Friday, June 7, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's "winner" will certainly be the most controversial yet... bacon!!
Bacon is a fatty cut of pork (typically side or back) that has been thinly sliced, cured, then cooked until crispy.  This results in a fatty, salty, savory flavor that almost everyone loves.  Bacon's extremely high calorie density, saltiness, and savory flavor give it a reward value that competes with chocolate and ice cream.  Sometimes it's even used to flavor chocolate and ice cream!

There's a lot of bacon consumption in certain parts of the Paleo community.  I think part of this stems from a contrarian attitude that comes along with a certain brand of Paleo.  Even though fresh meat and moderate saturated fat consumption may be compatible with good health, that doesn't mean it's healthy to eat a cured, calorie-dense food that's essentially been deep fried in its own fat*.  I enjoy eating humanely produced bacon from time to time, but I don't make it a habit.

* Some people cook bacon at a low temperature in the oven.  This is probably healthier in my opinion, but I still can't view bacon as a health food.


dfitlife said...

I actually agree with you completely. While I love me some bacon too, I have been making a more concerted effort to limit my processed foods in general. I think that many "Paleo" followers are missing some of the anti-inflammatory benefits of the eating by digging in to things like bacon a wee too often...

David L said...

I understand the various reasons why bacon could be bad for us in a food reward sense, and you didn't even discuss the cancer causing potential of cured meats.

However, I am a bit curious as to why curing is so bad, diet-wise. The reason is that, in general, you have encouraged the consumption of fermented food, and curing, as far as I can tell from a brief Internet search, is a type of fermentation.

Your comments?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi David,

Curing doesn't necessarily involve fermentation, which by definition results from the action of microorganisms. In the case of bacon, the point of the curing is to prevent fermentation (and increase flavor). Salt and nitrites are added to inhibit bacterial growth (celery juice is often used as a natural source of nitrites). There is some evidence that specifically in the context of processed meats, nitrites can turn into carcinogenic compounds. I'm sure high-heat cooking doesn't help.

I recognize that there is some controversy about the role of salt in health, but my opinion is that it's probably best to eat less salt than most people do today.

Centinel said...

Hi Stephan.
And what do you think about red meat and related cancers (colorectal, esophageal,...)? I can't remember a post about it.

Gabriella Kadar said...

Bacon is one of those foods which kept people warm and alive. Back in the good old days before central heating, adequate food, when entire families used to sleep around the woodburning stove in the kitchen, bacon was an important source of calories.

Today in countries like the USA with not only central heating but also air conditioning, refrigeration, cheap food, motor vehicles and a severe reduction in physical labour, bacon is redundant. But I think we need to acknowledge that high fat meats preserved by smoke were important as were smoked sausages, salami and other preserved meats.

When the oil runs out and climate changes, we may need to remember how to make these foods. ;)

Puddleg said...

How does this tie in with the observation that many of the world's oldest people share an enjoyment of crispy bacon?
At any rate, the daily or near-daily consumption of a high-AGE food doesn't appear to be limiting their life expectancy.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Centinel,

I think the link between high red and processed meat consumption and colorectal cancer is plausible, via the heme iron (and resulting free radicals), carcinogens resulting from high-heat cooking, and nitrosamines. Risk can probably be reduced by eating fresh rather than processed meat, cooking gently, and eating red meat along with antioxidant-rich foods (polyphenols may not be antioxidants after they enter the body, but they are antioxidants in the digestive tract).

I don't know about esophageal cancer.

Hi Gabriella,

Good point. Bacon would be valuable if you're concerned about getting enough calories.

Hi George,

Those people are genetic outliers. Jeanne Calment smoked cigarettes for almost her entire 122-year life, yet no one questions the fact that smoking is one of the most effective ways of shortening lifespan.

I think it's humorous that supercentenarians sometimes profess a love of bacon, but nothing more.

Matt said...

According to Jean Calment's wiki page she smoked two cigarettes per day. Such a low intake could plausibly have a healthful hormetic effect.

Ken MacMillan said...

I buy it uncured and bake it on a rack, out of its own fat.

JCava said...

What are your thoughts on uncured bacon?

