Expand your bread horizons to include artisan breads, pitas and sprouted-grain loaves. (Fotolia.com / November 27, 2013)

You've probably heard that eating too much red meat is a recipe for trouble. For every additional portion consumed, health takes a hit, including higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Processed and cured red meats seem to have the most deleterious effect, including ham, bacon, and bologna.

But it's not necessary to go cold turkey on deli meats if you choose wisely, says to Dr. Michelle Hauser, a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a certified chef and nutrition educator.

"Whole, minimally processed versions are not necessarily that bad if you just keep an eye on the sodium," she says. You can also try nutritious alternatives to processed and cured deli meats, like hummus and other vegetable spreads.

WHAT'S IN DELI MEATS?

Processed deli meats contain finely ground meat, as well as meat byproducts, "the parts of the animal you wouldn't eat if you knew you were eating them," Dr. Hauser says. Various substances are added to the meaty mix to add flavor, prevent spoiling, and allow it to form a loaf that can be sliced.

Whole deli meats, in contrast, are just seasoned and cooked meat, which is then sliced to make sandwiches. These products may also contain preservatives and flavoring agents to make them more appealing. If you prefer a less processed food product, choose whole deli meats.

WATCH THE SODIUM

It's unclear exactly why eating cured and processed meats is unhealthy. One potential culprit is the nitrate preservatives used in cured meats. Many experts also suspect sodium.

National guidelines recommend that most adults limit their daily sodium to 2,300 milligrams (mg)--the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of table salt. (National guidelines recommend an even lower intake (1,500 mg daily) for men older than 50, African-American men, or men with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.)

Unfortunately, deli meats often contain a significant amount of sodium, especially the most processed types. Whole deli meats may also contain a lot of sodium. To stay within bounds, first pay more attention to nutrition labels on packaged deli meats.

Here's the terminology manufacturers may use:

Sodium-free/salt-free: Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving

Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving

Low sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving

Reduced sodium: At least 25 percent less sodium than regular version

Light: At least 50 percent less sodium than the regular version.

ALTERNATIVES

Remember, deli meats are not the only sandwich game in town. Dr. Hauser suggests these alternatives:

1. Pile on the vegetables: Sliced, shredded, or leafy vegetables add nutrients and fiber. They allow you to create a sandwich with fewer slices of meat that's still filling with minimal added calories.

2. Expand your bread horizons: Try pita, lavash, baguette, artisan breads, and sprouted grain breads. Choose whole grain breads when available.

3. Use flavorful cheeses: Opt for smaller portions of a more flavorful cheese rather than multiple slices of blander cheeses, like generic sliced cheddar, Muenster, or American cheese. Instead, try dill havarti, sharp cheddar, Parmesan, blue cheese, feta, pepper jack, or smoked gouda or mozzarella. Modest portions of these cheeses add flavor with lower amounts of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories.

4. Get creative with spreads: Combine vegetable spreads with leafy and thinly sliced raw vegetables. Try hummus, spicy mustard, pesto, olive tapenade, or ripe avocado.

WATCH YOUR PORTIONS

A single serving of deli meat may contain 400 mg to 800 mg of sodium.

"If you're not paying attention, you can easily put three servings of sliced meat on a sandwich and get more sodium than you're supposed to eat in a whole day," Dr. Hauser says. Bread and cheese can also contain a significant amount of sodium.

Staying within guidelines can be challenging if you eat processed and cured meats regularly. It helps to peruse nutrition labels to gain a higher awareness of the amount of sodium you consume--in the meat, as well as the bread. - Harvard Men's Health Watch

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