Grocery store delis offer a variety of sliced lunch meats, many of which are surprisingly lean and nutritious. Lunch meats fall into three basic categories: whole cuts, sectioned and processed. Whole cuts are unaltered portions of cooked meat, sliced thinly for sandwiches and the like. Sectioned and processed meats both require more steps between the farmyard and the lunch plate. Assessing the healthfulness of a particular type of lunch meat requires looking at nutritional values, additives, preservatives and the overall processing mechanism.
Chopped, processed and formed meats all introduce additives to the food that impact the nutritional value of the finished product. Sausage, bologna and other heavily-processed meat products are typically manufactured with leftover parts, such as tongues and hearts. With few exceptions, whole cuts represent a healthier choice than any form of processed meat. Be prepared to pay more, however, as whole cuts of meat cost more than their processed counterparts.
Chicken, Turkey and Ham
Chicken and turkey are superior cuts of meat in terms of nutritional value. They are naturally high in protein and low in calories. Ham is slightly fattier, but still better than beef or processed meats. Check the sell-by dates on all lunch meats and be careful not to store them too long. Fresh-sliced meats will keep up to three days in the refrigerator, while packaged slices remain safe for three to five days.
Healthy lunch meats often advertise their leanness directly on the packaging. It's not uncommon to see low-fat cold cuts that are more than 95-percent fat-free. Eating healthy also means reading and understanding nutrition labels. An often-overlooked aspect of nutrition is serving size, which is the recommended portion for an average person. The healthiest lunch meat at the grocery store quickly becomes unhealthy when three or four servings are piled onto a single sandwich.
Processed meats -- bologna, hot dogs, salami and pepperoni, to name a few -- contain so many unknown elements that the wisest choice is to avoid them entirely. Lunch meats are also notoriously high in sodium, with some packages containing over 800 mg per serving. Manufacturers often add water or juices to their lunch meat. These added juices increase the weight of the packaging but add nothing in terms of nutrition. Look for low-sodium options with the fewest added ingredients.