We are probably all aware that processed foods, including deli meats, are not exactly healthy for you. The problem is they are so convenient and readily available. In this article, I’ll explain what makes processed meat so unhealthy and give the best alternatives to deli meat so you have healthy options available at all times.
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What is Considered Processed Meat?
If we want to get technical here, we could say that even if you kill an animal yourself and cut it into steaks, that is considered processed meat. However, I am strictly talking about highly processed meat which is any meat that has been preserved and altered through methods such as smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives.
Deli meat is highly processed meat that is typically made from pork, poultry, or beef. Other examples of processed meats include bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and ham.
What Makes Deli Meat Unhealthy?
Highly processed deli meats are not the same as raw, minimally processed or unprocessed red meats like beef, pork, chicken, turkey or lamb. Processed deli meats are unhealthy because they are generally higher in sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives. And eating too much processed meat can increase your risk of certain health conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline and dementia, and certain cancers (1, 2, 3, 4).
Processed meats are also considered unhealthy as they lack key nutrients such as fiber and vitamins.
The World Health Organization has even classified processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens (1). This means that there is convincing evidence that processed meats cause cancer.
Plant-Based Alternatives to Deli Meat
There are many different types of plant-based protein options available to use in place of traditionally processed deli meats. These include tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans, nuts and seeds, and other plant-based options.
Plant-based lifestyles are synonymous with greater health outcomes and decreased chronic disease. Some popular heart-healthy diet that focus on plant-based foods include the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and vegetarian and vegan diets. Additionally, they recommend getting protein from multiple plant-based sources.
Let’s review some of these healthy, plant-based options a little more.
Tofu is made from soybeans. It is available in textures from silken to extra firm and tastes almost flavorless and bland. But that is the beauty of tofu; it takes on the flavor of whatever ingredients you add to it!
Tofu is a great source of protein, providing all nine essential amino acids. It also provides a good amount of calcium and is low in sodium. While it does contain 11 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving, this is in the form of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats.
As an alternative to lunch meat, you can marinate, bake, grill, or fry your tofu, then sandwich it between two slices of bread for a wholesome and healthy meal.
Tasty recipes using tofu:
This fermented product is also made from soybeans and is usually sold in blocks like tofu. It is less processed than tofu and has a nutty taste and meaty texture, making it a great substitute for deli meats in sandwiches.
Tempeh is also a great alternative to lunch meat because it is a great source of plant-based protein and iron. It is also low in sodium.
Tips for marinating tempeh + recipes:
Seitan may not be as readily available or as widely known as tofu, buy is another good alternative to deli meat.
This food product is made from wheat protein, AKA vital wheat gluten. Therefore, it is not suitable for those with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity.
Nonetheless, seitan can be used as an alternative to lunch meat for sandwiches. You can make your own using vital wheat gluten or purchase seitan in slices, blocks, or crumbles to use in recipes. Just keep in mind that some forms may be high in sodium.
Make seitan from scratch:
Beans and Legumes
Beans are completely underrated and we all should eat more of them…there I said it. Not to mention beans are such a fantastic and low-fat alternative to processed deli meats.
They provide a lot of fiber which helps keep our GI system in working order and can help lower cholesterol which reduces your risk of heart disease. Beans also provide complex carbohydrates and protein to keep you satisfied longer and a multitude of nutrients including phosphorus, magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium.
My go-to use for beans is in burger form, though you can also use them straight from the can by stuffing them into burritos or pita bread, or pureeing them and spreading them on toast or crackers. Try chickpeas, black beans, broad beans, pinto beans, or any other kind you wish as a healthy substitute for deli meat.
Check out these recipes using beans:
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts such as almonds and cashews are high in protein, healthy fats, and minerals. And seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower seeds are packed with nutrients that make great toppings for salads and even sandwiches.
Nuts are a great source of magnesium, vitamin E, plant-based protein, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats, among many other health-benefiting polyphenols. And if using walnuts, you’ll include the added health benefits of essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Nuts and seeds are a great addition to all types of meal plans to support a healthy weight, diabetes, and cardiovascular health.