Anonymous said...

Expanding upon Stephan's comments about red meat and GI cancers, I think that a huge preventative factor is calcium and chlorophyll intake.

The explanation would be that they chelate heme during its journey through the lower digestive tract and prevent it from forming nitrosamines. So if I'm having a piece of meat I'll also try to have a lot of greens with it, that's my main strategy.

And of course not overcooking it is important. I haven't really seen any studies showing that cured bacon can have a low carcinogen/cooking toxin content but I'm open to the possibility that it could be done somehow. But that might take all of the fun out of bacon.

Boomka Music said...

Where's the conclusive evidence that bacon - specifically - is significantly shortening lifespans?

David L said...

Here's a winner Dunkin Donuts, based in my neck of the woods: the Doughnut Bacon sandwich!

Ken MacMillan said...

JCava, my logic is that there's less salt and no fructose from maple syrup. The only downside is that it doesn't keep as long so you have to freeze it or eat it within a few days.

pawpaw said...

How about a comparison of lard vs. bacon? Lard as a substitute for other calories, part of a well balanced diet.

Would help tease out the contributions of nitrites, crunchiness, savory, food reward and palatability, etc. And help inform that not all pork fat is negative.

We sell (and eat) considerable amounts of grown or foraged greens here in the S. Appalachians. A bit of fatback, lard, streaked meat (like bacon), cracklings, etc, allows a large amount of greens to be consumed in a meal, often the bulk of food on the plate, by adding crunch, saltiness, savory, etc. One can 'fill up' on cornbread, dairy and a large plate of greens flavored with pastured hog. Traditional food!

Diana said...

"Bacon is one of those foods which kept people warm and alive."

Not my grandparents!


Kevin said...

Matt, I think you mean Jeanne Calment's page in Wikipedia, didn't you? See doesn't seem to have own wiki. :-) (I wish she had; I would love to know how dark the chocolate she ate was, so I could figure out how much *chocolate* she was actually eating and how much sugar.)

Just to clarify, the wikipedia page on her says she smoked *no more than* two cigarettes a day (and fwiw, the source is unspecified).

Unknown said...

Wow love bacon though I always want to have a healthy food on my table...

glib said...

Not sure this is a proper junk food entry. Was the pig pastured? Was the curing just smoke and salt? Was the bacon frozen? I can answer yes to all three of these, only for our own pig, but one pig produces a lot of bacon. And yes, I cook everything fatty at low temperatures, I even taught my daughter to cook her eggs on a low fire. Low temp bacon grease is still healthier than olive oil.

Anonymous said...

What glib said.

Diana said...

Have to say, I don't understand why bacon is on this list. I thought you were the original "protein and fat are satiating" dude.

Full disclosure: I'm not a believer in the food reward theory, at least, the version that is divorced from the culturally mandated idea of portion size.

Gabriella Kadar said...

I think perhaps you are sleight of mind referring to the paleo crowd who eat bacon like a food group.

The smoked fat bacon (no muscle meat in it) is wonderful in small amounts added to other ingredients as a flavouring and fat.

Various real bacons are used in many traditional European recipes just as onions, garlic, etc.

I think when people routinely eat lots of American fake soggy bacon slices from the supermarket, it's really not the appropriate or traditional means of consuming the stuff. But real smoked bacon used in recipes like collard greens or bean soup is not excessive and enhances the flavours in the dish.

A few little pieces of smoked bacon fat in a recipe with all sorts of vegetables together adds that umami which enhances the flavour of the dish. Same as adding capers or black olives or salted sardines or anchovies.

Like anything else, used appropriately, bacon is a good thing.

But in the USA people drink litres of coffee in one shot when in the rest of the world coffee is consumed in small volumes. There appears to be a lack of 'food culture'.

Unknown said...

Sorry, going to take a contrarian view, at least for part of the post. (Cant argue against bacon being super tasty!)

First, Nitrates and Nitrites are what causes the meat to cure via inhibiting bacterial growth. Most people assume that cured meats are the only source of nitrates. Most nitrates are either produced by the body itself, or by eating vegetables. Nitrates are a natural antibiotic for plants and animals. Chris Kresser has a well foot-noted article on bacon. I’ve come across arguments on both sides for a while, but after curing my own bacon, I’m not so worried about them as I once was.

