Is a sandwich healthy?

This seemingly healthy meal choice could be throwing off your diet

It’s important to pay attention to what’s actually going onto your sandwich. Scott Barbour/ Getty Sandwiches can make for a pretty quick and easy meal. They may even seem healthy. But, according to a study done by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sandwiches might not be that healthy a choice after all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most popular sandwiches in America are burgers and sandwiches made up of cold cuts and poultry. Generally, these types of sandwiches aren’t really very healthy because they are high in calories, sodium, fat, and sugar.

So, for this study, the researchers wanted to determine just how much unhealthier it would be to eat a sandwich on a daily basis. So, they compared the caloric intake of individuals over two consecutive days: on the first day, the participants ate a sandwich, on the next, they could choose their own meals. The researchers then compared the caloric differences between when participants ate a sandwich and when they did not.

Their results were not too surprising: Eating a sandwich caused the participants to consume, on average, about 100 more calories than when they ate something else. In addition, on days when they ate a sandwich, they tended to eat less fruits and vegetables (both staples of a healthy diet) while at the same time consuming more sodium, fat, saturated fats, and sugar.

Ruopeng An, one of the co-authors of the study, thinks that the problem arises from the fact that people don’t actually know how many calories are in their sandwiches.

For example, another study from 2013 found that Subway customers thought their sandwiches contained around 500 calories less than what they actually did.

“Sandwich consumers are advised to prudently evaluate the calorie and nutrient content of sandwiches in order to make informed and more healthful dietary choices,” said An.

So do you have to give up sandwiches entirely if you want to be healthy? Of course not! Here are some tips to be able to have your sandwich and eat it too on a more healthy basis:

  • Try choosing fresh slices of meat instead of preserved cold cuts. This will cut down on the amount of fats and sodium in your meal.
  • Try not to add too much cheese, dressings or spreads to your sandwich
  • Bump up the amount of fruits or vegetables in the sandwich. This will cut back on the calories and add more fiber and nutrients to your sandwich and your diet.
  • Try to avoid white breads, as these break down into simple sugars when they are digested. Consider making your sandwich on whole wheat bread next time.

Are Sandwiches Healthy? A New Study Says “No.”

If you can’t live without your daily BLT or consider yourself a major tuna melt lover, we have some bad news. Your daily lunchtime obsession might be the very thing preventing you from reaching your weight loss goal. So says an extensive Journal of Public Health study, at least. A little freaked out? Take a few breaths and continue reading—because it’s not all bad news in sandwich-ville.

First, here’s what you need to know: The study, which examined survey data from 25,075 American adults over a nine-year period, found that people consume an additional 100 calories on the days they gobble down a sandwich compared to the days they don’t indulge. They also take in 7 additional grams of fat and nearly 300 extra milligrams of sodium (a nutrient that’s been connected to weight gain). How’s that even possible? According to the report, not only do sandwiches account for 25 percent of sandwich lovers’ daily calories, their hoagies also serve up to a third of their daily recommended fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium intake. Those numbers may not sound too bad but remember: that’s just one day’s damage. If you ate a sandwich every single day for a year, you’d consume 36,400 additional calories per year—which adds up to 10.4 pounds of fat!

We’re not saying ban sandwiches from your life forever, because A) they’re awesome and delicious B) there are healthier alternatives to the traditional processed deli meat-white bread combo. For example, Ezekiel 4:9 Low Sodium Sprouted Grain bread has just 80 calories per slice and absolutely no salt! Not to mention, it’s also filled with fiber and healthy ancient grains. To cut the salt further, replace your go-to deli meat with grilled organic chicken. And to add additional nutrients to the equation, we suggest layering your creation with a handful of spinach and other yummy veggies like cucumber, tomato, and onion. For a hit of flavor, spread a tablespoon of hummus or some Dijon mustard onto your bread and kick that fatty mayo to the curb. By making these simple swaps, you’ll cut down on the amount of sodium and fat on your plate and fuel your body with the healthful nutrients it craves—all while eating your fave lunchtime staple. That’s what we like to call a win-win!

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Lee’s eating habits are not just a function of her allergies, though. She likes that eating the same thing makes grocery shopping simpler, brings consistency to her sometimes chaotic schedule, and made it less likely she’d spend the money at the “$12-salad place” near her previous office. Besides, she really likes the things she brings. “I’m not eating, like, a PB&J every day,” she says. “I try to make it taste good and interesting.” (I did not tell Vern Loomis what Lee apparently thinks of his lunch.)

Chloe Cota, a computer engineer in New York City, does not have as strict a lunchtime regimen as others described in this story, but she has noticed that when her company brings in catered lunch, she always picks a salad when it’s available. She came to think of this default selection as reducing her “cognitive overhead”—a way of not expending mental energy on something that wasn’t a high priority for her.

“Lunch variety doesn’t really matter to me,” she says. “I would be perfectly happy to eat the same Caesar salad or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day.” Similarly, she has devised a standard “work uniform” (one of her many pairs of black leggings, plus a T-shirt), which helps streamline her morning routine. She says she took inspiration from tech moguls such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who essentially automated their own daily attire decisions in the name of reducing cognitive overhead.