As substitutes for deli meat, nuts are typically used in recipes to make nut “burgers”. I suggest making a large batch and storing some in the freezer for easy access later on.
Recipe using nuts and seeds:
Mushrooms are one of the most convenient alternatives to deli meat because they are already ready to cook. There is no need for mixing or using a food processor. You simply add some herbs, spices, or marinade, then cook them up and enjoy.
Mushrooms naturally have a meaty texture and umami taste. Portobello mushrooms are often used as a sandwich filling and meat substitute. Though you can also use other mushrooms like button, cremini, shiitake, baby Bellas, or morel mushrooms.
Satisfying sandwich recipe using mushrooms:
Eggplant does not provide nearly enough protein as lunch meat as animal meat does, however, it is still as fulfilling. This nightshade vegetable (well, technically it is a fruit) is nutrient-dense, providing fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, vitamin K and some vitamin C.
Try slicing it length-wise, then grilling, roasting, baking or sautéing to get all the nutrients this food has to offer. It is perfect as a lower-calorie, healthy lunch meat alternative.
The best eggplant sandwich recipe:
Animal-Based Alternatives to Deli Meat
To the meat eaters out there, don’t be discouraged. There are also healthy alternatives to deli meat that are animal-based. Some of which are just as simple as opening a package and placing it onto a slice of bread. These include canned, pre-cooked, frozen, and raw options.
Canned Alternatives to Deli Meat
Canned meat may not seem the most appetizing, but canned protein sources are very versatile, cost-effective, and shelf-stable compared to fresh, refrigerated options. And most often much healthier alternatives to lunch meat. Make sure to choose ones with a lower sodium content and with minimal added ingredients.
Some options include:
- Canned fish such as sardines, mackerel, tuna and salmon- provides healthy fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids as well as calcium, zinc, selenium, and vitamin D. Try these in a recipe such as salmon patties, tuna salad, or sardine spread.
- Canned chicken or turkey breast- is an excellent source of lean protein and contains iron, zinc, vitamin D and calcium. As a lunch meat alternative, try in a wrap or taco or mix with low-fat mayo and make a chicken salad sandwich.
- Canned beef- is very high in protein and contains B12. This is mainly used in casseroles or hashes but can also be used to make an open-faced sandwich by adding some gravy.
Recipe using canned salmon:
Pre-Cooked Alternatives to Deli Meat
This is where the convenience factor comes into play. We’ve all seen those rotisserie chickens at the grocery store, right?
Rotisserie chicken is likely the most widely available option, though you may have other options like hot and ready beef roasts in your area.
These pre-cooked options can be sliced and used in place of deli meat at any time or place. And pre-cooked options have many other uses as well, such as in salads, soups and casseroles.
A simple recipe using rotisserie chicken:
Frozen Alternatives to Deli Meat
There are also plenty of frozen options for lunch meat alternatives. These are in the form of patties, fillets, and burgers. Again, reading nutrition labels and the ingredients list is important for choosing a healthy alternative.
Some frozen burger options can have an entire day’s worth of sodium, fat, or cholesterol per serving.
For example, the original Bubba Burger contains 420 calories, 35 grams of total fat, 15 grams of saturated fat, and 110 milligrams of cholesterol per burger patty. The only thing on the lower side here is the sodium at 85 mg per burger. The ingredient list is also impressive with only 100% USDA choice beef from chuck. However, overall this is not a healthy option.
One product I’ve found that is much healthier is Applegate Organics Turkey Burgers. The ingredients list is minimal and these are only 150 calories, 8 gm total fat, 1.5 gm saturated fat, and 80 mg cholesterol per burger patty. The sodium content is also reasonable at 105 mg. Much better indeed.
Other healthy lunch meat options in the frozen food section are unseasoned chicken, turkey, or fish fillets which you would season and cook yourself.
Raw Alternatives to Deli Meat
This option is going to take some prep work on your part. However, if you have the time, it’s 100% worth the effort compared to the alternative, which is consuming a highly processed carcinogenic meat product.
Options here are limited only by the selections in the refrigerated meat, seafood, or poultry section of your deli or grocery store. You may even have a hunter or fisherman in the family like I do, who can provide unprocessed food on the table. Thank you Mr. Campbell!