That said, Industrial processed foods, including industrial bacon contain many things that are probably bad, if not very bad for us. Synthetic Vitamin C (Sodium Erythrobate) is an example. Large operations use numerous chemicals to accelerate the process of aging the bacon as to increase profitability.

Much like the vegan argument that industrial meats are bad, therefore we should ban all meat eating, even grass fed; Industrial bacon versus artisinal or homemade bacon are two very different beasts.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Diana,

I did go through a brief low-carb phase where my head wasn't screwed on straight, but I don't recall ever saying that fat is particularly satiating on a per-calorie basis. I certainly hope I never said it.

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, but bacon isn't that rich in protein as a % of kcals compared to other meats. It has about as much protein as lentils on a kcal % basis, but it is less satiating per kcal because it lacks water and fiber and it is more palatable.

Anonymous said...

Bacon is the reason I never quite went vegetarian. My mom, who likes to pretend to eat healthy, used to cook a whole pound, and she, my sister and I would eat the whole thing while my dad complained about the smell and how unhealthy it was. Anecdotal proof that some people, indeed, binge on bacon, (also called pig candy, or the "potato chip" of meat)

Anyway, I eat a slice at a time with an egg and a lot of greens on cardboard toast, and I cook it a pound at a time on low heat in oven, and store in the freezer. I've considered giving it up, but it enables me to eat greens that I wouldn't otherwise eat, not to mention real whole grain bread, which is NOT the kind anybody overeats.

As for nitrates/nitrites, I eat fruit. Vitamin C, from what I've read, will neutralize most possible free radicals.

I wish I could smoke two ciggies a day, but unlike everything else I've run into, I can't moderate those. I'm a smoker, or not, no partial, no only when drinking, no NYE only, none. I thought I could smoke a week in S America and quit, it took two years. Oh well, at least there's bacon!

Diana said...

Yes, Stephan, you didn't say "protein and fat" are satiating and I shouldn't have put the combo in quotation marks as if you did. You have often said that protein is the most satiating macro, which is why I piped up here, under the (wrong as it turns out) impression that bacon is high in protein.

However, I've read elsewhere that protein and fat (no quote marks, OK?) are satiating, in combination. So how is bacon not satiating?

Speaking totally personally, protein is NOT satiating to me, not even a pound of it, without some carbohydrate. We discussed this once on Carbsanity so I won't rehash the exchange here, but I could eat a pound of steak and still feel unfull. Eight ounces of steak and a ripe pear (accent on the word 'ripe' please), and I'm stuffed.

Make sense?

I dunno if this is insulin or the gut flora speaking, but it is fact.

Alex said...

Really? Three people splitting a pound of bacon is a binge? That's 5.3 ounces of uncooked bacon per person, with a significant amount lost to fat rendering off. How is eating a few ounces of cooked meat even remotely binge-like?

Anonymous said...

Maybe binge not the right word, but overeating for sure. I eat a pound in six months now. I feel sick if I eat more than two slices.

Anonymous said...

And it's not really meat, it's fat.

Jane said...

Diana, I don't find protein satiating either. I remember as a child being unable to stop eating roast lamb because I loved the taste and it never filled me up.

The most satiating food I know is wholemeal bread + butter + cheese. I think experiments on the satiety effect of different foods might not tell the whole story. I suspect you're right and combinations of foods can be different.

There is also the effect of pancreatic malfunction to consider. Apparently in pre-diabetes the pancreas becomes less sensitive to glucose but retains its sensitivity to amino acids. For such people, and there may be an awful lot of them, insulin will behave itself if they eat protein but not if they eat carbs. Eating carbs will give them reactive hypoglycemia, due to delayed insulin secretion and overshoot. They will find protein satiating but not carbs.

glib said...

Yes, it is fat. With a near optimal fat profile, if the pig is pastured. That fat that our ancestors used to obsess about, because their "normal" diet (say, whole mammoth) was insufficient in this nutrient.