The salad station, Cota says, is also an opportunity for her to practice “mindful eating,” something she started doing as part of her recovery from an eating disorder she developed in high school. She says it helps to know that the foods available to her in that moment are ones she knows she likes, which “short-circuits that whole negative space in my brain where I might get back into those disordered behaviors.”

For some people, the repetition in their daily food preparation is in the meals they make for other people. Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez, a 26-year-old writer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, cooks the same meal—“a meat and rice,” sometimes with some vegetables—for her 3-year-old son most nights of the week. “It made it simple in a way that there was less stress about what to give him,” she says. He usually gets a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch, and doesn’t seem to mind the lack of variety.

Of course, most people around the world who eat the same thing every day aren’t doing so voluntarily. “I would say most people most of the time have little choice in their staple,” says Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. “If they live in a rice culture, they will have rice for every meal; ditto potatoes.” The cooking fat used—say, butter or ghee—generally remains the same as well.

The variety, Freedman says, usually comes from “relishes,” the food-anthropology term for flavor-adding ingredients such as spices, vegetables, and modest amounts of meat (like bacon). “This staple + fat + relish combination is what dominated eating in traditional peasant cultures,” he wrote in an email.

Healthy Sandwich Do’s and Don’ts

When it comes to lunch, few choices can beat a sandwich for simplicity. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s simple to eat whether you’re in your office, working on a construction site, or on the go. Unfortunately, one simple sandwich can easily pack hundreds of calories. Adding cheese, mayo, and other fatty toppings can take an otherwise healthy sandwich and turn it into a diet disaster.

Luckily, you don’t have to forgo this lunchbox staple if you follow a few simple sandwich ideas to make your meal both healthy and delicious. Here, easy fixes to increase your sandwich’s nutritional value and keep calories under wrap.

5 Do’s for a Healthy Sandwich

Rethink what goes between the bread with these healthy sandwich ideas:

  1. Load it with fruits or vegetables. When it comes to sandwich recipes, vegetables are usually seen as secondary. However, Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, RD, founder of Hispanic Food Communications, says that when it comes to fresh, delicious, and healthy sandwich ideas, vegetables can be the star. “Cucumber slices, tomato slices, zucchini slices, water chestnuts, or your other favorite vegetables are all great,” she says. “Fruits add a wonderful tasty crunch to sandwiches. Try thin-sliced cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, pears, and apples with your sandwiches.” Just be wary of some restaurant veggie sandwiches — the vegetables might be there, but many restaurant versions are loaded with cheese and high-calorie condiments.
  2. Lay down a lighter spread. Many a healthy sandwich is undone by high-calorie spreads like full-fat mayonnaise. Instead, says Kathy Taylor, RD, the director of nutrition at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, find other healthy ways to add flavor without a lot of fat. “Choose low-fat condiments like low-fat mayo or salad dressing, mustard, hummus, or even a slice or two of avocado to add moisture to your sandwich and still keep it in a good calorie range,” she says.
  3. Go with lean protein. Meat can be part of a healthy sandwich, says Taylor. The secret is choosing lean, healthy sources of protein that don’t burden your sandwich with excess fat and calories. “Choose healthy proteins like sliced chicken, fish, or turkey, or even canned tuna or salmon,” she suggests.
  4. Choose whole wheat bread. One of the best ways to make your sandwich recipe both filling and nutritious is by choosing the right bread, explains Melendez-Klinger. “Mix up your sandwich selection by trying breads higher in fiber, such as whole wheat,” she says. “These choices will help you feel fuller longer.”
  5. Eat a smaller sandwich. Finally, one of the simplest sandwich ideas is also one of the easiest — just avoid the monster sandwiches that are available at many restaurants in favor of a smaller portion, says Taylor. “Choosing a foot long adds double the calories,” she says. So if you’re eating a sub sandwich out, keep portion sizes in mind and steer clear of too many toppings because many restaurants slap on a lot more condiments and cheese than you would at home, and the calories add up.

5 Don’ts for a Healthy Sandwich

For a truly healthy sandwich, what you leave out is just as important as what you include:

  1. Don’t load up on cold cuts. Cold cuts are certainly the easiest sandwich filling to use, but Melendez-Klinger says you need to be careful, as many traditional pre-packaged “luncheon meats” are loaded with fat, sodium, and preservatives. Choose fresh slices of cooked chicken, turkey, or seafood for a leaner alternative.
  2. Don’t layer on the cheese. Cheese is another easy way to take an otherwise healthy sandwich and make it unhealthy. Melendez-Klinger recommends choosing a low-fat cheese or just avoiding cheese entirely in favor of a flavorful sandwich spread, such as hummus, or plenty of delicious fruits and vegetables. If you can’t resist cheese, choose a lower-fat variety such as Swiss, and avoid high-fat cheeses like cheddar.
  3. Don’t put it on white bread. White bread is one of the worst bases you can use for any sandwich, explains Taylor. “Choosing white bread made with preservatives and processed flours provides very little nutrition,” she says. Healthier alternatives include whole wheat bread, other whole grain breads, and healthy wraps made of whole grains. Sometimes, you can even skip the bread altogether and wrap your sandwich fillings in lettuce.
  4. Don’t overdo it on grilled sandwiches. They may be delicious, but Melendez-Klinger says these grilled sandwiches are secret diet busters. “Grilled or panini sandwiches are really popular, but are usually prepared with lots of oils or butter to give them a crusty texture,” she says. Instead, just have the bread toasted if you want the flavor of a hot sandwich in a healthier package.
  5. Don’t eat pre-packaged sandwiches. We’re often in a hurry when it comes to getting a sandwich for lunch, but Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner, RD, the founders of Real Food Moms and authors of Simple Food for Busy Families, say that it’s best to steer clear of pre-packaged sandwiches in almost all shapes and forms. “Most are not ultra-fresh, made on some form of white bread, and made with the cheapest meats, cheeses, and spreads,” they say. Plus, many pre-packaged foods have added presevatives and sodium. Instead, take a few minutes in the morning to make yourself a healthy sandwich to eat that day for lunch.