And if not, no worries. By purchasing raw, boneless and skinless poultry, fish, or lean beef and pork, you’ll have more control over what you’re putting into your body; which is always a good thing.
Choosing ground versions of these options makes it easy to mix with other ingredients and form into patties to cook and use in place of deli meat. Or you can cook a whole chicken breast for example, then slice, shred, or place whole atop your sandwich.
Recipe using lean, ground turkey:
How To Choose Healthy Alternatives to Deli Meat
It’s important to mention that not all plant-based alternatives to deli meat are healthy for you.
Like their animal-based counterparts, some can contain high amounts of fat, sodium and preservatives that are unhealthy- hello, Impossible™ Burger. Did you know that this plant-based alternative that is marketed as “healthy” has 6 grams of saturated fat and 370 milligrams of sodium per patty?! Yikes!
Luckily, there are a few things you can look for, whether you choose plant-based or animal-based alternatives to deli meat. Consider the following points to make the best choice.
- Consider fat and sodium content – look for products with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat and 140 mg of sodium per serving.
- Check the ingredients list – make sure there are no added sugars, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.
- Look for whole-foods based products – such as those made from nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. Or choose whole-foods based animal products if preferred, such as slices of unprocessed, cooked chicken or turkey.
- Choose organic and grass-fed options when available – these can be more environmentally friendly and contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may benefit heart health and reduce inflammation (5).
- Read the nutrition labels – this will ensure your alternative is providing a balanced source of nutrients and does not contain harmful additives.
Tips for Enjoying Your Lunch Meat Alternatives
You can enjoy all of these alternatives to deli meat at any given moment. There are so many options in fact, that you never have to eat processed lunch meat again. Hooray! Here are a few tips to get even more enjoyment and variety out of your meals using these healthy lunch meat alternatives.
- Try to include a variety of different lunch meat alternatives in your meals.
- Look for different flavors and textures when choosing your lunch meat substitutes.
- Make sure to add extra flavorings to your lunch meat alternative choices, such as dressings or sauces.
- Use sprouted grain bread in place of traditional white or wheat bread.
- Think about how you can easily incorporate lunch meat alternatives into sandwiches, wraps, and salads.
- Choose lunch meat alternatives that are high in protein and nutrient-rich.
Examples of What To Eat Instead of Deli Meat
And if you’d like more ideas for healthy, unprocessed lunch selections, here are a few of my favorites:
- Include pre-sliced veggies such as carrots, celery, peppers, and cucumbers on a sandwich.
- Serve fresh fruit or roasted nuts as side items with a sandwich.
- Make a wrap with whole-wheat tortillas and fill it with hummus and vegetables.
- Create an open-faced sandwich with grilled vegetables, avocado, and cheese.
- Keep pouches of low-sodium tuna fish on-hand which can be eaten with whole grain crackers, yogurt, and fresh fruit.
FAQ on Processed Deli Meats
The healthiest options are those that are minimally processed, low in sodium, and free from added preservatives and additives. Examples include roasted turkey breast or chicken breast. Lunch meats that are lower in sodium and free from added preservatives and additives are also better choices than traditional lunch meats.
Uncured lunch meat is often marketed as a healthier alternative to cured lunch meat, but whether it is healthier depends on the specific product and how it is made. Cured meats can be high in nitrates which can cause health issues, but uncured varieties can also be high in nitrates and nitrites. Look at nutrition labels and the ingredients lists to be sure.
Yes, sliced ham is considered a processed meat. Ham is typically made from pork, which is processed and cured with salt, sugar, and other additives to enhance its flavor, texture, and shelf life.
As you can see, there are a large number of alternatives one could use in place of processed lunch meats. There are great options for those following a plant-based diet and those that prefer animal meat.
Options range from minimal effort from prep and cooking to more extensive effort. Either way, experimenting with different options is both good for your body and your taste buds.
Remember to always consider the five points to choosing a healthy alternative to deli meat and you’ll end up with a healthy choice every time.
Happy and healthy eating everyone!
Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 13 years of experience. She has a degree in psychology as well as dietetics. She is also a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ and its Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group among others. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.