Healthy Alternatives to Deli Meat

Learn the 4 key categories of deli meats, why we crave it, and see our list of the best 10 healthy alternatives to deli meat that your body will love.

In this article

Sandwich Meat Types: 4 Categories to Guide You

Lean and Lower-Fat Options

For those aiming for a healthier diet, lean and lower-fat options such as turkey breast and chicken breast stand out as the best choices. These meats are notably low in fat and high in protein, making them ideal for maintaining muscle mass without adding unnecessary fat to your diet. Although they can be somewhat dry or bland, their versatility allows for a range of seasoning options to enhance flavor. Choosing these options can be particularly smart for individuals focusing on fat intake or weight management.

Moderately Fatty and Flavorful

In the realm of moderate choices, roast beef, ham, and prosciutto offer a middle ground between indulgence and health. These meats provide a savory taste with a relatively moderate fat content, alongside a decent provision of iron and protein. Prosciutto, while on the leaner side, carries a high sodium level, posing a consideration for those monitoring blood pressure. Consuming these meats can offer more flavor while keeping fat levels relatively lower, making them suitable for moderate inclusion in your diet.

High Fat and Sodium

The less healthy choices category encompasses meats like salami, pepperoni, pastrami, capicola, mortadella, bologna, soppressata, and Genoa salami, which are celebrated for their rich flavors but are also high in both fat and sodium. The processes these meats undergo, such as curing, smoking, and seasoning, enhance their taste but elevate their unhealthy attributes. Beef sticks, beef jerky, and pepperoni sticks would also fit into this category. While these meats can be a delightful treat, their high calorie, fat, and sodium content suggest they’re best enjoyed sparingly.

Special Considerations

Special considerations are warranted for corned beef and liverwurst, which, despite their unique flavors and nutrient richness, come with high levels of specific nutrients that might pose health risks. Corned beef’s high sodium content and liverwurst’s elevated cholesterol levels mean they can offer nutritional benefits in small quantities but should be approached with caution if you have dietary restrictions or health concerns.

Why People Crave Deli Meat

Deli meats are crafted to appeal to our innate preferences for certain tastes and textures. They contain a balance of fats, proteins, and often hidden sugars, which interact synergistically to stimulate our taste buds and olfactory receptors. The high fat content in deli meats enhances flavors and creates a satisfying mouthfeel, while salt acts as a flavor enhancer and preservative, increasing the desire for these products.

Proteins in deli meats provide umami, the savory taste that our brains associate with nutritious, protein-rich foods. Additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates may further amplify cravings by heightening the umami and salty flavors. When consumed, deli meats can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which reinforces the craving for these savory slices. This neurological response can make finding a deli meat alternative more challenging for individuals seeking healthier options.

The search for healthy alternatives to deli meat can be a complex journey, as these substitutes must satisfy the multifaceted sensory and biochemical cravings established by traditional deli meats. It’s understandable that people find it difficult to resist the allure of deli meat and its complex interplay with brain chemistry. However, exploring deli meat substitutes such as smoked turkey or roasted chicken can offer similar satisfaction with improved nutritional profiles.

10 Healthy Alternatives to Deli Meat

Roasted turkey breast
Freshly roasted turkey breast offers a similar texture and flavor profile to deli meat but is lower in sodium and free from preservatives. It’s a lean source of protein that can help with muscle maintenance and satiety.

Grilled chicken slices
Grilled chicken is a versatile and healthy substitute, providing a high-protein option with less saturated fat compared to processed deli meats. It can be seasoned to match various flavor preferences.

Baked tempeh
Tempeh is a fermented soy product that has a firm texture and a nutty flavor, which can be sliced to mimic deli meat. It’s rich in protein, fiber, and probiotics, making it beneficial for gut health.

Smoked salmon
Offering omega-3 fatty acids, smoked salmon is a heart-healthy alternative that provides a similar salty, savory experience with the added benefit of essential fatty acids for brain health.

Hard-boiled eggs
Sliced or chopped, they can replace deli meats in sandwiches and salads, offering high-quality protein and vitamins while being low in calories.

Canned tuna in water
Tuna is a convenient and affordable swap for deli meats, high in protein and omega-3s, and can be used in sandwiches, salads, or as a standalone snack.