Remember, when you make them yourself with whole grain bread or wraps and avoid the hidden diet busters, your sandwiches will truly be healthy choices.

If you want something done right, do it yourself. That includes packing lunch, and we all could use a few pointers.

A recent JAMA Pediatrics study found the typical elementary and middle school student’s home-prepared lunch is seriously lacking in vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and overflowing with sugar and sodium.

Instead of packing sandwiches laden with sodium and fatty add-ins for the little ones and yourselves, accept some help. Use these tips from registered dietitians to create a healthier lunch full of all the best nutrients.

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1. Add some avocados

“Avocados are a super addition to any sandwich that will help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K,” noted Nicole Cormier, a registered dietitian. You’ll be ensuring you pack more nutrients and less saturated fat into your favorite mid-day meal.

2. Pile on the pickles

Add some crunch and an equally flavorful splash of brine by adding some pickles to the lineup. They’re low-cal, filled with fiber and covered in vinegar — which is all good news for your waistline.

In fact, just one large pickle has 15 calories and 2 grams of belly-filling fiber, so eating three or four can actually leave you feeling satiated for less than 100 calories! Plus, studies have found that acidic foods help increase the rate at which the body burns off carbs — and the faster you burn off carbs, the sooner your body starts to burn fat.

3. Make the switch to whole-grain bread

Sometimes, it’s actually good to be unrefined: Whole grains contain more nutrients and fiber and take longer to be broken down by the body, so they keep you feeling fuller longer. White, refined starches are digested much more quickly and turn straight to sugar, making your blood sugar spike and crash. The result: You reach for the snack drawer every day at 3 p.m. like clockwork.

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“Choose a sprouted grain bread,” said Cormier. “Or a spelt sourdough bread that is easy to digest and great for individuals with IBS.”

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4. Skip the bread altogether

Look beyond the bread aisle next time you’re stocking up on sandwich supplies. Big, crunchy pieces of lettuce used in place of slices of bread are perfect for packing extra produce into your day without feeling like you live at the salad bar. And this fresh twist on your usual sandwich base is perfect for the hot summer months.

Once you try that, Cormier suggested looking for even more inventive ways to wrap up your favorite fillings in a vitamin-packed leafy green. “If you’d like to try a totally out-of-the-box favorite of mine,” she said, “take a collard green leaf, fill it with 1/2 cup of brown rice, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/2 cup of roasted vegetables and 1/4 of an avocado, sliced. You’ll have a new style burrito without the tortilla.” Brilliant!

Nathan Congleton / TODAY

Crunchy Spiced Chicken Lettuce Wrap with Green Pea Guacamole

Clodagh McKenna

5. Pile on the veggies

Grilled or roasted mushrooms make a great alternative to meat for a tasty vegetarian sandwich. And even if you’re including a little meat, you can still load your sandwich up with fresh vegetables to give it a big nutritional boost.

“Building a healthier sandwich can be a great opportunity to add color, nutrients and flavor when you choose a variety of different seasonal vegetables or even fruit to add to a protein and grain,” said Cormier. Instead of counting veggies, simply try incorporating as many colors as possible. “The more colors you can add to your sandwich, the more phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals you’ll be delivering to your body,” she explained.

6. Be wary of deli meats

Sausage and bologna aren’t the only meats with strange ingredients. Highly processed meat products, like many found in the average supermarket deli case, are full of preservatives and chemicals like nitrates and added sodium.

In fact, a 2014 study found that Americans who consumed this popular lunchtime staple consumed not only more sodium, but also more daily calories overall. Instead of relying on your less-than-reputable regular buys, go for fresh meats you cook at home or organic, preservative-free lunch meats.

7. Meet some meat-free proteins

There are plenty of other meatless sources of protein out there that make a great base for a hearty sandwich. “Think plant proteins, such as beans, hummus or nut butters,” said Cormier. “A favorite sandwich of mine is a twist on the typical peanut butter and jelly: Instead of the classic ingredients, I use almond butter and sliced strawberries on a sprouted grain tortilla,” she noted. Using fresh strawberries instead of jelly or jam cuts back on the amount of processed sugar in this classic combo, and almond butter is packed with even more iron and vitamin E than peanut butter.

