Fans of filet mignon and carne asada tacos will be happy to learn that beef isn't the one protein you should limit in your diet. It's processed meat.
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Although cold cuts may be a convenient, inexpensive protein for lunch on the go, Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table, wants you to eat less highly processed meat, including sausage, hot dogs and deli meat.
Processed meat can come from turkey, chicken, beef, pork or a combination of several. And while some of these are better than others (more on that below), they won't beat traditional cuts of meat, Taub-Dix says.
"When it comes to meat, fish and poultry, nothing beats fresh or frozen cuts when it comes to nutritional value," she says.
Read on to learn why you should limit processed meat in your diet, how to find the best options (when you have no other options) and which protein alternatives to consider.
Why You Should Limit Deli Meat
1. It's High in Sodium
One of the biggest issues with deli meat lies in the sodium content per serving, Taub-Dix says. For instance, a serving of deli-sliced ham (about two thin slices) has about 430 milligrams of sodium, which is nearly 20 percent of your daily recommended value, according to the USDA.
Hot dogs are no better, with about 500 milligrams per sausage — that's just over 20 percent of the daily value, per the USDA.
Ideally, you want to keep your daily total sodium intake around 1,500 milligrams, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). So, combined with the bun and toppings, even just a hot dog can easily eat up (pardon the pun) half of your daily sodium goal.
2. It Has Harmful Preservatives
Processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites, which are added to processed meats in the curing process to preserve freshness, according to March 2020 study in Antioxidants.
Unlike other preservatives though, nitrates and nitrites can have potential cancer-causing effects, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, according to an October 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO.
Eating a serving of processed meat each day is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, the report states. The actual risk of developing this form of cancer purely from processed meat is small but it's worth considering the next time you stock up on deli ham and hot dogs.
3. It May Affect Brain Health
Eating more processed meats may negatively affect brain health in the long run, too. After studying 493,888 people, researchers found that eating more processed meats is associated with an increased risk of dementia, per a March 2021 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Eating just an extra half-serving (about 1 ounce) of processed meat per day is associated with a higher risk of dementia, the researchers found. And interestingly, eating an extra 1.7 grams of red meat was associated with decreased risk of developing the same condition.
Despite the findings, though, that's not exactly a green light to eat red meat each day.
4. It's High in Saturated Fat
Most processed meat is also pretty high in saturated fat, Taub-Dix says. Although a little fat isn't a big deal, eating too much saturated fat frequently isn't healthful, either.
Time and time again, researchers have tried to confirm a link between saturated fat and heart disease, but a clear cause and effect haven't yet been established, according to an April 2016 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
But swapping foods high in saturated fat with low-saturated-fat foods can lower blood cholesterol levels, per the AHA.
Eating a little processed meat every now and again probably won't be too harmful but chronic inflammation does play a role in the development of health conditions like obesity and heart disease.
How to Pick the Healthiest Deli Meat
If you can't swap out your processed meat for a more nutritious alternative, you can still try to find the best option of the bunch. Here are a few things to look for in the deli meat aisle.
1. Look at the Sodium Content
As mentioned earlier, sodium is one of the biggest problems with processed meat. But companies are starting to make reduced-sodium options, Taub-Dix says.
But, the language here is key: Just because it's reduced-sodium, doesn't make it low-sodium. Reducing the sodium content from 50 percent to 40 percent of your daily recommended value is still a lot of salt. Before you get swayed by the front of the package, take a look at the actual number of total milligrams on the back, Taub-Dix suggests.
2. Look for Preservatives
Alongside reducing sodium, many meat companies have started to remove harmful preservatives from their food, including nitrates and nitrites. But just because a package is labeled "natural" or "organic," that doesn't mean it's free of harmful ingredients.
"You have to read ingredient lists and check the nutrition facts panel carefully to see what you're really getting," Taub-Dix says.
3. Choose Leaner Options
As with standard cuts of meat, you'll want to look for leaner sources of processed meat, Taub-Dix suggests.
Reduced-sodium chicken or turkey slices are going to be lower in saturated fat and calories than salami or pork but they'll still offer plenty of filling protein.
4 Healthier Deli Meat Alternatives
If you love a sandwich at lunch, there are several processed meat alternatives that offer the same convenience without the unwanted health risks.
1. Canned Tuna or Sardines
Like deli meat, canned fish is inexpensive and high in protein but offers some additional health benefits.
A single can of tuna has about 20 grams of protein and has plenty of vitamin B12, which promotes healthy red blood cell formation and brain health, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Sardines are high in vitamin B12, too but also provide more than half your daily value of omega-3 fats per can. That's a form of unsaturated fat that's linked to lower inflammation and overall heart health, per Harvard Health Publishing.
2. Hard-Boiled Eggs
Eggs are another cost-effective food that offers way more nutrients than processed meat. And despite their cholesterol levels, most people can safely eat one or two eggs a day without concern.
While egg whites are high in protein, the yolks contain nutrients like choline, which help keep your brain functioning properly.
3. Nut Butter and Banana
When you're really after convenience, nothing is faster than just spreading some peanut butter on toast.
"It takes a mere few minutes to add some ham slices onto whole-grain bread for a sandwich but keep in mind that it takes just as little time to spread some nut butter on whole-grain bread," Taub-Dix says.
Pair your nut butter with some fresh fruit or a little bit of honey if you want a sweet touch.
4. Sliced Fresh Meat
If you can afford fresh meat and have time to prepare it for lunch, it's likely the best way to go, Taub-Dix says.
When it comes to convenience, you can prep your meat ahead of time and slice it as needed to use in sandwiches throughout the week.
- USDA: "Zemco Industries Incorporated - Deli Sliced Ham"
- USDA: "Clemens Food Group LLC - Classic Franks Made With Chicken And Pork"
- American Heart Association: "Shaking the Salt Habit to Lower High Blood Pressure"
- Antioxidants: "Nitrates/Nitrites in Food — Risk for Nitrosative Stress and Benefits"
- IARC: "IARC Monographs Evaluate Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Dementia: Cohort Study of 493,888 UK Biobank Participants"