There are few other foods that have gotten as bad a rap as bacon. Think of all the comments you’ve heard over the years: “That bacon goes straight to your heart’s arteries.” “Does that bacon come with an angioplasty?”
Bacon does indeed fit into the Wheat Belly lifestyle, as many of the concerns about bacon are misplaced. However, there are some issues you should be aware of to minimize potential adverse effects.
Let’s tackle the issues surrounding bacon, one-by-one:
Bacon is high in cholesterol
It is, but who cares? It has been clear for years that dietary cholesterol plays very little role in determining serum (blood levels) of cholesterol and is not an issue and that the cholesterol in bacon does not contribute to heart disease. (And, of course, in this neighborhood, we don’t even care about serum cholesterol but focus on factors that really cause heart disease.) Being high in cholesterol is therefore a non-issue.
Bacon is rich in saturated fat
40% of the fats in bacon are saturated. Just as with cholesterol, this is of no concern since it has also become clear that saturated fat likewise does not contribute to heart disease, despite decades of agonizing over this issue. Total fat, saturated fat—all remnants of an age of overly-simplistic thinking in heart disease. It also helps to know that about half the fat in bacon is monounsaturated oleic acid, the same as that found in olive oil.
Bacon is cured with sodium nitrite
Bacon is cured, i.e., preserved in brine or in salt, but is often further cured by the addition of sodium nitrite. This inevitably causes confusion. But it’s quite simple: Nitrites and nitrates in food are benign and, because they can yield nitric oxide after ingestion, the body’s master vasodilator (vessel-relaxing), they are actually beneficial. Ingestion of nitrites and nitrates is therefor not an issue.
What IS a concern, however, is that, when meats cured with sodium nitrite are heated, the nitrite reacts with the proteins in the meats to yield carcinogenic compounds called N-nitroso compounds such as nitrosodimethylamine, NDMA, and nitrosamines. These are the same compounds that occur in cigarettes and have carcinogenic properties. Observational data in humans also suggests increased gastrointestinal cancers in people who consume cured meats. I am a vocal critic of observational data that are often used to prove cause-effect association. But in this case, nobody will perform a cured meat vs. uncured meat clinical trial, as it would be unethical and no one would participate—would you enroll in a clinical trial to see if something caused (not prevented) cancer? Of course not, so observational data are as good as it gets, though bolstered by plenty of experimental data demonstrating carcinogenic properties in animals and cellular studies. So buy your bacon uncured or with nitrates that do not yield these reactions.
Bacon contains lots of salt
6 strips of bacon contains around 2000 mg of salt—but who cares? The American Heart Association sticks by its advice to restrict sodium to 1500 mg, or 3750 mg of salt, per day. But they confuse sodium intake and sodium retention. You may recall that, during your 10 days of the Wheat Belly lifestyle, you had to hydrate more than usual and salt your food because, if you failed to do so, you could actually pass out due to low blood pressure. This is because you have removed the extravagant salt-retaining properties of wheat and sugars and insulin resistance. You diurese (lose water and salt) and had to taper or stop blood pressure medications because you no longer retain water and salt and salt intake is no longer a primary determinant of blood pressure.
And besides, once you are free of wheat, grains, and sugars, adding salt actually further improves insulin resistance modestly.
Advanced glycation end-products, AGEs
AGEs are indeed a modest problem, but stay with me here, as this gets a little complicated.
When bacon is cooked and especially when browned and crisp, high levels of AGEs form in the meat that have been associated with increased potential for heart disease, cancer, dementia, and acceleration of the phenomena of aging. This is especially a problem in anyone with reduced kidney function, diabetes, or the elderly. While only about 10% of dietary AGEs are absorbed, the kidneys efficiently clear AGEs from the blood to maintain low levels. Any decrement in kidney function therefore leads to AGE accumulation to high levels. Adverse effects develop because AGEs activate inflammatory pathways (e.g., nuclear factor kappa B, TNF-alpha, others). An especially potent and dangerous combination is high intake of dietary AGEs (exogenous intake), as from bacon or foods cooked at high temperature (e.g., frying, roasting, barbecuing) coupled with high endogenous glycation, as indicated by an increased HbA1c, as defined by pre-diabetes or diabetes.
If you have eliminated wheat/grains (bread crust is among the foods highest in AGEs), foods containing high-fructose corn syrup, and avoid deep-frying, roasting/broiling at temperatures above 365 degrees F (strategies that you have already adopted if you are on the Wheat Belly lifestyle), you have reduced your overall intake of AGEs. (Boiling, steaming, sautéing, baking, microwave cooking are low-temperature methods of cooking that minimizing AGE formation.) And, once you have enjoyed a reduction in HbA1c that develops with the Wheat Belly elimination of wheat/grains and sugars, along with supplementation of nutrients missing from modern life that, when restored, reduce insulin resistance, intake of exogenous AGEs, as in foods like bacon, become a virtual non-issue. Eating bacon in the context of a diet filled with breads, fried foods, sugar, fructose, i.e., a standard American diet, is a bad idea. But eating bacon in the context of a lifestyle with no breads, no frieds foods, minimal sugar and fructose—likely not a problem.
Go ahead: enjoy your bacon. It’s probably best to not make it brown and crispy, but even that may not be an issue if you have ideal insulin sensitivity with a HbA1c of 5.0% or less, take the nutritional supplements advocated in the Wheat Belly lifestyle, have normal kidney function, and minimize high-temperature cooking methods.