8. Think beyond basic meat and cheese

Sandwiches don’t have to consist of just turkey, cheese and lettuce. Add a more exotic spread (like baba ganoush, homemade pesto or tahini) for low-sodium flavor, or even fresh fruit (like sliced apples, pears and berries) for a familiar sweetness without the refined sugar.

9. Add flavor with low-calorie extras

Opt for freshly squeezed lemon juice, fragrant herbs or any number of spices to add flavor and nutrients to your sandwich with minimal calories.

Acidic citrus fruits like lemon and lime also have an added benefit: like salt, acid acts as a flavor booster for every other ingredient it comes into contact with, so fresh citrus can help you cut back on sodium, too! Skip the salt in spreads and just add a quick squeeze from a lemon wedge, instead. While you’re at it, add a squirt of lemon to your water glass, too. It’s just one of our quick and easy ways to boost metabolism.

For more stories like this, check out Eat This, Not That!

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SANDWICH RANKINGS, FROM HEALTHIEST TO UNHEALTHY

By: Dr. David Friedman

A sandwich is a favorite meal for many, but which one is the healthiest? Are there some we shouldn’t be eating? Today, I’m going to rank the most popular sandwiches — from healthy to the most unhealthy. But first, let’s talk about bread, the foundation of every sandwich. White flour, which is used to make white bread — is the absolute worst, since the bleaching process that it undergoes strips away all of the nutrients. Consuming white bread can cause a spike in blood sugar, weight gain, and inflammation. Whole-grain bread, on the other hand, is a much better choice. It’s loaded with fiber, healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals and a variety of phytochemicals that help to improve digestion, reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol. Whole-grain bread also contains lactic acid, which promotes the growth of ‘good bacteria’ in the intestines. Rye bread is another healthy option. Research published in the Nutrition Journal shows that rye bread can help decrease hunger for up to eight hours. Another study published in PLOS Medicine found that whole-grain rye toast lessens blood sugar surges. If you are gluten sensitive, eat sourdough. It utilizes natural fermentation, which breaks down the gluten.

Alright, now it’s time to rank what goes between those slices of bread, from healthiest to unhealthy:


Turkey Sandwich

Turkey Sandwich comes in at #1 for the most healthy. Turkey contains less fat than most other meats and is rich in protein and potassium, needed for strong muscles. It gives us needed zinc, which supports a healthy immune system and niacin, which helps lower cholesterol. Turkey also contains tryptophan, which helps support healthy levels of serotonin, our ‘good mood’ chemical. It’s best to go with pasture-raised turkey if possible because it provides more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than factory-farmed turkey.

Adding cheese to your lean turkey sandwich, however, can add a lot of fat and calories. For example, two slices of cheddar contain a whopping 226 calories and 18 grams of fat — not to mention, most cheese is loaded with sodium. To cut down on calories and fat, go with low-fat mozzarella, Swiss cheese or goat cheese. I prefer goat cheese on my turkey sandwiches. Its creamy flavor goes great with turkey and only adds 103 calories per ounce. Add some healthy lettuce, tomatoes and onions, and you have a grand slam healthy sandwich.

Egg Salad Sandwich

My number two pick for the healthiest sandwich is egg salad. For decades we’ve been told that eggs contribute to high cholesterol and heart disease. The truth is, eggs are a nutritional super food! Eggs contain lecithin which actually helps lower cholesterol levels and protects against heart disease. In my book Food Sanity, I go into the history on why eggs have gotten such a bad reputation. Eggs are a wonderful source of protein and healthy fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). One egg contains 6 grams of high-quality protein, as well as all nine essential amino acids, and is one of the few foods that contain naturally occurring vitamin D. When it comes to egg salad, hold the mayo! Just two tablespoons pack on 188 calories and 20 grams of fat. To make your egg salad healthier, opt for nonfat yogurt or avocado.

Tuna Salad

Tuna is a rich source of vitamins B-12, B-6 and niacin. Niacin metabolizes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into energy. Vitamins B-6 and B-12 remove the amino acid homocysteine from the bloodstream, which is beneficial because high levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Tuna gives us 80% of our daily recommended amount of selenium, which research shows may help prevent cancer. It’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is important for heart health and brain function. Three ounces of canned tuna only contains 108 calories. Add some chopped celery to your tuna salad for added fiber. It also helps support a healthy immune system.

Unfortunately, the fear of mercury is doing to tuna what the fear of cholesterol once did to eggs. It’s way over exaggerated and I debunk the “mercury fish farce” in my book Food Sanity. However, if developing mercury toxicity is a concern, go with Safe Catch brand of tuna. Their allowable limit for mercury is ten times stricter than the FDA’s mercury limit. Or, go with skipjack or Tongol (labeled “chunk light”), which is the smallest tuna with the least amount of mercury. Albacore has the highest level of mercury. Swap Greek yogurt or avocado for the mayonnaise or you can go with low-calorie rice vinegar, which is what I use to make mine. It helps aid with digestive health and supports a healthy liver.


