Perhaps one shouldn’t be eating pork at all?
The Bible, and some biblically based nutritionists, believe that the meat from pigs is unavoidably contaminated by their willingness to eat almost anything. If a pig has eaten something rotten, maybe their meat is rotten? Following that same argument, we’d have to caution the people living in the Mediterranean and Himalayan regions to stop eating goat meat as well.
While it’s true that pigs can eat and digest rotten food and even excrement, the new breeds of pastured pigs are raised in pastoral surroundings, kept in clean stalls and fed fresh food not easily discounted as “slop.” The pork I eat is raised in stall and pasture on Willow-Witt Ranch on the outskirts of Ashland, Oregon. Following the “know your farmer” adage, I am confident that the pigs are raised in a manner quite above that of commercial pigs. Their lives are not just hygienic and comfortable, but actually scenic and delightful.
But there’s another problem with pork. Let’s take a detour and talk about fats.
Fats are divided into four categories, depending on chemical structure. Saturated fats, long maligned, have recently been cleared of their erroneous association with cardiovascular disease: think butter, coconut oil, lard. Mono-unsaturated fats are recognized as beneficial to health: fats like olive oil are liquid at room temperature but solid if chilled. Poly-unsaturated fats are always liquid and come primarily from plant and marine sources. Within the family of poly-unsaturates, there are two chemical formulations singled out for particular interest, deemed omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, according to their chemical structure. Both kinds are essential for human health, but we now know that maintaining a healthy 6/3 ratio promotes good health, and allowing the omega-6 fats to vastly overwhelm the omega-3’s is associated with numerous inflammatory and adverse health conditions. The fourth kind of fat is trans fats; naturally occurring trans fats (butter) are benign or even beneficial, but artificially produced trans fats (margarine, other oils used in processed foods) have a clear adverse effect on blood lipids.
One of the problems with the standard American diet is that we have switched dramatically in recent decades from a traditional balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Paleolithic diets and modern hunter-gatherers boast a 6/3 ratio of as low as 1/1, as high as 3-5/1, the entire range excellent and in fact deemed optimal by international agreement. By comparison, the conventional American diet, with a bit of fast food thrown in, ranges fro 15 to 30/1, WAY too much omega 6’s.
Similarly food can be evaluated for its own ratio of omega 6 to omega 3’s. In this category fish excels. Cod, mackerel, salmon, shellfish, and swordfish all have 6/3 ratios of LESS than 1/1, making them an excellent therapeutic food. Typically it is the smaller fish that are richer in omega 3’s, and the smaller fish are also less contaminated with mercury.
Beef varies tremendously depending on its feed: grass or grain. Lean meat that is grain-fed has a ratio of 10, compared to 3.5 for grass fed meat.
Thus the general Paleo recommendation to eat cold-water fish, shellfish, wild-caught or pastured beef or other ruminants. Lamb, venison and bison are all under 3.0.
Now, the more problematic meats are poultry: even the leanest chicken meat has a 6/3 ratio of 9, and the dark meat 50+. Turning to pork, if we just look at the ratio, it’s bad but not terrible. Pork belly (source of bacon) has a 6/3 ratio of about 10, and lean pork tops out around 30.
The actual problem with the bacon is in the amount you eat, as pork contains a very high amount of fat, higher than an egg yolk, or the fattiest duck (6/3 ratio also 50+).
A morning’s serving of bacon might bring in 5000 mg of omega-6 fatty acids, which will take you the rest of the day to balance with pasture-raised meats and cold water fish. And you have to be careful about your nut consumption that day: only macadamia nuts and walnuts will help you with a lowish portion of omega-6’s relative to their omega 3’s. Chew on some chia seeds (omega-3 stars!) if you want some crunch; it’s a crunch that continues for hours as you clean them from out between your teeth.)
Now, bringing all this home: I recently did some nutritional testing and found out that despite eating excellent sources of omega-3 fats, my omega-3 index was not up to par. Looking through the lists of foods and their 6/3 ratios, the two problems I identified are perhaps too much pork and nut proteins, and not enough omega 3’s.
So, bottom line: I will continue to enjoy my pork, but sparingly. I will eat cold-water fish at least twice a week and take some form of fish oil or cod liver oil. I also kind of enjoy that occasional crunch of chia seeds! I continue to eat pasture-raised meat from ruminants (beef, lamb and bison, primarily.) Wild meat when I can get it!
If you were curious about your own diet, I would refer you to an excellent compilation of the omega 6 and 3 components of various foods available on the Paleo Zone Nutrition website here. If you are even more curious, you can evaluation your own omega-3 index through nutritional testing and determine whether your current eating plan needs any adjustment or supplementation.