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Can Bacon Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Here's healthier bacon recipes and tips for bacon lovers.
By
WebMD Expert Column

It seems there has been a bacon explosion in America, in more ways than one. Bacon recipes are sweeping the blogoshere (like the famously fatty Bacon Explosion appetizer recipe). Fast-food chains are peddling double bacon burgers, and upscale restaurants are wrapping steaks in bacon -- even adding it to chic desserts. That’s right; chocolatiers are sprinkling bacon bits in chocolate bars like they are almonds. It’s the old sweet and savory marriage of flavors that seems to work so well.

Although there's no arguing that bacon is a tasty treat, what about all that fat, sodium, and cholesterol? Is there any way for bacon to be part of a healthy diet?

Just How Unhealthy Is Bacon?

You probably won't be surprised to learn that 68% of bacon's calories come from fat, almost half of which is saturated. Each ounce of bacon contributes 30 milligrams of cholesterol (not to mention the cholesterol from the eggs that often accompany bacon.

Eating foods rich in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. And if those saturated fat-rich foods are also high in dietary cholesterol, cholesterol levels tend to rise even higher.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7% of your total calories (that’s less than 16 daily grams of saturated fat for someone eating 2,000 calories a day). So under those guidelines, it might seem sensible to occasionally enjoy a small amount of bacon, or switch to turkey bacon, which is lower in fat and cholesterol.

But here's the bad news: When it comes to increasing the risk for certain cancers, things get downright scary for bacon lovers. Not only is bacon considered a red meat, it’s also a member of the dreaded "processed meat" group (even turkey bacon falls into this category. And NO amount of processed meat is considered safe to eat, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Processed meat is usually red meat preserved via smoking, curing, or salting and it includes many favorite American foods in addition to bacon:

  • Ham
  • Sausage
  • Hot dogs
  • Bologna
  • Salami
  • Pepperoni
  • Pastrami

Many researchers have concluded that regular consumption of processed meats may lead to higher risk for prostate cancer and several other cancers. That’s why AICR advises people to avoid all forms of processed meat until we know more about what it is specifically about processed meat that increases cancer risk.

It’s not clear how exactly processed meat raises cancer risks, but it might have to do with:

  • Nitrates, which are often used as preservatives in processed meat, change into N-nitroso (compounds that promote cancer) in the meat and also in the gut when it is being digested.
  • Carcinogenic PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) compounds can be produced during processing.
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