Peanut Butter and Jelly

We loved them as a kid but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can actually be quite healthy at any age. Peanut butter is a great source of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Peanut butter is also a good choice for healthy unsaturated fat and will keep you full for hours. Because peanut crops are highly sprayed with pesticides, it’s best to use certified organic peanut butter. Also, avoid peanut butter with a bunch of added oils or sugar. There should only be two ingredients: peanuts and salt. If you have an allergy to peanuts, use almond or cashew butter.

For a healthier PBJ, use jam instead of jelly. Jam won’t spike your blood sugar as much as jelly because it contains the whole fruit, which helps to buffer the glycemic load (how quickly sugar enters your bloodstream.) If you’re not fond of jam, use honey. Raw honey is loaded with vitamins, enzymes and powerful antioxidants.

The combination of peanut butter and honey tastes amazing.

Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato (BLT)

America is infatuated with bacon. The popular keto diet advocates consuming bacon and many people are doing that daily! However, there’s no research showing that bacon is healthy — in fact, evidence shows quite the opposite: The American Institute for Cancer Research performed one of the most in-depth studies to date. Hundreds of cancer researchers took part in a five-year project, and they reviewed more than seven thousand clinical studies that showed a link between diet and cancer. Their conclusion was, “Processed meat should be avoided for life.”

Bacon is the worst offender when it comes to processed meat. It contains a lot of saturated fat, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most bacon contains nitrates, which are preservatives that can lead to bloating, hypertension, inflammation, cell damage, and joint problems.

With that said, why am I not ranking a BLT lower on my list of healthy sandwiches? Because you can substitute pork bacon with turkey bacon. Just doing that cuts 80 calories and turkey is a healthier choice. The other two ingredients of the BLT also keep it higher on my list. Tomatoes are a great source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. The lettuce of a BLT offers healthy fiber and provides calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.


Grilled Cheese

The traditional grilled cheese sandwich is made with American cheese. Unfortunately, two slices contain 220 calories (90 of them from fat,) 12 grams of saturated fat and 360 mg of sodium! The key is going with a less fattening cheese like Swiss, goat cheese, low-fat mozzarella or vegan cheese. Add tomatoes to your grilled cheese and you’ll get the heart-healthy benefits of lycopene.

When making your grilled cheese, I recommend using something besides butter. There’s an ongoing butter debate and some health experts now believe consuming butter is healthy. I’m not one of them. I avoid butter because it contains lactose and the protein called casein, which has been linked to causing inflammation in the body. You’re better off using ghee, aka clarified butter, which is lactose-free. Ghee is also a better option than butter if you have allergies or sensitivities to dairy products. You can also use extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil.


Ham and Cheese

Ham isn’t the healthiest meat option because it falls into the “processed meat” category. Research published in PLOS Medicine found that eating ham may increase your risk for colon and lung cancer. Ham is also high in sodium. An average sized ham sandwich contains 1000 milligrams of sodium. Ham is also quite high in calories. Just one thin slice, weighing just 24 grams, contains 46 calories, a good portion of that coming from unhealthy fat.

If you have a hankering for a ham and cheese sandwich, the healthiest choice is low sodium, baked ham that isn’t cured and contains no nitrates.


Mozzarella and Meatball

This sandwich comes in second to the last place as the most unhealthy sandwich. If you eat this one for lunch, you better loosen your belt! A Subway 12-inch meatball marinara sub has 1,160 calories! If you decide to have one for lunch, you will have to jog 12 ½ miles to burn off those calories! Meatballs are made with ground beef or a mix of ground beef and pork. They are high in fat and sodium.

If you’re making this sandwich at home, try it with ground turkey for a much more healthier and leaner option. If you want to go with the ground beef variety, make sure the beef is grass fed, and USDA certified organic, which means it doesn’t contain hormones or antibiotics. As for the mozzarella cheese, opt for the reduced fat variety or try vegan mozzarella cheese.

Philly Cheese Steak

This tasty Philadelphia favorite ranks as my pick for the most unhealthy sandwich. It’s high in calories, and loaded with grease, salt and fat! A 12-inch cheese steak with provolone, peppers, onions, and mushrooms packs a whopping 1,278 calories and 27.5 grams of saturated fat — that’s not including the greasy fries that often come with it (add another 364 calories). You’d have to do approximately 1,500 vigorous jumping jacks to burn all that off, but I bet you’d have a hard time doing any after eating this giant brickwich.

A Philly cheese steak also contains 1,480 milligrams of salt — the kind that makes the cardiologist put paddles on your chest and shout, ‘CLEAR! If this sandwich doesn’t give you a heart attack, you’re more likely to get heartburn than from any other sandwich. I recommend washing it down with some Alka Seltzer.

I could share some tips on picking the healthiest steak choices and low-calorie cheese substitutes for this sandwich, but I’d risk losing my friends from Philly. Enjoy this sandwich as an occasional indulgence and eat it at your own risk.

Whatever sandwich you consume, go easy on the condiments if you’re watching your weight. Commercially prepared ketchup is extremely high in high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to causing obesity. Mayonnaise is the worst condiment. Just two tablespoons of mayonnaise add 190 calories, 175 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of fat to your sandwich. Instead, reach for mustard: A 1.5-teaspoon serving of yellow mustard contains virtually no sugar and only adds five calories to your sandwich. Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, is also a low calorie and healthier option.

