The number one deli order is turkey, and there's nothing wrong with that--except that it gets old fast. "Fresh turkey is healthy, but the deli can be a one-stop shop of delicious, health-conscious options," says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. If you're wary of sodium, nitrates, and other dangers you've heard about, read on to learn the best choices for your body.
Not All Cuts Are Created Equal
Sliced whole roasted ham, turkey, and pot roast are known in deli-speak as "whole cuts." Far more common, though, are processed meats, which tend to be fattier and are made by adding preservatives (mostly salt) and sometimes fillers (anything from meat by-products to corn syrup) to ground meat. You can usually recognize processed meats by their unnaturally uniform shape--the better to fit on a bun, says Jan Novakofski, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional science in the meat science laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The best way to make sure you're getting a whole cut is to ask for it.
Food Safety First
If last August's recall of 380,000 pounds of deli meat has you worried about Listeria, relax. This invisible food-borne bacteria isn't common, and even if it is ingested, it's rarely deadly unless your immune system is already compromised (pregnant women are advised to steer clear of eating cold cuts, because Listeria can affect the developing fetus). If you're iffy about an order, try this trick from Mindy Brashears, Ph.D., director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University:
"When you get home, microwave the meat until it's steaming (a temperature of about 165°F) before putting it away in the refrigerator."
Nitrate Dangers Are No Baloney
A study in the journal Circulation found that a daily dose of 50 grams (about two slices) of processed red meats such as bologna and salami increases heart-disease risk by 42 percent and diabetes risk by 19 percent. Processed red meats typically contain nitrates, chemicals that are added for flavor and color (and not just to red meats--cured meats, including smoked turkey, may also have them). The study findings suggest that high amounts of nitrates (and sodium) may explain the higher risk of heart attacks and diabetes, says lead study author Renata Micha, Ph.D., R.D. Worse, researchers have discovered that when sodium and nitrates combine with the digestive juices in the stomach, they can turn into carcinogenic compounds and have been linked to several types of cancer.
But this doesn't mean you can never have another pastrami on rye--just make sure it's loaded with greens.
"Some studies show that the antioxidants in vegetables may prevent nitrates from converting into cancer-causing compounds," says Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C.
"Stuff your sandwich with lots of veggies, not just lettuce. Spinach, alfalfa, and tomatoes are all high in antioxidants and nutrients and low in calories."
More from Women's Health:
Spices 101: How to Navigate the Flavor Matrix Low-Sodium Doesn't Have to Mean Low Taste