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How Often Can I Eat Lunch Meat?

Less than any true turkey, salami and bologna connoisseur would prefer, that’s for sure

When it comes to lunch, there are few foods as synonymous with our midday nosh as the sandwich. And for good reason — the sandwich happens to be the perfect, compact, easy-to-eat-with-one-hand meal for packing in lunchboxes, squeezing in during a 15-minute break or devouring in the car on the go. It doesn’t hurt that they’re delicious, too.

Naturally, our love of sandwiches is highly dependent upon what goes betwixt two slices of bread; peanut butter and jelly is a classic combination, as is tuna. That said, arguably the most popular sandwich generally pulls from the “deli meat” category — a hodgepodge of assorted turkeys, roast beefs and salamis. No doubt, deli meat has earned its rightful place atop the sandwich hierarchy, but is it the healthiest? 

Turns out, not by a long shot.

“The least processed deli meats will be the healthiest of all the deli meats,” explains Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Processed meat is “any meat which has been modified in order either to improve its taste or to extend its shelf life,” per Wikipedia, via preparation methods like salting, smoking, curing and, of course, the addition of chemical preservatives. 

“A processed deli meat is one that to me bears no resemblance to the animal from which it came,” Hunnes tells me. “For example, ham is often marinated in preservatives, salt, and sometimes has other added ingredients that change the texture and make it even less healthy than it may already be. If you’re going to eat anything from the deli counter, I definitely recommend meats that are single-ingredient or at the most one or two ingredients.”

Sounds nice, but that’s easier said than done — many of the meats at the deli counter can have upwards of 15 or more ingredients. “Deli meats that should be avoided are completely processed ‘meats’ such as salamis, ham, corned beef — these tend to be worse because they may have nitrates, nitrites or other harmful ingredients.”

Obviously, there’s a mammoth list of things that we eat that, frankly, we really, really shouldn’t — looking at you, ice cream, candy, anything with hydrogenated oils in them and basically all red meat. And, considering that deli meat, is, for many of us, another food on that mammoth list, let’s get down to brass tacks: If we’re going to eat the stuff regardless of whether it’s bad for us — as one does because sorry, it’s delicious — how often should we eat it? 

“I would recommend up to one time per week for unprocessed deli meats, and only one time per month for processed. Deli sandwiches made with vegetables, you can eat several times per week,” Hunnes advises. So, yeah — things aren’t looking good for your love of a good salami sandwich. Once a month puts deli meat firmly in the category of things that are really, really bad for us, right next to fast food.

Welp — guess that means, if you’re only allowed one delicious sandwich a month, you better make it a good one.