Why Your Turkey Sandwich Isn’t as Healthy as You Think

Photo: Caitlin Bensel

According to national food surveys, 47% of Americans eat at least one sandwich each day, the most frequent type being those made with cold cuts or deli meats—not much of a surprise given their convenience and our busy lifestyles. But it is surprising that most of those smoked turkey or oven-roasted ham slices are classified as “processed meats”—a category of food that’s been linked to heart disease and cancer.

Sure, we know it’s good to minimize processed meats like bacon, sausage and hot dogs, but are deli meats really something we should be eating less of? And should we be concerned about potential health risks? Here’s what you need to know.

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Are deli meats processed?

Technically, all meat is processed in some form since it’s got to be cooked to eat, but the term “processed meats” specifically refers to any meat, pork, poultry or other animal protein that has been altered through a process like salting, curing, preserving, fermentation, or other method to improve flavor, extend shelf-life, and slow or prevent harmful bacteria development.

The category of processed meats is large and includes foods like bacon, sausage, marinated meats, cured meats, smoked meats or poultry, hot dogs, cold cuts and deli meats, but also includes both ready-to-eat meats and those that still need to be cooked before consuming.

What are the health concerns?

Sodium

Processed meats have higher sodium contents due to the salting, curing, or preservation methods used. While it’s the sodium in these methods that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria growth, excess sodium contributes to high blood pressure, as well as heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular diseases.

Potential Cancer Risk

The International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) released a report in 2015 that confirmed a potential link between processed meats and cancer risk. This risk is small, especially when compared to risk factors like smoking, but the risk increases the more you eat. Researchers haven’t pinpointed one specific ingredient or processing additive as the main culprit that increases this risk, but many like to speculate it’s related to compounds called nitrates.

Salts like sodium nitrite are used often used in processing of these meats. When consumed, the nitrite component breaks down to nitrates in the body, compounds that many like to associate with cancer. While nitrates do not cause cancer, they can form carcinogenic compounds during processing, once in the body, or when cooked at high temperatures. However, meats contribute only 5% of our nitrate intake. In fact, most nitrates that enter our body are from vegetables, so it’s hard to pull all of the nitrate blame on processed meats.

Is your turkey sandwich worth worrying about?

Compared to other food-related health risks, those from that turkey or ham sandwich are very small. While I wouldn’t skip lunch just because deli meats are the only option, research suggests that minimizing intake or looking for healthier alternatives when possible is good practice. Here are some ideas to minimize potential risks.

Keep tabs on intake

Processed meats shouldn’t be daily part of your diet, and when you do consume, research suggests keeping daily intake to 50g (1 ½ to 1 ¾ oz) or less.

Purchase “uncured”

These products use vegetable-based preservatives like celery powder instead of salts like sodium nitrite to cure or preserve the meat, and may be labeled “no added nitrates”, but they’re not free of nitrates since vegetables are a primary source. However, many feel better consuming nitrates from a more natural source.

Watch sodium

Reduced- and lower-sodium lunch meats are readily available and usually aren’t missing much salty flavor. Opt for these when possible, but also remember to watch the sodium in other sandwich components like cheese and mustard.

Consider quick alternatives

Thinly slicing cooked chicken breasts for sandwiches avoids the additives and sodium associated with processed meats. Cook chicken or other protein at the start of the week to grab for sandwiches instead of deli meats.

Consider fish or plant-based alternatives

Tuna and salmon make great salads for a sandwich, and consider skipping the meat all together by opting for a veggie sandwich with hummus or cheese.

A healthy sandwich is a lunchtime favorite for a few good reasons: It’s easily packable, cheap to make, and the perfect vehicle for complex carbohydrates, good-for-you fats, fiber-packed veggies, and lean protein. It can totally be the afternoon meal you need to get through the rest of your day. And, despite what grilled cheeses and BLTs would have you think, sandwiches can absolutely help you work toward your weight loss goals.

These eight simple tricks make it easy to cut calories and add nutrients to all your go-to sandwich recipes without sacrificing the flavors you love. If you’re interested in using these ideas to help you lose weight, it’s important to note that weight loss looks different for everyone. Counting calories can be a helpful tactic for some people, but not for others. If you have a history of disordered eating, you should always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

And remember, weight loss isn’t just about what you eat. Stress levels, sleep habits, and health issues that may be out of your control can all affect how you gain and lose weight. That’s why it’s important to take the time to find a plan that will help you reach your goals in a way that’s healthiest for you.

If you do want to use healthy sandwich ideas to help you lose weight, try out these easy tricks the next time you pack your lunch.

1. Open up your sandwich.

An easy way to cut the calorie count of literally any sandwich? Take off the top piece of bread. This is a trick that Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, swears by. She tells SELF that by removing that extra bread, not only are you nixing about 70 to 80 calories, but you’re also making enough room to pile your meal high with extra protein and veggies.

2. Use pita instead of regular bread.

Each piece of whole-wheat bread has about 80 calories, whereas a small whole-wheat pita (2 to 4 inches wide) only has about 70 calories, says Gorin. That’s not a huge difference, but it might be worth trying if you’re looking for small, simple ways to eat fewer calories.

