Women's Health: Decoding the Deli

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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."

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Surprise--some sandwiches can pack 150 percent of your RDA of sodium (usually those that are stuffed with processed red meats such as salami and pepperoni; they have an average of four times the sodium of whole cuts). Low-sodium meats and cheeses slash salt by anywhere from 30 to 85 percent. When going low-sodium, pick a meat or cheese you don't normally eat, says Marjorie Nolan, a registered dietitian in New York. That way, your taste buds won't be expecting the same flavor. And choose a variety with herbs or spices, like chipotle chicken or peppered roast beef, so you don't miss the salt.

Choose Your Cheese Wisely

Swiss has 83 percent less sodium than American cheese, and more calcium--about 25 percent of the recommended daily value, says Gans. And although no regular cheese can claim to be low-fat, mozzarella is the best one for your bod, with about six grams of fat per ounce. Ask for your order to be sliced thin--not only will you save calories, but thin cheese slices are a better choice for hot sandwiches.

"Their lower density helps them melt better," says Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer for Whole Foods Market.

Avoid Shiny Sides

When the veggies in deli salads are slick and glistening, it's usually a good sign that they've been bathed in high-calorie oil. Instead, go for a cucumber salad or mayo-free coleslaw, says Gans. And don't eat straight from the deli dish: "A container is not necessarily a serving size," she says. "It can be tightly packed, and what looks like a quarter pound may actually be half a pound."

Build a Slimmer Sandwich

Making your own sammie saves you at least 85 calories compared with deli-made subs--and that's just between the bread. "Deli sandwiches often have enough meat for two lunches," says Keri Gans, R.D. Here are three more ways to save.

Flavor Up

Honey-and maple-spiked meats have about 15 more calories per serving, so pair them with low-calorie condiments.

Don't Overdo It

Three slices of meat or one slice of cheese is one serving.

Be a Softie

Sub a slice of American with an ounce of goat cheese or feta and you'll save 17 calories and one gram of fat.

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More from Women's Health:

6 Tricks to cut your grocery bill

Your food processors hidden talents

5 Food habits to kick

Spices 101: How to Navigate the Flavor Matrix