Is Bacon the New Olive Oil?
Few would argue the health benefits of olive oil. This nectar of the gods has been produced from olives in the Mediterranean basin since Neolithic times. Besides its previous use as soap, a fuel for oil lamps, or a method for my uncle to avoid alopecia (apparently, all you need is a drop a day for life to keep a mop-like head of hair), olive oil has been a staple of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years. I am a big fan of a Mediterranean-esque diet as I have written about before (here and here).
Athena, the Greek goddess from whom Athens got its name, beat Poseidon in an infamous competition by creating the olive tree and leaving it to produce the staple of the Mediterranean diet. The olive is beyond a health wonder, it is at times mythical and even god-like.
Nightly, I bathe in a vat of olive oil to absorb its health benefits directly through my skin. Okay, I have never actually done that, but would not be surprised if some people have. From Athena’s victory to olive oil’s pleasant taste or delicious accompaniment to a plate of vegetables, there are likely other reasons that it has withstood the test of time...
The Chemistry of Olive Oil
Olive oil is generally about 14% saturated fat, 14% polyunsaturated fat, and 72% monounsaturated fat. For a review on the chemical structures of fats, click here. Most of the monounsaturated fat in olive oil is a substance called oleic acid, which is an omega-9 fatty acid.
The potential health benefits of olive oil are extensive. From fighting cancer and heart disease to battling Alzheimer’s and inflammation, many have concluded that olive oil is the healthiest fat on Earth. However, amidst these important and extensive health benefits, oleic acid is the ingredient in olive oil that holds the most fame. In fact, some have considered oleic acid as the sole reason olive oil can lower blood pressure and improve vascular function and health.1–3 It is also a reason that one of my favorite diets, the Spanish Ketogenic Diet, may have so many health benefits.
Yet, anytime I think about olive oil, I cannot help but consider bacon and lard. And when thinking about bacon, a conflict emerges. The villainous bacon has been seated far on the opposing end of healthy olive oil — yet, are they that different?
Lard, the fat from bacon, contains nearly 50% oleic acid. It also contains about 40% saturated fat, and a large portion of this is stearic acid. Stearic acid is actually converted to oleic acid within the body.4 Stearic acid has been shown to lower LDL, which is considered by many as “bad” cholesterol.5 In fact, one of the often cited issues with saturated fat is its effect on serum cholesterol, yet stearic acid appears to differ little from oleic acid in this regard.6
Enter the Dissonance
While nearly all physicians and nutritionists view olive oil as part of a healthy diet, bacon has had quite a different fate. Bacon has been beat up, thrown around, and is nearly synonymous with clogged arteries and poor health. This is presumably from its saturated fat content, yet, nearly half of bacon fat is oleic acid. Ignoring the other health benefits of bacon, which is a nutrient-dense and vitamin-rich food that helps curb hunger, if oleic acid is that healthy for us, where does this leave bacon?
Of course, not all bacon is the same. Bacon from pastured (roaming the pasture) pigs is different from confined pigs fed corn and soy. Like other animal sources of food that eat their native diet, meat from these pigs is healthier (and tastier).7,8
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Just as dietitians and the health world are finally admitting that not all fats are bad, they may soon start to realize many of the confusing and conflicting recommendations they have been providing for the past several decades. It is illogical to promote one food for its content of oleic acid and demonize another one that contains very high levels of this same fat. Perhaps the overall benefits of olive oil will allow for its more frequent consumption over bacon, but to demonize bacon again should leave us scratching our heads.
As is often the case in any controversial subject, sides start looking for other support for their arguments. Olive oil, for instance, has many other health benefits that are being touted, and rightly so. Bacon, on the other hand, has been criticized for its amount of saturated fat. The polarizing discussion of health effects of saturated fat has started to deconstruct the limited science to support such claims.9–11
If monounsaturated fat and specifically oleic acid provides so many health benefits, where does that leave bacon, a potent source?
If the horrors of saturated fat have indeed been overblown (which the data seems to suggest) isn’t it time to take well-sourced bacon off of the “horrible foods” list?
While I am in no way endorsing eating bacon at every meal, it is rather interesting that two foods that are not that dissimilar can be recommended in completely opposite fashion by the diet and nutrition world. The narrative of “fat and animals are bad” has led to a field that chastises a food that contains almost as much “healthy” fat as olive oil.
I have personally always been a fan of olive oil and I have always been a fan of bacon. Olive oil is part of my diet on a nearly daily basis, while I eat pastured, uncured, nitrate-free bacon once or twice a week. I always cook my bacon at lower heat to avoid burning. It brings a smile to my face every time I eat it.
I consider my diet pretty darn healthy with moderate amounts of bacon as part of it. This may not fit the current narrative of the diet world, but it seems like times are a changin'.
To Your Health,
Dr. Colin Champ
Dr. Colin Champ is a practicing radiation oncologist and nutritional expert. He is the author of Misguided Medicine: The truth behind ill-advised medical recommendations and how to take health back into your hands. You can hear more from him as the host of the incredibly popular Caveman Doctor podcast.
1. Bondia-Pons I, Schröder H, Covas M-I, et al. Moderate consumption of olive oil by healthy European men reduces systolic blood pressure in non-Mediterranean participants. J Nutr. 2007;137(1):84-87. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17182805. Accessed July 25, 2015.
2. Terés S, Barceló-Coblijn G, Benet M, et al. Oleic acid content is responsible for the reduction in blood pressure induced by olive oil. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008;105(37):13811-13816. doi:10.1073/pnas.0807500105.
3. Høstmark AT, Haug A. Percentages of oleic acid and arachidonic acid are inversely related in phospholipids of human sera. Lipids Health Dis. 2013;12:106. doi:10.1186/1476-511X-12-106.
4. Bruce JS, Salter AM. Metabolic fate of oleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid in cultured hamster hepatocytes. Biochem J. 1996;316 ( Pt 3:847-852. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1217427&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract. Accessed July 18, 2015.
5. Hunter JE, Zhang J, Kris-Etherton PM. Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(1):46-63. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27661.
6. Thijssen MA, Mensink RP. Small differences in the effects of stearic acid, oleic acid, and linoleic acid on the serum lipoprotein profile of humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;82(3):510-516. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16155261. Accessed July 20, 2015.
7. Sales J, Kotrba R. Meat from wild boar (Sus scrofa L.): a review. Meat Sci. 2013;94(2):187-201. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2013.01.012.
8. Martínez-Ramírez HR, Cant JP, Shoveller AK, Atkinson JL, de Lange CFM. Whole-body retention of α-linolenic acid and its apparent conversion to other n-3 PUFA in growing pigs are reduced with the duration of feeding α-linolenic acid. Br J Nutr. 2014;111(8):1382-1393. doi:10.1017/S0007114513003991.
9. Taubes G. Good Calories, Bad Calories : Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. New York: Anchor; 2008. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy1110/2010284900-b.html.
10. Uffe R. A hypothesis out-of-date: The diet–heart idea. J Clin Epidemiol. 2002;55(11):1057-1063. doi:10.1016/s0895-4356(02)00504-8.
11. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(3):535-546. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725.