Sliced roast beef
Opt for home-cooked or high-quality, minimally processed roast beef as a higher protein, lower sodium alternative that still satisfies the desire for a hearty, meaty flavor.

While not a direct substitute in taste, hummus can replace deli meat in sandwiches to provide a creamy texture and a healthful combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

Avocado slices
Avocado can offer a creamy, satisfying mouthfeel with its healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber, making it a nutrient-dense substitute for spreads or fillings.

Nut butters
In moderate amounts, nut butters such as almond or peanut butter can serve as a filling alternative to deli meats, offering healthy fats, protein, and a different but pleasant taste profile.

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Is Deli Meat Unhealthy?

Many people are under the impression that all deli meats are inherently bad for health, leading to a quest for a healthy alternative to deli meat. The truth is, the health impact of deli meat depends on the type and quantity consumed. Processed deli meats often contain high levels of sodium, preservatives, and saturated fats, which can contribute to various health issues when eaten in excess.

However, not all deli meats are created equal; some are lower in these harmful ingredients. It’s important to read labels carefully and consider moderation when including deli meats in your diet.

Can Deli Meat Cause Cancer?

The link between deli meats and cancer risk is a topic of concern and confusion. Some studies suggest that certain compounds found in processed meats, such as nitrates and nitrites, can form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds in the body. The World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means there’s sufficient evidence that they can cause cancer.

However, the risk is relative, and occasional consumption in small amounts is different from daily intake. Understanding these nuances is crucial in making informed dietary choices.

What Makes a Good Deli Meat Alternative?

When searching for a deli meat substitute, people often look for something that matches the convenience and flavor profile of traditional deli meats. A common misunderstanding is that a good deli meat alternative must taste exactly the same as the original. In reality, a good substitute should offer a balance of health benefits, such as being lower in sodium and free from harmful additives, while still providing satisfaction.

Options like roasted chicken or turkey, and even plant-based alternatives, can be flavorful and healthier.

Are All Deli Meats Processed?

There’s a widespread belief that deli meats are synonymous with processed meats. However, the category of deli meats includes both processed and unprocessed options. Processed deli meats have been modified to enhance flavor or extend shelf life, often through salting, curing, or adding preservatives.

Unprocessed meats, on the other hand, are simply slices of cooked meat. It’s essential to differentiate between the two, as unprocessed meats can be a healthier choice and a suitable deli meat replacement for those looking to reduce processed food intake.

Does Deli Meat Have Nutritional Value?

Amidst the concerns about the health risks associated with deli meats, it’s often forgotten that they can provide nutritional value. Deli meats are a source of protein, which is vital for muscle repair and growth. Some also contain important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc.

The key is to choose high-quality, lean cuts of meat and to be mindful of portion sizes. For those seeking a healthy alternative for deli meat, it’s not just about cutting out deli meats but replacing them with nutrient-dense options that contribute to a balanced diet.

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Homemade Roasted Turkey Breast: A Healthy Recipe for Deli Meat


Enjoy the savory satisfaction of deli meat with this healthy recipe for homemade roasted turkey breast. This lean, protein-rich meat is seasoned with natural herbs and spices, offering a flavorful and nutritious alternative to store-bought deli meat.

Prep Time

15 minutes
Cook Time: 90 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes


  • Roasting pan
  • Meat thermometer
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cutting board
  • Sharp knife


  • 1 boneless turkey breast (3-4 lbs)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder


  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C).
  2. Rinse the turkey breast and pat it dry with paper towels.
  3. Rub the turkey breast with olive oil, ensuring it’s fully coated.
  4. In a small bowl, combine the sea salt, black pepper, dried rosemary, dried thyme, and garlic powder.
  5. Sprinkle the spice mixture evenly over the turkey breast, pressing it into the meat to adhere.
  6. Place the turkey breast in a roasting pan.
  7. Roast in the preheated oven for approximately 90 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165°F (74°C) when measured with a meat thermometer.
  8. Remove the turkey from the oven and cover it loosely with aluminum foil. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
  9. After resting, slice the turkey breast thinly for use in sandwiches, salads, or other dishes. Enjoy your homemade, healthy deli meat!

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