Cold cuts used to be so simple. A super-convenient, on-the-go lunch option, these thin slices of meat are easily stuffed between bread for a protein-packed, satisfying meal.
But lately, they’ve gotten a bad rap — and not just for their often-high fat and calorie counts. Cold cuts are made from processed meat, which means they may contain potentially bad-for-you hormones, preservatives, dyes, and fillers, not to mention lots of sodium, says Stephanie Middleberg, RD, nutritionist at Middleberg Nutrition in New York City. While new, so-called “premium” cuts claiming to have no additives have a health halo around them, the label just adds to the confusion.
If it all makes you want to throw your hands up and order a pizza, don’t despair. “Cold cuts can be worked into a healthy lunch,” says Maggie Moon, RD, Los Angeles–based dietitian and owner of Everyday Healthy Eating. The trick is to stick with the healthier varieties and treat yourself to a cold-cut sammy once a week, maximum, says Middleberg.
Our cheat sheet lays out the ground rules:
1. Know that some cold cuts are better than others. You can already guess that turkey cold cuts are lower in calories, fat, and sodium than a pork-based kind like mortadella. But the healthiest options go beyond what’s on the nutrition label: How the meat was raised and treated matters at least as much. Look for organic, grass-fed options, or seek out meat made free of hormones and antibiotics, suggests Middleberg.
These aren’t easy to find, but you can still eat more healthfully by avoiding traditional cold cuts in favor of “whole cuts”: fresh-sliced poultry or meat such as grilled chicken breasts or whole roasted turkey, both of which have no artificial preservatives or additives, she adds. These are more widely available at deli counters.
2. Look out for nitrates. While some nitrates are naturally occurring, cold cuts are loaded with the artificial kind meant to add flavor and color to meat. “They may be harmful to blood vessels and lead to heart disease,” says Moon, “and they can have an impact on the way the body processes sugar, raising the risk of diabetes.” Since it’s unclear how much is too much or what their impact will be, limit your cold-cut consumption to just once per week so you don’t take in too many.
3. Remember that “premium” is more of a marketing term. A newer option at some deli counters is cold cuts labeled “premium,” or a similar term signifying high quality. Some meats bill themselves as gluten-free and without certain preservatives, or they say they are made without nitrates. Sounds appealing, but don’t ask the deli guy to slice some up just yet.
“’Premium’ is a marketing term, and that shouldn’t sway a shopper looking for a healthier cold cut,” says Moon. Gluten, for example, isn’t supposed to be in any deli meat to begin with, she explains, so labeling it as such is redundant.
4. Stick to four slices or fewer (about 4 to 5 ounces) per meal. Stacked on top of one another, the cold cuts should be equal to about the thickness of a smart phone, says Middleberg. Does your serving size look puny between bread slices or a roll? Fill out your sammy with other elements, such as fresh veggies or plant-based spreads.
5. Pair them with healthy sides and add-ins. Cold cuts and mayo on white bread aren’t just the makings of a nutritionally devoid sandwich — the combo is also just so boring. Health up your sandwiches by adding sliced avocado, roasted red pepper hummus, and whole-grain mustard. “Pairing the meats with raw veggies and fruit slices is a good idea because they inhibit carcinogen formation and are higher in potassium, and that can balance sodium levels,” says Middleberg. Skip cheese (or leave it at one slice, so you score flavor without extra fat and sodium), and go with whole-grain breads like rye, pumpernickel, or sourdough.