Chances are that if you’re trying to cut back on costs and maintain a healthy budget, you’ve packed your lunch for work more than a few times. And while that’s normally a healthier option than hitting a restaurant (and it’s definitely better for your wallet), it doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk. Deli meats piled high on white bread have long been the villains of the lunch hour, and it’s not without reason. You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by packing a sandwich the night before and brown bagging it, but in reality it might not be as good for you as you think.
Before you pack that next sandwich, or grab a cold cut sub from your local deli, there are a few things you should know. As always, everything in moderation is probably OK — no one’s going to tell you to give up sandwiches cold turkey. But based on the nutrition content of most deli meats, that moderation is truly necessary.
First of all, most processed meats contain nitrites, which are used in the preserving process and normally give lunch meat its pinkish tint. There are some claims that nitrites can cause cancer and lung disease, but nitrites are only poisonous in huge quantities. Plus, nitrites are naturally occurring and what’s found in lunch meat is the same makeup as what’s found in spinach and other vegetables, Nathan Bryan, a professor of integrated biology and pharmacology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston told Live Science. Bacon is still pretty terrible for you, Bryan contends, and many processed meats aren’t actually healthy — they’re just not dangerous.
If you can’t live on peanut butter and jelly forever and are craving a hoagie piled with lunch meats, cheese, and veggies, there are some options that are better than others. Some lunch meats should be avoided whenever possible because of their high calorie and sodium levels. But others might make a decent choice — or at least a better one than a BLT. We’ve listed a few meats you should skip at the supermarket, and a few others that you can stock up on instead.
For all of these, we’re basing our information on the dietary guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Their most recent report was released in 2015, which recommended limiting sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day and keeping calories from saturated fat to a maximum of 10% of daily consumption. The report drove these recommendations further by highlighting the need to get protein from a variety of sources, opting for fewer processed meats and more eggs, fish, and other lean proteins. Let’s look at some smarter swaps.
No matter if it’s coming from pork, chicken, or beef products, bologna packs an unhealthy punch to your gut. One slice of beef-based bologna contains 7.9 grams of fat and 302 milligrams of sodium, about 13% of your entire daily intake. Stack two slices between bread and you’re already at a quarter of your suggested sodium consumption for the day — not counting the cheese, pickles, or chips you add to it or have on the side. If you’re sticking to the American Heart Association’s 1,500 milligrams of sodium limit, then you’re at 20% of your daily intake with just one slice. Bologna is also low in protein (it has just 2.9 grams), so you can’t even justify a decent meat source to outweigh the salt factor. Plus, Livestrong reports it’s got 87 calories per slice, one of the highest among your deli choices.
What to eat instead
Instead of opting for the pink meat of unknown origins, go for roast beef instead. It’s going to be difficult to find a lunch meat that’s not high in sodium, but roast beef does have less than bologna. It clocks in at 235 milligrams, or about 10% of daily intake, but the difference is you can have five slices of the beef instead of just one of bologna. It also has 3.8 grams of protein, slightly more than the bologna sandwich. Plus, if you’re hoping to see results at the gym, roast beef contains iron and some amounts of creatine which will help with muscle building.
Though some sites say that varieties like Black Forest Ham aren’t too bad for you (the smoked variety has less sugar than honey-cured versions), in most cases this lunch meat is a no-go for health-conscious sandwich makers. Ham isn’t quite as calorie-packed as bologna, but still has 46 calories according to Livestrong. It’s in the middle range in terms of fat (it has about 2.4 grams, or less depending on the brand).
If you’re eating a sandwich for the protein, ham’s not a bad choice because it contains about 9 grams per serving. But the real downside to this pork product is the sodium content — it’s sky high. There’s 660 milligrams per serving in smoked varieties, or more than 28% of daily intake if you’re doing the math. Bologna might seem a more obvious culprit, but certain kinds of ham are more than double the salt.
What to eat instead
Low-sodium meats can be a good choice if you’re craving a classic ham and Swiss, but even some low-sodium options still have more than 400 milligrams. If you’re looking to cut out as much salt as possible, go with low-sodium turkey. There can still be about 300 milligrams of sodium per serving, though Livestrong reports there are some varieties that have about 200 milligrams. Plus, it’s the lowest in calorie content and fat content.
This might not be a big deal if you’re hitting the gym regularly, but if your idea of exercise is changing TV channels with your thumb, you’ll have a greater chance of not ballooning with a turkey sandwich. If you’re eating turkey without the skin, it’s about the healthiest option out there, AOL Lifestyle reports. Plus, it’s got vitamins B3 and B6, so you’re adding some nutritional value instead of taking it away.
This meat that’s somewhere between ham and bacon might seem light and airy, especially when cooked, but it’s stocked with unhealthy attributes. It has many strikes against it, despite being paper thin. Many versions have more than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving (some have upwards of 700 or 900 milligrams). Prosciutto’s also got about 5 or 6% of your saturated fat limit per serving, so it’s not going to do you any favors. You’re not going to see it on a dieting list any time soon, so eat it sparingly, if at all.
What to eat instead
If you’ve got to have a flavorful sandwich, try various types of chicken breast instead. Rotisserie chicken is going to be high in sodium, but if eaten without the skin, it will contain about 42 grams of protein per serving — way more than the 8 grams in prosciutto. If you decide to be even healthier, a cooked chicken breast without the skin and sliced thinly for a sandwich is one of the best options you have. It’s very low in fat, extremely low in sodium (only about 4% of your daily limit), and still contains about 27 grams of protein. Dress it up with veggies and a low-fat dressing, and you’ve got a sandwich packed full with flavor.
The white chunks you see in mortadella are literally pork fat — there’s no escaping that it’s there. Mortadella has about 9 grams of protein per serving, so that’s not bad, but a serving also contains about 22% of your daily fat limit, and 25% of your saturated fat limit. Plus, as you’ve probably guessed by now, it’s pretty much a salt lick. Like many of the other deli meats on our “must avoid” list, it’s got about 560 milligrams of sodium, which is about 23% of the recommended daily intake.
What to eat instead
If you need a pork product, try slicing up leftover pork tenderloin instead. If you did the job right the first time, it’ll be seasoned from the grill or oven, and you won’t need to substitute flavor with salt. Three ounces of tenderloin is more than most serving sizes of lunch meats, but even so it’s low in fat and packs in 22 grams of protein. It’s also low in calories (there’s only about 122 calories for 3 ounces.) Because it’s a lean protein, you won’t have the same worries for your sandwich as you will with a slice of ham or visibly fattened mortadella.
By now, we’ve crossed off almost every meat ingredient in your favorite Italian sandwich. Sorry, but salami is the last (and perhaps most egregiously unhealthy) item to go. The cured sausage is typically rather low in protein compared to healthier alternatives (it only has about 5 grams), and is high in fat, saturated fat, and sodium. Salami tops the list in almost every category Livestrong covered in terms of unhealthy deli cuts, and doesn’t have any fans on the Eat This, Not That! deli meats list. There are many studies that are starting to link heart attacks and strokes with people who eat more processed meats, and salami is about as processed as you can get.
What to eat instead
If you know you need to kick the Italian sandwich habit, go for pastrami. Pastrami won’t win any health foods awards because of its relatively high sodium content, but it still has a good amount of protein and is much lower in fat than salami. If you want to go all the way healthier, grill or roast a portobello mushroom instead and go the Mediterranean route. Add some feta, roasted red peppers, and hummus and you might be willing to trade in deli meats for good. Mushrooms do have a decent amount of protein for technically being a fungus, and offer a slew of vitamins and nutrients that your deli counter can’t compete with.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS