I’m a self-professed foodie. There are not a lot of foods that I hate. I was that kid at school who DIDN’T complain about the cafeteria food. Sure, the chicken nuggets were suspect if they came from chickens or not, but they were still good!
As I got older and became more serious about athletics, I began to care about how I trained and what I put into my body. Was this food going to help me be a better baseball player? Feed me! Would this exercise or lift give me a better fastball? Let’s do it!
With the explosions of social media, sports performance research, and youth athletics, many young athletes take their nutrition more seriously. Anything to get a performance edge is a worthy pursuit, and proper nutrition can make enormous short and long-term differences.
Obviously, there are typically three meals in a day. Lunch is incredibly important for athletes, as it’s the fuel source you consume before practice. Proper pre-performance nutrition is critical to unlocking your best efforts.
And as we all know, lunch meat is by far the most common caloric staple in a school cafeteria for students who bring their lunch. But are they actually good for you? Are they the best option for athletes?
First, if you don’t know what defines lunch meat: they are precooked or cured meats that are sliced and served cold or hot. They are typically served cold, as they need to be refrigerated, but of course, they can be warmed up. They are typically served in a sandwich unless you are THAT kid who brings a charcuterie board to school. Don’t be that kid. Typical lunch meat options are sliced turkey, chicken, salami, pepperoni, roast beef, etc.
Why Lunch meat?
The main reason that lunch meat is, well, lunch meat is several reasons:
- They travel well
- Good source of protein
Lunch meat is typically in the form of cold cuts. They can’t sit at room temperature, but a simple ice pack in a lunch box will keep it safe. They require zero cooking and minimal preparation is needed. We all know the benefits of protein, especially for athletes. Next, cold cuts are typically relatively cheap and economically friendly. Lastly and maybe most importantly, they’re tasty. These reasons make lunch meats incredibly popular for student-athletes, 9-5 working adults, and whenever you need a quick meal at home.
So Is It Healthy?
Is it healthy? That depends. Everybody has different needs. Athletes can benefit greatly from quick and convenient sources of protein. In a sandwich, the bread provides beneficial carbohydrates, which will serve as an excellent fuel source for a practice or game later in the day. Looking at lunch meat through the lens of an athlete, then yes, lunch meat is healthy and will serve them and their sport well.
If you are older and your competitive athletic days are over, we need to look harder at lunch meat. Unfortunately, lunch meats are no superfood. They typically have preservatives that aren’t great for long-term health. Part of why they are so popular is their convenience and long shelf life. What makes that possible is by pumping them full of preservatives called nitrates and sodium. Nitrate can cause some types of cancer, and sodium can raise resting blood pressure. Sodium is an electrolyte that athletes need lots of. Sodium is critical to preventing cramps. However, suppose you aren’t an athlete, sweating buckets like a possessed demon on a 100+ degree field, you probably don’t need that much sodium. And nitrates are naturally found in vegetables and can reduce your blood pressure. The type added to lunch meats behaves very differently in the body and can have an opposite effect. Not a massive deal for athletes, but it can be a detriment to longer-term health.
Should We Eat Lunch Meat?
So what’s the conclusion on lunch meat? This article is meant to be another voice that says everybody is different. Different goals determine different needs. Lunch meat tends to be more beneficial for the busy athlete for its convenience and caloric profile. It isn’t the perfect food but is probably worth the negatives for active, young athletes.
For the less active, aging adult, lunch meat may not be the best idea. Don’t get me wrong; I eat lunch meat every now and then. There are certainly worse choices that can be made.
One great recent development is that many food companies have made efforts to eliminate the bad stuff in their foods. I would encourage everyone to try to get lunch meat that is free of nitrates and nitrites. Further, you can sometimes find lower sodium options as well. Food companies are always listening to their customers. And if nitrate/nitrite-free options are more popular, they will make more without it!
Is lunch meat healthy? Yes, but some negatives to them may be especially bad for you and your current goals. However, getting low sodium, nitrate-free lunch meat could be the perfect go-to lunch option for you!