Health

So, How Much Bacon Can You Eat and Still Be Healthy?

Cigarettes, sunshine, coffee, plutonium, and now BACON: what doesn’t cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization? Fans of the other white meat were devastated when the international group put processed meats in the same category as cigarettes and other known cancer-causing agents, which basically ruins breakfast and makes carcinogens virtually inescapable. You could try renouncing the world and moving to a monastery, but even then there’s no respite, because loneliness causes cancer.

Since risk-taking is a part of life, we wanted to find out how much bacon you can eat before you’re consumed with disease. Here’s what you need to know:

Wait, but bacon’s not really carcinogenic, right? Is there no God?

The World Health Organization must have an anti-breakfast agenda, if they’re so set on demonizing those crispy, salty slices of heaven. People have been eating bacon for years and are just fine, right?

Turns out that people HAVEN'T been just fine -- they’ve been getting cancer! You don’t hear about it coming from diet because people tend to chalk it up to bad luck, or hexes, or anything except bacon, please, not the bacon.
 

It’s not a question, it’s not a debate, it’s not a controversy, it’s simply a fact that processed meats are carcinogens.
 

Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, advises against treating this “cancer” cry as a silly correlation that can’t be proved: “People might think, ‘Oh, well it doesn’t really matter.’ It matters hugely, because about one in every three Americans get some form of cancer. And when we rule out the tobacco-related cancers, the bulk of the remainder is food related.”

We’ve been eating our way to cancer this whole time, without even knowing it? Surely there must be some tallying error. Maybe the World Health Organization forgot to carry the one?

Unfortunately, there’s no denying it; the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the WHO) waded through more than 800 studies so you don’t have to, and said, yeah, sucks, but bacon causes cancer. Dr. Barnard agrees, and argues that there isn’t much room here for a reasonable, scientifically minded person to doubt. “What the World Health Organization said is, ‘Stop the debate. It’s not a question, it’s not a debate, it’s not a controversy, it’s simply a fact that processed meats are carcinogens.’”

Oof.

Can I get away with eating some bacon, sometimes?

Smoking one cigarette doesn’t give you lung cancer; does the same hold true for bacon?

Yes, kind of. Tobacco is a good analogy here, but not in the way you might hope. While a cigarette every once in a while probably isn’t going to lead to end-of-life care discussions, you’re definitely taking a risk. Keep in mind that even after you quit smoking, your lungs will never be at the same level of health as those of a nonsmoker.

But while you’re not going to find a health professional on earth willing to blow his or her reputation by saying, “Sure, smoking every once in a while is probably fine,” you will see some debate among doctors and nutritionists about whether a little bacon here and there is fine.

For Dr. Barnard, though, bacon truly is like cigarettes: “If you’re asking how much I can safely give to my 7-year-old daughter, the answer is zero.”

So there’s absolutely no room for moderation?

While Dr. Barnard was adamant about his recommendations, others were a bit more measured, if also more vague. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics weighed in with an official statement, advising consumers to “vary their daily protein choices by including lean meats, poultry and fish along with plants sources like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Consumption of processed meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs, which are often high in saturated fat and sodium, should be limited.”

Limited! Gah! Jacqueline Aizen, a registered dietitian, recommends a more moderate approach. “If someone adheres to a healthy diet, lifestyle, and manages their stress, and occasionally consumes bacon or cake or [any] ‘sinful’ food, I doubt that if they get cancer it will be the direct [result] of sometimes eating bacon.”

Doubt over bacon being a direct cause of cancer isn’t the most reassuring answer, but we’ll take it!

Pork fights back!

Ceci Snyder, the Vice President of Consumer Marketing at the National Pork Board (and a registered dietitian herself), unsurprisingly takes issue with the WHO’s report, seeing as how it basically said her entire industry equals tobacco. “Although there’s lots of weak associations on both sides of the science, to say that a whole group of food has causation with cancer, we think is quite a leap.”

“We don’t recommend over-consumption of our products, but we certainly believe pork, and processed pork, can fit into a healthy diet.”

OK… so how much?

“We follow the [US Department of Agriculture’s] dietary guidelines. So they recommend, on average, five and a half ounces of protein a day. We realize people shouldn’t eat three pounds of bacon every day, but there’s no reason to vilify it.”

So, whatever you do, avoid eating three pounds of bacon every day. If you’re doing that, you probably have some concerns more pressing than cancer.

Just tell me how much bacon I can eat without getting cancer!

Like nearly all nutrition-related topics, there’s no true consensus. Perhaps the way to think about it is as a management of your own comfort with risk. For Dr. Barnard, when it comes to a specific amount of bacon causing cancer: “There isn’t a threshold; it just starts at zero and goes up from there.”

So if you don’t eat bacon ever, you can’t get the kinds of cancer that bacon causes, like colorectal cancer (gross!). Every fatty, salty bite you take beyond that carries some danger, though not in an immediate, watch-out-for-that-bus sense.

Bacon is, undoubtedly, one of life’s great delights. Like most pleasures, it has some downside, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it. Aizen’s final piece of advice might be the best: “Bacon daily is not a good idea, but once in a blue [moon] is OK… stick to greens.”

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Anthony Schneck is the health editor at Thrillist. He'll probably still eat bacon. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.