3. Wrap it up—in a romaine lettuce leaf or even a tortilla.

“If you’re looking to cut calories, opt for a lettuce-wrapped sandwich,” Dianna Sinni, R.D., L.D., wellness dietitian and blogger at Chard in Charge, tells SELF. “This can reduce the calorie count by 120 to 200 calories, depending on the type of bread you normally use.”

Still want some healthy carbs on your plate? Use a single whole-wheat or multigrain tortilla instead of two slices of bread. Just make sure that the tortilla you’re reaching for is actually lower in calories, says Gorin, because some can contain even more than those two slices of bread.

4. Throw an egg on top.

Gorin likes to top her sammies with a fried or hard-boiled egg. This is a great way to add 6 grams of extra protein, plus some healthy fats, to make your lunch more satisfying and keep you fuller for longer. Plus, who doesn’t love sopping up that runny yolk with bread?

5. Skip the deli meats.

Gorin explains that even though they’re a super low-maintenance protein source, deli meats often contain a lot of sodium. That’s why she prefers to fill her sandwiches with whole cooked chicken breasts or salmon fillets. Don’t feel like laboring over your meat that long? Canned chicken, salmon, or tuna with no added sodium will work just fine.

6. Opt for lower-calorie condiments.

“With a lot of condiments, we’re just looking for ways to add moisture to our sandwiches,” Gorin explains. Her go-to condiments include mustard, hummus, and a homemade garlicky-Greek yogurt spread, all of which add moisture in a healthier way. And don’t forget to be wary of sugar—some condiments, like ketchup, pack way more than you’d think.

7. Or skip the condiments altogether and use concentrated ingredients like caramelized onions and sun-dried tomatoes for extra flavor.

You get a huge bang for your buck with cured, pickled, and cooked ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and olives. All are both extremely potent and relatively low in calories, and you don’t need to use a lot to reap the flavor benefits.

8. When in doubt, add more veggies.

As is the case with salads, crunchy, watery, low-cal vegetables are something you can never add too much of to your sandwiches. Gorin likes to throw in tons of everything from alfalfa sprouts to red peppers. And that’s just the beginning of the possibilities. Don’t be afraid to get creative, because almost everything tastes good in sandwich form.

You may also like: A Healthy Egg and Avocado Sandwich Under 300 Calories

According to Arizona Farm Bureau, it is estimated Americans eat on average 300 million sandwiches per day. What type of sandwiches do Americans eat the most? Of course personal preferences can vary, but plain ham sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly and BLT sandwiches remain some of the most popular sandwich choices for Americans.

While these may not be considered health foods, making a few tweaks to a traditional sandwich can still fit into a healthy diet plan.

The term sandwich can have a loose definition; basically, anything served between two slices of bread (or bread type) can be considered a sandwich. Therefore, the nutritional content for sandwiches can vary greatly.

How to make a healthy sandwich?

The good news is a sandwich can fit into a healthy eating pattern for weight loss. Weight loss is a combination of many factors including your overall food intake, not just one food.

When eating sandwiches, especially if you are going to eat them every day, choose healthy, nutrient dense ingredients and limit processed foods.

Choose whole grain bread

Bread provides a vehicle to hold sandwich components together. The type of bread chosen for a sandwich can make an impact on calories, fiber amount and influence total carbohydrate load to the meal.

Choosing whole grain bread sources is recommended to make sandwiches higher in fiber. Avoid white breads or other refined grains.

One sneaky way sandwiches may be contributing a lot more calories than you realize is if you are eating a sandwich as a wrap.

A wrap especially a vegetable flavored wrap may seem like a healthy alternative to bread for a sandwich. However, wraps can be high in calories because they are much larger than 2 pieces of bread.

If you are looking to slim down your carbs from a sandwich, you can opt for a whole wheat pita or even do a lettuce wrap instead of bread.

Avoid processed red meats – There are alternatives

The meat in a sandwich can provide a good source of protein which can increase the satiety of your meal. To make a sandwich diet friendly while using meat, opt for lean protein choices such as white poultry.

Even though ham is one of the most popular choices for a sandwich, limiting your intake of processed red meat is recommended.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and other governing health agencies suggest avoiding processed red meats such as: ham, salami, bacon, hot dogs and pastrami which can all be popular sandwich fillings.

If you want to include other red meat choices such as beef, lamb or certain pork cuts, keep in mind the AICR suggests limiting intake of red meat to less than 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week.

What if you don’t want meat on a sandwich but still want to include a protein source? You can also fill sandwiches with: tempeh, high quality veggie burger, cheese or a hummus spread.

You could also use egg salad for a high quality protein sandwich option. Using Greek yogurt in place of mayo can further bump up the protein amount.

Pile on the veggies

Traditional sandwiches are usually low in vegetables and mainly bread and meat. However, increasing the nutritional quality of a sandwich can easily be done by piling on vegetable toppings.

Lettuce is often a go to for a sandwich, but you can also add: tomato slices, cucumbers, peppers, beets, sprouts, shredded carrots or any other vegetables you like.

