For anyone living a fit and healthy lifestyle, bacon is perhaps the kryptonite of nutrition. We all know that it is full of saturated fat, and is the food most famously incompatible with healthy eating. Even so, a type of bacon mania is sweeping the country, perhaps a bit more in the straight world, with chocolate covered bacon and bacon cocktails garnering media attention. Sarah Hepola of Salon.com posits that bacon and unfiltered cigarettes are in vogue as a form of rebellion against the pressure to live a healthy lifestyle. You can understand why—the stuff is seriously delicious. In fact, Hepola quotes No Reservations host-gourmand Anthony Bourdain as claiming bacon is the “gateway protein” for its ability to lure vegetarians back to eating meat. It's just that good.
Still, we gay men are determined to be strong. We will resist the siren call of the smoky swine. After all, we are fit gay men, a little more driven than the rest of society by health and aesthetics (not necessarily in that order) to avoid all forms of saturated fat in every meal.
Except, we’re not. Evasion of saturated fat is self-delusion. Saturated fat is almost everywhere—not simply in meat and eggs, but in smaller proportions in fish, olive oil, even some fruits and vegetables. One out of every five grams of fat in Omega 3-rich avocadoes is saturated, as is one out of every three fat grams in herring. But that’s a good thing—saturated fat plays a role in health and appearance, despite all the bad press it has received the past several decades. For starters, it’s a concentrated source of energy: arctic explorers eat sticks of butter straight up. Saturated fats are also the building blocks of cell membranes, contribute to the production of hormones, work in tandem with calcium to build stronger bones and even have antimicrobial properties that protect the digestive tract. With fat of any kind in a meal, you get satiety, that feeling of fullness that signals your brain to quit eating. Because fat digests more slowly, you’ll feel fuller longer—staving off any inclination to snack badly or attack your next meal like a barbarian. Or a Bourdain.
Sat Fat Math
Proper inclusion of saturated fat in the diet boils down to mathematics. A Big Mac carries 10 grams of fat, about half the recommended daily intake and more than most self-respecting fitness aficionados would consider on a regular basis. Better that you get those 10 to 20 grams of saturated fat from the healthier sources such as fish, avocadoes, oils and produce.
But the bacon evangelists are onto something. Fat, particularly bacon, tastes pretty darn good. A temptation to carnivorousness or not, culinarians know how to use a small amount of bacon—or Italian pancetta, from the same pork bellies as American bacon but not brined and smoked—to flavor a dish.
Lessons from food history support this. “Meat was expensive or unavailable most of the time, so a small amount served a long way,” says Iri Greco of Panforte Productions, a television and new media producer who works with the Food Network, Bon Appetit, Bobby Flay and other media and celebrity chefs. She decries both the excess of meat in our culture as well as the overreaction, a fear of all things fat and animal-based. “If we utilize proteins in the traditional way, we don’t have to be so phobic. A little bit of very good quality bacon goes a long way and can greatly enhance the flavor profile of a non-meat dish.”
Italian food is a particularly great place to find bacon in a healthy context. Efisio Farris, a restaurateur (Arcodoro in Dallas and Houston, Pomodoro in Dallas) and author of Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey, the Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia, also advocates the use of pancetta or bacon in moderation to add flavor to dishes. He notes that Sardinia is one of four places profiled in the book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner. The Italian island has more centenarians than elsewhere in Europe, attributed to a variety of factors that include diet. Farris provides the following recipe that would be familiar to his Sardinian kin:
Irvuzu Greens with Pancetta
For this recipe you will need the following ingredients:
- 2 pounds mixed greens (preferably fennel, chicory, dill, rapini, escarole, and thin asparagus)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 pound pancetta (or bacon), diced
- 5 garlic cloves, halved
- Sea salt
- 1 to 2 tablespoons fruttato extra virgin olive oil
Italian cooks really love their pancetta and bacon. Michele Carbone, author of “Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, one bite at a time,” suggests sautéing greens with onions, leeks or shallots in bacon fat with olive oil, with either lemon juice or vinegar added, then mix with cooked pasta and either Parmigiano or Romano cheeses (suggestion: to raise the health quotient use whole grain pastas and a good quantity of greens). Her book also provides recipes for using bacon in baked zucchini, white bean soups and Brussels sprouts greens.
My own recipe is ridiculously healthy and equally tasty. You just can’t be afraid of lightly-cooked cabbage, else you’ll not get the benefit of its bacon-y taste.
Chicago cabbage with bacon
You will need the following ingredients:
- 4 - 5 cups chopped cabbage (red, green or Napa)
- 2 cups mashed Garbanzo beans
- 1 cup diced tomatoes
- 2 strips of bacon (or pancetta equivalent)
- 6 cloves of chopped fresh garlic
- 1 cup chopped green onions
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 1 tsp. dried chili spice
- 4 Tbsp lemon juice
- 4 Tbsp vinegar
Got the idea? A little bit of bacon, a lot of green vegetables, and a dollop of imagination leads to a flavorful dish. Your own bacon rebellion is to keep it healthy.
About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see http://RussKlettke.com.