Health & Medicine

Better with bacon? Some experts say fats are back in the game

Bacon-wrapped duck breast was among the foods that chef Dionisio Esperas cooked at “Better with Bacon” on Tuesday at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op in honor of Bacon Fest.
Bacon-wrapped duck breast was among the foods that chef Dionisio Esperas cooked at “Better with Bacon” on Tuesday at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op in honor of Bacon Fest. jvillegas@sacbee.com

It’s almost impossible to find a Sacramento meal that isn’t wrapped in bacon this week. From bacon corn dogs to BLT raviolis to bacon toffee gelato, the golden child of charcuterie has found its way onto more than 70 menus for the weeklong Bacon Fest Sacramento.

Fortunately for hog-wild diners, the health world is starting to come around on the mouthwatering meat.

Recent research in dietary science has led some experts to promote a new idea – that fat, and yes that includes saturated fat, is not as evil as it’s made out to be. Since the 2014 release of the best-seller “Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” nutritionists have been questioning the low-fat regimen, leaning toward a high fat, high protein diet and urging the public to cut the carbs.

That idea evolved into the now pervasive paleo, or “caveman,” diet, featuring almost no grains and loads of animal fats, eggs and butter – foods formerly associated with high cholesterol and heart disease. A recent Runner’s World article titled “Eat Fat, Be Fit” encouraged runners to “enjoy that chicken thigh with the skin. Spread some butter (the real stuff!) on your toast. Add a slice of cheddar to your sandwich.”

Dr. Stephen Phinney, professor emeritus of the UC Davis School of Medicine and author of three books on fat metabolism, explained that when the body is not busy burning carbohydrates, it will burn through fat for energy almost immediately, rather than storing it. A low carbohydrate diet, when followed strictly for four to six weeks, will change the cell machinery to burn more fat, leading to weight loss, he said.

“The reason people gravitate to bacon, and oil, and butter, is that those are the fats that the body prefers to use,” he said. “All the data is there saying the paradigm has to shift.”

The statement goes against the grain for many major health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, which recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 7 percent of daily calories consumed. Eating foods with high fat content has been shown to raise cholesterol levels and clog arteries in study after study. That’s bad news for bacon lovers – about 68 percent of calories in each slice come from fat, about half of which is saturated.

Saturated fat’s negative reputation is unwarranted, though, said Dr. Ed Hendricks, a practitioner of weight management and obesity medicine in Roseville. A large body of research links saturated fat to an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as the “bad cholesterol.”

But after a period of six to 12 months, Hendricks sees patients on a high fat diet develop a lipid profile with more buoyant, large-particle LDL, which is less likely to clog arteries than small, dense LDL particles – especially when combined with a low carbohydrate diet, he said. His observation was recently echoed by Dr. Ronald Krauss, former chairman of the American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines committee, in The New York Times.

Hendricks and Phinney both note that foods high in fat are more satisfying than carbohydrates, making portion control easier and keeping people full longer.

“When I started doing this 25 years ago, low fat was the rage. We tried that, and you know what? It didn’t work,” he said. “I consider bacon a part of the healthy diet ... There’s little in the way of carbohydrate. To me, a good breakfast is a healthy serving of bacon and eggs – and NO toast.”

At the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, in a room plastered with fruit-and-veggie themed posters, chef Dionisio Esperas put a nutritious spin on the debated ingredient. His “Better with Bacon” class, held Tuesday in honor of Bacon Fest, used organic, grass-fed, non-genetically modified organism bacon from co-op suppliers. He made a warm spinach salad, lentil and barley soup, mushroom risotto and a duck roulade all designed to highlight the night’s featured food.

Esperas, co-owner of Sacramento’s A Healthy Kitchen catering company, said he enjoys cuts of pork that are less fatty because they are better at bringing out the “nice depth of flavor” of the meat. At his house, he and his family eat bacon about once a month.

“There’s always that saying – everything’s better with bacon – and that’s true to a point,” Esperas said. “Obviously, don’t eat six slices a day.”

Those on the plant-based side of the spectrum maintain that bacon, like all animal fats, is largely responsible for America’s continuing heart problems. Emily Honeycutt, a local vegan nutritionist and instructor for the Food for Life Cancer Project through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, advocates a low-fat, whole grain, vegetable heavy diet for the sake of health.

“Celebrating bacon is like celebrating cigarettes,” she said. “There are ways to get that great taste in the plant kingdom, and I would hope that people would be smart enough to think about their health and not just taste.”

Bacon Fest diners eating bacon tater tots, bacon pastrami sandwiches and other featured delicacies around Sacramento this week took an overwhelmingly consistent stance when asked about the salty strip – it tastes great, but should be approached with caution due to its high fat content.

“It can be healthy, as long as you cook it down so you cook all the fat out and use it for flavor in a salad or sandwich,” said Richard Levin, a Tank House customer and swim coach. “Not as your main protein all the time and not a whole pound of it. As with anything, in moderation.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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