Kitava (the famous island where saturated fat is consumed in unmoderated amounts), and just about any study of any culture show that we get plenty proteins, but the fat, specially good fat like a pig's belly, is hard to come by, and very valuable.

Re: cancer. Rat experiments show that alcohol is a far stronger carcinogen than nitrites. Not sure what to make of nitrites. I and my family will have to eat 20 broccoli plants in the next 4-6 weeks, and in the Fall, we will have about 60 collards. That has got to be the nitrites in hundreds of pounds of cured meats. Are we doomed?

glib said...

Pawpaw: Regarding lard, it is the fat of choice of a number of long lived ethnic groups. There is still the difficulty in separating the effects of lard, the substance, and high temperature lard, which may contain transfats and other toxic breakdown products. I suspect that if all fat was cooked at low temperatures nutrition science would have never ended up being so out of touch with the real world.

Diana said...


Recently I've become taken with a couple of concepts. One is gut flora. the other is 'food hyper-vigilance.' Some people are hyper-vigilant about food, sometimes satiated but never truly satisfied. I'm one of them. Weird but true. Except after literally stuffing myself, I could always eat more. I have to consciously restrict. And avoid, just avoid, trigger foods. (This latter concept seems to bother people.)

But no, protein alone never satiates me.

vulvalsquelch said...

I think fresh, hot pork cracklins would be a better choice for this post; they put bacon to shame in terms of kcals, total fat, and (most importantly) taste. Truly an evil food, but oh-so-good!

Clover_Grl said...

I'm not sure I could survive without bacon every few days. A good few rashers along with 2-3 eggs, saussage, mushrooms, onions, and halloumi is my usual fry-up...I would contend there are few better meals in the world to set one up for the day. Bacon, for me, is a wonder food, and I certainly don't aim for moderation. 14 rashers a week is my average!

Jane said...

I remember food hyper-vigilance. In the days when I believed 'food makes you fat', and to avoid getting fat you needed consciously to restrict yourself, I was hyper-vigilant too. When I stopped eating refined carbs, it went away. I know you do sometimes eat refined carbs. The problem is that the minerals taken out of them are needed for all aspects of carbohydrate metabolism, and for satiety, so if you eat only a little of it you may still have a deficiency which means for instance, your hypothalamus cannot do its maintenance-and-repair properly so you are never really satiated. Your gut bacteria need these minerals too which compounds the problem.

Nowadays when I stop eating, I really WANT to stop eating, and I don't think about food again until the next meal 10 or 12 hours later. The midbrain's dopamine system is supposed to make you want to eat when you need food, and want to stop when you've had enough. It needs the minerals removed from refined carbs too.

Diana said...


I'm no longer eating refined carbs, in fact, I'm avoiding gluten entirely. Please NO lectures about it, thanks, apologies in advance if you weren't going to lecture. I have an autoimmune disorder (not celiac) and I think it's best for me to avoid wheat altogether, as well as rye, etc.

I am very taken with the whole issue of gut flora, which I used to dismiss as speculative at best, quackery at worst. How wrong I was! I now think that no nutritional study is complete without consideration of the subject's gut flora. Stools are as important as bloods.

Diana said...

PS Jane, there have been times in my life when I went whole grain, no refined carbs at all and I was still food hypervigilant. This is way deeper than missing micronutrients due to refined carb consumption. It might be malabsorption due to leaky gut, which is my case is exacerbated by any gluten or wheat ingestion. None of this is quackery, Jane.

Jane said...

Delighted to hear you're no longer eating refined carbs. If avoiding gluten is the reason, so be it.

Yes I think you're right about gut flora. It looks like they might be the answer to just about everything. Who'd have thought it.

Diana said...


I can't believe I was so resistant against the idea that gut flora are (is?) so important. I really was a dogmatic a-hole. But I'm a repentant sinner!

In any case, no more refined carbs for me, except on extremely special occasions. My stomach is thanking me. Now let's see about my T3 and T4 scores.

Liz said...

