Ask the dietitian #1: Is pork fat nutritious?

Ask the dietitian #1: Is pork fat nutritious?

So, I received this question a few weeks ago from a reader. He asked “Is pork fat nutritious?”, based on an article published a while ago where pork fat was announced to be “one of the top 10 most nutritious food in the world”.

Is pork fat nutritious? What a great question, considering that I’ve been asked about that article a few times since it gained momentum on social media. With such an eye-catching title, I knew it was going to draw a lot of attention.

Have dietitians around the world been wrong? Is this article for real? Let me tackle it head on.

Is pork fat nutritious? A breakdown of its nutritional content.

is pork fat nutritious? Ask the dietitian

In Singapore, dietitians always caution clients to watch the amount of roasted pork belly they eat. It’s a local favourite, with layers of melt-in-your-mouth pork fat interspersed between lean protein, topped with a crispy pork crackling.

That layer of fat is actually high in saturated fat. While the article in question states that 60% of it is beneficial monounsaturated fat, the more accurate figure is actually 45%, which is pretty close to beef fat’s 42%. That doesn’t make it much higher in monounsaturated fat than beef fat. At the same time, if you want a hit of monounsaturated fat, don’t forget to compare it with more established heart-healthy oils like olive oil. Olive oil contains 67% monounsaturated fat, and only 13% saturated fat. That’s way more monounsaturated fat, with less saturated fat than lard’s 39%!  

Olive oil is higher in monounsaturated fat than pork fat

This is why the American Heart Association still recommends limiting saturated fats to 5-6% of your daily calorie allowance. For a 2000 calorie diet, that equates to 11-13g of saturated fat a day, or slightly more than 2 teaspoons worth of saturated fat. In terms of pork belly, 45 grams of cooked pork belly will give you that amount of saturated fat. Of course, that’s assuming you’re not eating any other form of saturated fat that day.

However, our diets tend to be varied, and different from day to day. There will be some saturated fat in other things we eat, such as chicken, fish, milk, cheese, olive oil, or even walnuts! The key is not to think “Oh, how am I to count every single bit of saturated fat I eat? There’s no way I’m gonna do that!”. Rather, think “Okay, I know 45 grams of pork belly (about half a palm size’s worth) will give me all the saturated fat I need for the day. So I’m gonna choose healthier options at other meals today.”

Knowledge is power. Here’s giving you the power so you can decide what to do to it—don’t let it go to waste!

Is pork fat nutritious? An understanding of the study.

Is pork fat nutritious? Ask the dietitian

When reading the headlines of studies, always consider how the study was done. In this case, how did fatty pork get a Nutritional Fitness score of 73? What does the Nutritional Fitness score even mean? I did a bit of digging and found the article here.

Basically, the investigators wanted to find an ideal food that has all the necessary nutrients we need to meet our daily nutrient requirements. However, that’s virtually impossible—no single food gives us all the nutrients we need for health. So, they decided to identify a combination of different foods, or a basket of foods, that would meet our daily nutritional requirements. Without a doubt, there were many such baskets with different food combinations promising to meet our daily needs. As such, the researchers picked out foods that occurred most frequently within these “ideal” baskets of food combinations. Foods that occurred more frequently within these baskets were given a higher Nutritional Fitness score. 

fill your basket with the right mix of food for health

What does that tell us? All it tells us is that pork fat occurred very frequently in many “ideal” baskets of foods. It doesn’t tell us what else is in the desired basket of foods that contain pork fat. It also doesn’t say anything about the particular nutrient in pork fat that is helping to meet our daily nutritional requirements. Or how much of it we need. For all we know, pork fat could be contributing to a healthy diet in terms of its saturated fat, in small amounts!

Some final thoughts

Everyone’s clambering to justify having some pork fat in their daily diet because of the Nutritional Fitness score it’s given. Are they simultaneously trying as hard to include the other foods in the top 10 list in their diet? Along with pork fat, we’ve got snapper, beet greens, swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flatfish, ocean perch, cherimoya (custard apple), and almonds up there. Don’t ask me about pork fat until you’ve actively tried to include these in your diet too! I’m guessing these other foods in the top 10 aren’t far from the ideal food basket that can help meet your daily nutritional needs.

Eating healthy is all about lowering risk of disease. Unfortunately, nothing can really guarantee that you’d be free of disease—there are just too many factors involved in the development of disease, such as lifestyle, genetics, or the environment around you. The scientists behind this study had good intentions—to discover ideal food combinations that meet your health needs. But the Nutritional Fitness score confused people into thinking specific foods are healthy in a standalone manner. That’s not the point. The point is that a healthy diet consists of a basket of different food types. This may include some “unhealthy” food, such as pork fat, as shown by this study. So go ahead, enjoy some indulgent food in moderation. But remember, the healthier the basket of foods you eat, the lower your risk of disease.

Have other nutrition questions for me? Post them in the comments below, or drop me an email!

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