September 10, 2023

Is Deli Meat Bad for You? How To Choose a Healthier Lunch Meat

If you don’t have time to DIY, opt for lean cuts of low-sodium deli meat fresh from the counter

Person making sandwich with deli meat and a croissant with veggies.

What’s better than a sandwich at lunchtime? They’re easy to make and require minimal clean-up. You can make them simple and affordable, or you can build a towering, gourmet budget-buster. And either way, the end result will be delicious. What’s not to love?

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When it comes to sandwiches made with deli meats, the answer’s simple: Their nutritional profile.

We talked to registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, about lunch meats — why they’re unhealthy, how to make healthy choices at the grocery store and tasty alternatives to cold cuts.

Why is deli meat unhealthy?

Processed meats — like lunch meat, hot dogs and sausage — are generally considered unhealthy. They’re high in calories, low in protein and — in the case of mechanically separated meats — use undesirable parts of the animal as filler. Canned and packaged meats often contain nitrates or nitrites, which studies link to several cancers. Even minimally processed cold cuts include preservatives to prevent spoilage after being sliced.

“Fatty, processed luncheon meats like bologna, salami and pepperoni have large amounts of saturated fat and sodium, both of which have been linked to cancer, obesity and heart disease,” Zumpano shares. In fact, processed meats are actually considered carcinogenic.

How to choose a healthier lunch meat option

Cold cuts aren’t the ideal sandwich stuffer for health-conscious eaters. But lunch meat is convenient and many people (especially kids) prefer the taste of deli meat to other healthier options. So, what do you do if you can’t — or don’t want to — cut cold cuts out of your diet completely?

Zumpano offers these tips for finding healthier lunch meat options.

Make your own lunch meat

If you have the time, energy and inclination, the best possible option is DIYing your sandwich meats.

“You can buy a roast, ham or chicken breast and cook it yourself, then slice it off into lunch meat size portions,” Zumpano suggests. “This helps to ensure you know what’s in the meat you’re eating.”

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While it’s definitely the healthiest option, making your own cold cuts isn’t always going to be practical, much less possible. If you have to venture over to the deli counter at your local grocery store, Zumpano recommends keeping the following tips in mind.

Fresh is best

Whether you’re getting a highly processed deli meat like liverwurst or a nice lean cut of turkey, Zumpano advises to always choose fresh deli meat over prepackaged lunch meat. “Deli meat that is sliced fresh off the bone or slab contains may contain natural nitrates and can be less processed,” she explains.

If you want to get a fuller picture of the difference between the stuff you get in the aisle vs. the stuff you get at the counter, compare the ingredient lists on a prepackaged meat product and its deli-sliced equivalent. You’ll quickly notice that there’s a lot more ingredients in the former than the latter, including preservatives, artificial color and “natural flavors.” Also, ask the deli counter which products contain natural nitrates and have the least preservatives/additives.

Stick with lean cuts of meat

It’s true that whether you’re getting it fresh from the farm or (not-so) fresh out of a can or package: Not all meat is created equal.

If you’re looking for the healthiest lunch meat option, choose the leanest cuts of deli meat possible, such as turkey, chicken breast, lean ham or roast beef. “These types of deli meat have the least amount of fat and provide a better nutrient value compared to others,” Zumpano says.

Highly processed lunch meats like salami, pastrami and bologna tend to be chock full of saturated fat and sodium. That doesn’t mean you can never eat them, but it’s best to save them for … whatever occasions call for a festive sandwich.

Select low-sodium cold cuts

Fresh deli meat will always contain sodium, Zumpano explains, because it’s used for preservation. That means it’s extra important to look for lunchmeats that explicitly say they’re low-sodium to help cut down on the salt.

Try some alternative sandwich proteins

You don’t have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to occasionally venture away from meat. Switch up your routine a bit by making sandwiches using these proteins:

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Choose packaged cold cuts carefully

As great as it would be to always make the best possible choices when it comes to food, we live in reality. Whether your budget is tight, your access to grocery stores is limited or your time stretched to the point of snapping, sometimes, the deli counter may not be the best option or you.

If your only option is a canned or prepackaged lunch meat, Zumpano recommends read the food label carefully. Look specifically at the ingredients and avoid meats that lists lots of additives like dyes or preservatives.

“When possible, buy nitrate-free and low-sodium options — and make sure you review the serving size” she says.

For better or ’wurst’

As the name suggests, lunch meats are a lunchtime staple. But they’re not the healthiest option. Canned and prepackaged cold cuts are loaded with saturated fat, sodium and nitrates — all while being short on protein. The sliced-to-order meat you get at the deli counter can be a healthier option, but still contains more sodium than anything you’d make yourself.

If making your own cold cuts isn’t in the cards for you, stick with fresh-cut, low-sodium, lean cuts of meat. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try alternative proteins like eggs, tofu or beans.

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