I don't find protein satiating. A big bowl of non-starchy vegetables and lean meat is the most unsatisfying thing I can think of, and it is high in protein and fiber. It doesn't promote hunger though, unlike refined carbs, that not only are unsatisfying but make you hungrier and crave more of the same. Who would want more..lean meat and lettuce? lol no one. I thing starch and fat mixed is the most satiating thing ever. Protein and fiber WITHOUT sugar/starch or fat isn't satiating at all. It stretches the stomach, but leaves you with this nagging feeling of wanting to eat something different. Like eating a pound of green vegetables. Satiating? I don't think so. But it has lots of fiber. I think there's something to fat and starch that is satiating, and something to protein and fiber that makes you feel full. The combo leaves you full and satiated. Theres a difference.

Unknown said...

This is where the food reward hypothesis loses me. Food that tastes good shouldn't automatically be labelled a danger to our health. As long as the bacon is naturally cured with no harmful additives (pastured, artisan cured bacon) I don't see any problem with it.
To me the science of food reward demonstrates the dangers of addictive processed foods, not natural foods that happen to be palatable.
I'm also not aware of any studies indicating that bacon is addictive or leads to excess food intake in and of itself.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Marcus,

It is important to understand that food reward is not inherently harmful. People sometimes interpret my writing as stating that food reward is bad, because it's easiest to see things in black and white terms, but that's not accurate.

Food reward is one of the main factors that drives food selection and food intake. This is simply a fact. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation. If you're underweight and need to eat more, then increasing food reward can be helpful, and in fact clinicians are currently using food reward to try to keep underweight elderly patients from eating too little and losing too much weight.

However, most people today don't have trouble maintaining weight-- they have trouble maintaining leanness. Their problem is excess food intake, and therefore in their case limiting high-reward foods can be a useful tool. Returning to the simpler foods that our ancestors ate.

It's also important not to confuse reward with addiction. Reward shapes every behavior we perform, whether or not it's an addictive behavior. Addiction is a pathological excess of reward. Most people are not literally addicted to soda or chocolate cake (though it does sometimes happen), they just find them very appealing-- sufficiently appealing that they drive soda- and cake-seeking behavior in a manner largely independent of metabolic need (hunger). Same with bacon.

Danny Albers said...

I pretty much eat 2 eggs and 2 slices of bacon each morning.

Not sure what the whole idea its "more rewarding" then other meat comes from except it tastes good.

It was certainly the staple at breakfast long before the obesity epidemic which I thought food reward explained.

Whats next? Steak? Eggs? Butter? Apples?

Seems when studies are done where people limit their carbs and by default have to switch to foods such as bacon they spontaneously eat less. Is this something that happens with "rewarding food"?

Bacon is essentially cured, salted pork belly. It has been essentially cured, salted pork belly for a few centuries. What about bacon suddenly became "more ewarding?" than say so Special K?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Danny,

Let's have a look at what you said:

"I pretty much eat 2 eggs and 2 slices of bacon each morning."

"Not sure what the whole idea its "more rewarding" then other meat comes from except it tastes good."

Think about what you wrote. Why do you eat bacon every morning rather than another type of meat? Why do you think it tastes good? You answered your own question.

You stated that bacon was "the staple at breakfast" before the obesity epidemic. It wasn't. Despite the revisionist history coming from parts of the low-carb community, if you actually look at average US dietary patterns over the last 50 years, most people were not eating a lot of bacon or meat in general for breakfast prior to the obesity epidemic (looking at cookbooks and restaurant menus is not informative in this regard). Meat is cheaper now than at any time in US history.

I will repeat that food reward is not a universal explanation for everything related to diet and obesity. No single factor is. But food reward is nevertheless important.

Low-carb is a dietary pattern that helps some people lose body fat, although frankly I am less than impressed by the average long-term fat loss reported in randomized trials. Even though bacon can be a part of that dietary pattern that helps some people lose fat, the diet would probably be more effective without the bacon. The fact that it's cured with nitrite also makes it a probable gastrointestinal cancer risk.

And yes, I'm trying to take away your steak, butter, apples, eggs, and all other joy from your life. Thinking about food reward is a slippery slope like that. You start off avoiding candy, and the next thing you know, you're wearing a burlap sack eating gruel with your hands.