They say that everything is better with bacon, and unless you’re vegan or keep Kosher or Halal, chances are, you probably agree. More than 261 million Americans ate bacon in 2017, a figure projected to increase to 272 million by 2020. With the popularity of fat-focused diets like keto, it’s not surprising people are going bonkers for bacon. But can everyone’s favorite pork product be part of a healthy diet? This pork-loving (and Jewish *gasp*) dietitian says HELL YES.
First of all, let’s cover the facts. Most standard American-style bacon contains about 43 calories, 3 grams of protein, 137 mg of sodium, and 3.3 grams of fat. So a slice or two is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of a balanced diet.
It’s rich in metabolism-supporting B vitamins and is a solid source of selenium, one of the most powerful immune-boosting antioxidants in our diet. It’s also a good source of phosphorus, which is important for strong bones and tissue repair. So does that make bacon the next kale?! Let’s take a look at the dos and don'ts of getting the most out of the bacon game.
Do choose center-cut bacon. While all bacon comes from the pig’s belly, the center-cut contains about 30 percent less fat than its regular-cut counterparts. Regular cut tends to come in longer strips with more fat at the ends that tend to render away, while the center-cut comes in shorter strips with most of that fat removed.
Do choose Canadian bacon (a.k.a. peameal, back, Irish or English). Those crazy Canucks definitely got it right when it comes to eating pork. While American-style bacon (even center-cut) comes from the pork belly, Canadian is sliced from the pork loin. It’s typically dusted in cornmeal, cut into round slices, and offers a tender, juicy texture when pan-fried or grilled. It has about ¼ of the calories compared with American and almost twice the protein.
Don't choose a bacon cured with sodium nitrates and nitrites. There’s a growing concern about the role of processed meat products in increasing the risk of cancer. Studies have found that consuming processed meats leads to an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers, and while most of these are observational studies (and therefore it’s impossible to really know if it’s the bacon, something in it, or the general dietary lifestyle of people who consume large amounts of it), some wonder if the added nitrates and nitrites play a role.
While these compounds are found naturally in healthy foods like various vegetables, when found in high-protein foods that get exposed to high heats (like cooked bacon), the preservatives are known to form a carcinogen called nitrosamine. The good news is that today, our bacon contains far fewer nitrates than it did in our parents’ day and also contains added vitamin C, which helps reduce the formation of these carcinogens in processed meat. Insider tip: Don’t be fooled by claims about “uncured” or “natural” nitrates. These bacon products can still form nitrosamine when exposed to high heats.
Do choose low-sodium bacon whenever possible. A high-salt diet has been linked to elevated blood pressure in some people and may increase the risk of stomach cancer. While all processed bacon tends to be pretty salty, you can shave off a little by comparing nutrition labels between brands and choosing a low-sodium version. Two slices of regular-cut bacon contain around 385 mg of sodium, while low-sodium versions can slash that almost in half.
Don't pair your bacon with other high-salt, highly processed foods. OK, so our keto dieter may not agree with me on this one, but for the sake of your heart, hear this dietitian out. While I’m all for bacon in moderation, pairing it with a typical fast-food burger topped with sliced American cheese and some salty condiments like mayo, ketchup, or mustard is a serious bloat bomb.
Do choose a high-quality pork belly and slice it up yourself. Skip the commercially cured bacon and ask your butcher for a good slab of pork belly that’s uncured, un-smoked, and un-sliced. Simply slice it up yourself; trim it off excess fat; and grill, bake, or smoke it yourself.
Do cook it in the microwave. Finally! A convenience cooking method that actually makes food healthier! When choosing a traditionally cured bacon, research suggests that microwaving it is one of the best ways to reduce nitrosamine production. You can also try pan-frying or smoking it at a low heat for a longer period of time to render the fat slowly to avoid reaching those dangerous high heats.
Do think of bacon as a flavor garnish. There’s a reason why America is obsessed with bacon. It’s flavorful AF. You really don’t need a lot to get the mouth-watering effect (some would argue that just smelling it is enough). Rather than thinking of bacon as the star of your plate, dice or crumble up a few strips to add flavor to your salads, soups, and pasta. We love it mixed into this low-carb zucchini noodle carbonara and on top of this cauliflower crust pizza.
Don't think going turkey gives you permission to go hog-wild. While turkey bacon is technically a healthier choice with 2/3 of the fat and ¾ of the calories of pork, it often has more sodium to make up for the less palatable mouth-feel. Enjoy turkey bacon in moderation the same way you would its pork-cousin and choose reduced sodium whenever you can.
The Bottom Line on Bacon
These dos and don’ts are all just suggestions to optimize your bacon-buying experience. The most important tip, however, is simply to enjoy it in moderation and balance it out with lots of fresh produce, whole grains, and other lean proteins in your day. Bacon is just one more flavor tool in the healthy cook’s toolbox and can absolutely fit into a healthy diet guilt free.