Healthy Deli

Decoding the Deli Counter

Cold cuts have gotten a bad rap, but if you use this counter intelligence, you can pick up a tasty and nutritious meal on the fly.


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, 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.”

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; including smoked turkey. 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.


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.

 “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.”


 Low-Sodium Doesn’t Have to Mean Low Taste

Surprise—some sandwiches can pack 150 percent of your RDA of sodium. 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. 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. And although no regular cheese can claim to be low-fat, mozzarella is the best one for your body, 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.


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.