Deli meat has been getting a bad rap lately—because it's processed, it's not the healthiest choice, and there are even concerns that it elevates cancer risk if it's eaten regularly. But how harmful is a ham sandwich? We asked Marie Scioscia, registered dietitian and author of Eat Right Dance Right, for the scoop on sandwiches.
"Deli meats provide a quick source of protein," says Scioscia. Not only is protein important for muscle repair, but, she adds, it's necessary for hormone production, immune system functioning and red and white blood cell production.
When meats are processed into deli meats, preservatives, such as sodium nitrite or nitrate, are generally added. "It is these preservatives that research shows can turn into cancer-causing compounds in the body," she says. "For that reason, having deli meats every day is probably not a good idea." Scioscia also notes that lunch meats' high sodium content can be troublesome: "Sodium causes calcium excretion, so for bone health, it's not a dancer- friendly choice."
Scioscia's Tips for Healthier Sandwiches:
1. Make your own. Try Italian canned tuna or canned salmon (meaning the fish is packed in olive oil). Or, buy a rotisserie chicken and slice some up. Use whole-grain bread, and add sliced avocado for a boost of healthy fat.
2. If you're buying a sandwich at a deli, ask if they have fresh, sliced meat, like turkey, chicken or roast beef. If that's not available, ask for a brand of deli meat with fewer nitrates and less sodium.
3. Variety always wins. Aim for a varied diet—rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains—so you don't overload your system with processed foods.
4. The bottom line: The occasional deli sandwich won't make or break your overall nutrition. "Don't live in a food prison," says Scioscia. "All foods can fit!"