The USDA recommends making vegetables and fruits fill up half your plate at meal times. If you are eating a sandwich, you should have a decent amount of veggies to not only increase the nutrient value but to also to increase the volume of food you eat.

Increasing the volume of food you eat by increasing the vegetable and/or fruit amount is a sneaky way to bump up the amount of food you’re eating without significantly bumping up your calorie intake.

Choose low calorie condiments

Condiments can be a sneaky way a sandwich may be sabotaging weight loss efforts. Piling on the mayo or other heavy dressings can bump up the calorie content of your sandwich.

If you want condiments on a sandwich, stick with low calorie or nutrient dense options such as: whole grain mustard, hummus, plain Greek yogurt or a dash of olive oil and vinegar.

What’s with your sandwich?

Eating a healthy, nutrient dense sandwich may not be the problem with eating a sandwich every day: it may be what you’re consuming with your sandwich.

A common side with sandwiches is chips, fries, crackers or cookies. Be mindful of what you’re eating with your sandwich; instead of the usual sides choose nutrient dense options.

Ideas for smart sandwich sides include: fruit, veggie sticks, a small handful of nuts, a cup of low sugar yogurt or a side salad.

Avoid the temptation to drink a sweetened beverage with your sandwich especially if you are consuming one every day.

Sweetened beverages are a source of empty calories that can impede your weight loss efforts.

Portion size does matter

Lastly, it can be possible to lose weight while eating sandwiches every day, but as with any food, keeping portion size in moderation is key. Some sandwiches especially those from fast food establishments can be large in size.

Eating this everyday may not be the best choice for weight loss. Just because a sandwich is a 12 inch sub serving doesn’t mean you should eat the whole serving in one meal.

Also keep in mind weight loss almost always isn’t just from one food you’re eating. Weight loss is a sum of your total food intake, activity level, sleep, stress, genetic factors and other factors.

If you eat a sandwich every day, make sure it’s with nutrient dense ingredients.

Pay attention to what you’re consuming with your sandwich, and note weight loss can depend on your total food intake for the day.

This article was written and provided by our partners at Prevention.

We’ve slimmed down America’s favorite sandwiches and made them better than ever! Check out our tips for the best sandwich makeovers.

Grilled Cheese
This might the ultimate classic sandwich, but normal cooking practices (like using butter) and ingredients (white bread) aren’t great things for your waistline. To make a healthier meal, try these four tips:

  • Swap out white bread for whole wheat
  • Opt for olive oil mayonnaise instead of butter for spreading on the bread
  • Cut back on fat with part-skim cheddar
  • Boost flavor with the addition of hot-pepper jelly

Peanut Butter and Jelly
There’s a reason why this was everyone’s go-to lunch in grade school—it’s so easy to make! These simple tweaks can make this staple meal even tastier (and healthier!):

  • Choose organic peanut butter or look for a no-sugar-added variety
  • Take a break from typical strawberry jelly or jam—use fresh sliced strawberries instead

Philly Cheesesteak
This urban original has spread across the entire country, but here’s how you can consume less grease and fat from this Philadelphia creation:

  • Build your sandwich on a whole-grain hoagie roll instead of a white one
  • Skip the processed cheese sauce, and substitute shredded part-skim provolone—you’ll use less without even thinking about it
  • Grill your onions and peppers instead of cooking them in a lot of oil

Pulled Pork
Learn how you can dodge unnecessary fat and calories in this BBQ favorite:

  • Use boneless, skinless chicken thighs instead of pork to reduce fat and calories (or stick with lean pork tenderloin)
  • Make your own BBQ sauce rather than use a store-bought one that’s high in sugar
  • Top your bun with half the amount of meat you’d normally eat, and fill out the sandwich with a vinegar-based coleslaw and pickled veggies

Reuben
A lot of delicious—but often unhealthy—ingredients (such as corn beef and mayonnaise) in typical ruebens aren’t worth the bloated feeling you might suffer from post-eating. So try these healthier spins and enjoy your sandwich:

  • Sandwich the goods between dark rye bread or pumpernickel—two classic and healthy choices
  • Buy organic, nitrate-free and sliced turkey breast instead of the traditional corned beef
  • Go with reduced-sodium, part-skim Swiss
  • Be generous with the sauerkraut—it’s low in calories, contains vitamin C, and supplies enzymes that aid digestion (buy fresh if you can find it or rinse the canned type before eating to get rid of some of the salt)
  • Make a healthier Russian dressing or look for a bottled Thousand Island dressing that contains yogurt instead of full-fat mayonnaise (we like Cindy’s Kitchen)

Bacon, Egg, and Cheese
This a.m. sandwich might be just as important to your morning routine as coffee, but for a yummy and diet-friendly version, try this:

  • Start with a whole-grain seeded English muffin instead of a white one
  • Dice the Canadian bacon before cooking, and sprinkle on top so you use less
  • Whisk one whole egg with one egg white to trim fat and calories
  • Top the egg with one slice of part-skim cheese

More from Prevention:
400-Calorie Sandwiches
11 Ways to Cut Calories from a Lunchtime Sandwich
8 Healthy Breakfast Ideas

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