The Eight Worst Lunches and What to Eat Instead

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two men eating lunch
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What you choose to eat for lunch can make or break your energy level for the rest of the afternoon. Pick one of the worst and you may find yourself fighting the urge to take a nap under your desk. Whether you hit the local deli or BYO to the office, here are eight of the worst choices you could make for lunch and what you should eat instead. Remember: Eating a healthy, balanced lunch can set you up to power through the rest of your day like a champ.

1. Pizza

Girl is placing tomato sauce on fresh pizza
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Pizza always sounds like a good idea — until about an hour or two after you eat it and your energy levels have taken a nosedive. This happens because the pizza crust is made mostly of refined white flour, which spikes blood sugar levels and leaves you in an energy slump after those blood sugars crash. White flour also lacks fiber, which helps slow down blood sugar spikes and keeps you regular.

Instead: Make the pizza crust from cauliflower, broccoli or zucchini to lower the carbs, increase fiber and decrease overall caloric intake. There are also frozen cauliflower pizza crusts on the market now that you can buy and add your own toppings. If you still want your pizza, stick to one slice (36 grams of carbs) and add a green salad or a vegetable and bean soup to add fiber and nutrients to your meal.

Read more: 20 of the Best On-the-Go Lunches

2. Takeout Chinese Food

eating lo mein out of chinese take out box
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Authentic Chinese cuisine has many healthy options to choose from. However, American-Chinese cuisine from your local takeout joint tends to be filled with unhealthy fats, salt and sugar. Deep-fried egg rolls and fried meat dishes are not only going to be very high in calories, but they are also high in omega-6 fatty acids, inflammatory fats that come from the vegetable oils used in the cooking and frying process. Restaurants are likely to cook with corn and soybean oils, which increase inflammation in our bodies and can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and Alzheimer’s.

Instead: Make a vegetable stir fry with fresh vegetables and clean protein. It’s an easy dish you can prepare once and eat a few times during the week. Use low-sodium soy sauce to cut back on salt. If you do order out, order a vegetable-based meal and request brown rice instead of white.

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3. Burritos

Chicken burrito bowl
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Some restaurants make burritos so big that they weigh as much as a small baby and can easily cost you more than 1,000 calories and a day’s worth of sodium. The problem isn’t necessarily what’s inside the burrito, it’s what is in the wrap that surrounds it. An average tortilla wrap contains about 580 milligrams of sodium and 200 calories. The American Heart Association recommends an ideal sodium intake of no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, and a wrap can suck up more than a third of your daily intake.

Instead: Many restaurants offer burrito bowls as healthier, lower-carb options. It tosses the wrap altogether and leaves you with the good stuff: rice, beans, guacamole, veggies and clean protein. Skip the sour cream to save about 100 calories, and use hot sauce to give it a kick. Depending on the size of the bowl, you can ask for a to-go container to take some home for dinner. Or make your own ultimate healthy burrito.

Read more: 12 Easy On-the-Go Lunch Ideas

4. Burger and Fries

Burger and French fries
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The typical American burger-and-fries meal is a worldwide favorite fast-food choice, but there is nothing nutritious about it. Fast-food restaurants typically use low-quality meat from cows treated with growth hormones and antibiotics. Hamburger buns are made from refined white flour and usually contain sugar and chemicals to make the dough pliable. And as delicious as they are, it should be no surprise that french fries are a splurge and add tons of unhealthy fats and extra calories to your meal.

Instead: Try to find a restaurant that offers grass-fed beef burgers for a healthier ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. To make it lower in carbs, swap the bun for a lettuce wrap. Feeling daring? Try a bison burger for more omega-3s, or go meat-free with a quinoa, bean-based or vegetable patty, which will be full of fiber and nutrients. And swap the fries for a salad.

5. Deli Meat Sandwiches

Three sumbmarine sandwiches
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Whether you call it a subway sandwich, hero, hoagie or grinder, deli-meat sandwiches will give you a decent amount of protein (three ounces of meat will deliver about 20 grams of protein). But not all protein is created equal. Deli meats are treated with preservatives and chemicals and usually come from low-quality, factory-farmed animals. But that’s not all. Processed meats have been classified as carcinogenic foods by the World Health Organization.

Instead: We have enough products in our environment that are carcinogenic. So let’s skip eating them too! Choose roasted turkey breast, grilled chicken breast or eggs as the protein in your deli sandwich. Add avocado instead of mayonnaise for healthier omega-3 fats. Ask for whole-grain bread, or skip the bread altogether and make it a salad.

Read more: 14 Must-Know Tips for Packing Better Brown-Bag Lunches

6. Chicken Caesar Salad

Chicken Caesar salad on rustic background with copyspace
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Salads often sound like healthy options, but buyer beware. Commercially made dressings like Caesar, Ranch or Thousand Island contain low-quality vegetable oils (high in omega-6 fatty acids) as well as sugar and can become huge calorie bombs.

Instead: Make your own dressings from extra-virgin olive oil. You can add fresh lemon, balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar, sea salt and pepper. If you prefer creamier dressings, experiment with avocado, tahini or mustard to make blended homemade dressings healthier.

7. Peanut Butter and Jelly

peanut butter and jelly
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Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are one of the easiest go-tos, but the nutritional content of this American staple can vary widely depending on the quality of the ingredients. The refined flour and often-added sugar in the bread, plus added sugars in the peanut butter and jelly, can add up to around 26 grams. According to the American Heart Association, this amount exceeds the six teaspoons (25 grams) of sugar recommended as a daily limit for women (nine teaspoons, or 37.5 grams for men).

Upgrade your ingredients: Use freshly baked whole-grain or sprouted-grain bread. Once the grains have been sprouted, they release an enzyme that helps break down the protein and carbs, making it easier to digest and lower on the glycemic index. Choose natural peanut butters, and instead of jam, layer on real fruit like bananas, apples or berries.

Read more: 10 Healthy Lunches for When You Just Can't Handle Another Salad

8. Leftover Pasta

Tasty Beautiful Pasta Closeup with Spinach, Cheese, Olives, Basil and Nuts.
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A bowl of pasta is delicious, but it also contains about 40 grams of carbohydrates per cup. And, let’s face it, most of us can easily eat more than just one cup. Eating too many carbohydrates at one meal can lead to increased insulin levels, an afternoon energy slump and weight gain over time. Commercially bought pasta sauces can also be an unnecessary source of added sugar.

Instead: Prep your lunch with less pasta and more vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables for cancer-fighting properties and a fiber boost. Add carrots, bell peppers and leafy greens for antioxidants. Add peas, beans or a boiled or poached egg for a dose of protein. You can also try bean or quinoa pasta as your base, which will slightly lower carbohydrate intake and increase protein.

What Do YOU Think?

People relaxing during lunch break
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What’s your go-to lunch choice? Would you consider upgrading your desk lunch to something healthier? Tell us your favorite weekday lunch choices in the comments!

How to Build the Ultimate Healthy Burrito

credit: @samanthavaughan/Twenty20 @samanthavaughan/Twenty20
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What you choose to eat for lunch can make or break your energy level for the rest of the afternoon. Pick one of the worst and you may find yourself fighting the urge to take a nap under your desk. Whether you hit the local deli or BYO to the office, here are eight of the worst choices you could make for lunch and what you should eat instead. Remember: Eating a healthy, balanced lunch can set you up to power through the rest of your day like a champ.


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