet, your sodium intake will likely be lower than what you've been used to.
You can also check my post about sufficient intake of electrolytes. Increased intake of electrolytes will help you overcome the side effects of giving up carbohydrates (fatigue, cramps and headaches).
So, how much sodium is adequate? You should add about 3,000-5,000 mg in addition to sodium naturally occurring in food (Lyle McDonald, "The Ketogenic Diet"). Don't get the idea that you can eat a cup of salt a day when on low-carb.
Bottom line: 100g / 3.5 oz of bacon contains about 2000 mg of sodium. Taking everything into account, you shouldn't worry about sodium content in bacon.
3) Nitrates: Are they dangerous?
Nitrates (sodium and potassium nitrate) are used for curing meat such as keto-friendly bacon. Some health-conscious paleo-eaters advice against them, while others see no harm. What may potentially be harmful are nitrosamines (for more information, see my reply in the comments section).
Should we avoid bacon simply because of nitrates? A simple fact: If you avoid bacon to avoid nitrates, you would also have to cut down on vegetables, which may have a lot more nitrates that bacon:
"When it comes to food, vegetables are the primary source of nitrites. On average, about 93% of nitrites we get from food come from vegetables. It may shock you to learn that one serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs. In short, nitrites are not a problem, provided our diets are rich enough in antioxidants to facilitate the conversion of nitrites to NO and to prevent nitrosation reactions that convert nitrites into carcinogenic nitrosamines." (Source)
To counteract the negative effects of nitrates, simply eat more foods rich in antioxidants, like:
- berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, etc.)
- green tea, black tea and coffee, cocoa powder, red wine
- tomatoes, red bell peppers, eggplants (most antioxidants are in the peel)
- artichoke, garlic and onion, sauerkraut
- broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale
- watercress and spinach
- pecan nuts
- spices such as cinnamon, vanilla beans and ginger root
The reason for the "nitrate panic" is a Harvard School study from 2012 which claims that red meat consumption is linked to increased risk of mortality. This study is what Gary Taubes refers to as "pseudo science."
If you want to avoid nitrites, here is what may really surprise you. Products labeled as "nitrate-free" may actually have two times more nitrate content than bacon cured directly with nitrate salts!
"Traditionally bacon was cured by adding sodium nitrite salts directly to the meat. Today most manufacturers of "nitrite free" brands add celery salt, which is about 50 percent nitrate, plus a starter culture of bacteria. This transforms the nitrate found naturally in the celery salt into nitrite, which cures the meat. Although manufacturers label this bacon "nitrite free," this method actually generates more nitrite from the celery salt than would ever be added as a salt. Indeed, "nitrite free" bacon can have twice the nitrite content of bacons cured directly with nitrite salts." (Source)
To summarise, in order to decrease your nitrate intake, you would have to avoid not only bacon but also vegetables like celery or arugula. In fact, approximately 80% of dietary nitrates are derived from vegetable consumption. This study shows there may be even health benefits of nitrates and nitrites such as blood pressure lowering effects.
Bottom line: It doesn't mean you should eat bacon from dawn to sunset, but as long as your diet is rich in antioxidants, you can include bacon in moderation (see details in my Clean Eating Challenge here.)
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