Out to Lunch

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We’ve been discussing ways to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods at breakfast, such as protein bars, muffins and pancake mix. There are so many other great choices for breakfast.

But lettuce not forget about lunch! Having a healthy delicious lunch is important to keep energy up throughout the afternoon and without it, most of us will end up snacking the day away or overeating later.

An ideal lunch should help you maintain focus throughout the day and prevent frequent snack or caffeine breaks in the afternoon. What’s in your lunch sack these days?

Lunchmeat 101
While those working from home could reheat some leftovers, others returning to the office may have a packed lunch in hand. A simple go-to for many is a lunch meat sandwich. What’s lurking in that lunch meat?

For starters, lunch meat varies in type and quality like anything else with cheaper versions having more fillers and additives.

The majority of packaged meats contain a hodgepodge of ingredients. Processed meats like salami, pepperoni, bologna, and pickle loaf are technically sausages. Bologna, for example, contains various cured meats including beef, pork, or chicken, or sometimes all three. I see it as a flattened hot dog.

Less expensive varieties may contain organs or other meat “parts” that are ground up and crammed into a casing. The casings are often made of the gastrointestinal tract of sheep, hogs, or cows, though synthetic casings made of collagen or plastic may be used then removed before sale. A spice blend plus corn syrup is typically added for flavor.

Pricier varieties may contain more meat and fewer fillers, but may also contain similar spices. Both varieties are made from mechanically separated meat that’s made into a “meat batter” and forced into a casing.

Nitrate by another name
Turkey, roast beef, and ham are popular lunch meat varieties, too. And while they may have less fat than bologna, they may still be ultra-processed. High in sodium, these may also contain ingredients like modified food starch, dextrose, sodium phosphate, carrageenan, and celery juice powder. Celery juice is a natural source of nitrates which is used as a preservative and flavoring.

Celery juice and other vegetable-based nitrates have been used as more natural alternatives to processed nitrates which are associated with certain cancers. Recent research recognizes that nitrates in food (but not drinking water) are linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. 1

Although nitrates have been associated with an increased risk of thyroid cancer in lab animals, the results have not been observed in human studies. Nitrates in drinking water have been observed to cause thyroid dysfunction. More research is needed to confirm findings. 2

The American Institute for Cancer Research advises people to eat as little processed red and other meat as possible. There is also research to suggest that processed meats are linked with the development of diabetes. 3 Less is best.

Build a better lunch
There’s no doubt that some form of protein should be included in your mid-day meal to provide satiety and blood sugar management for sustainable energy. In place of processed lunch meat, here are a few healthier options:
• Leftovers make a great lunch! Pack that extra chicken, veggies, and starch in a microwave-safe glass container and enjoy the meal twice.
• Hummus and veggie wrap up a treat. Roll up a whole wheat tortilla with hummus, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
• PB and J is always a winner. Yes- you have permission to eat peanut butter and jelly. Enjoy it on whole-grain bread with a side of yogurt and fruit.
• Grain bowl with chickpeas, lentils, or other beans is easy to transport. Just place the ingredients in layers in a sealable container. Make sure you keep the items chilled to stay food safe.
• Light string cheese, whole-grain crackers, fruit, and raw veggies can be put on a grazing plate for lunch at your desk on a busy day.
• A big salad with grilled chicken or other lean protein and a cup of yogurt and fruit is always hearty. You can transport items separately, keeping them chilled, and then assemble them at the last minute.

Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

Download our new "Lunch Well" Handout

1. Hosseini F, Majdi M, Naghshi S, Sheikhhossein F, Djafarian K, Shab-Bidar S. Nitrate-nitrite exposure through drinking water and diet and risk of colorectal cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Clin Nutr. 2020 Nov 28:S0261-5614(20)30614-2
2. Bahadoran Z, Mirmiran P, Ghasemi A, Kabir A, Azizi F, Hadaegh F. Is dietary nitrate/nitrite exposure a risk factor for development of thyroid abnormality? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nitric Oxide. 2015 May 1;47:65-76.
3. Neuenschwander M, Ballon A, Weber KS, et al. Role of diet in type 2 diabetes incidence: umbrella review of meta-analyses of prospective observational studies. BMJ. 2019;366:l2368. Published 2019 Jul 3

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