I love sandwiches. Who doesn’t love sandwiches? Monsters, that’s who. But I’m also aware that many sandwiches aren’t necessarily well-rounded meals, which is why I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank classic sandwich fillings — from healthy to pretty darn unhealthy.
But first, let’s talk about bread. “The bread you consume can either be the healthiest or unhealthiest part of a sandwich,” Friedman explains, adding that white flour — which is used to make white bread — is the absolute worst, since the bleaching process that it undergoes strips away all of the nutrients. “Consuming white bread can cause a spike in blood sugar, weight gain and inflammation.”
Whole-grain bread, on the other hand, is a much better choice. “It’s loaded with fiber, healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals and a variety of phytochemicals that help to improve digestion, reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol,” Friedman explains. “Whole-grain bread also contains lactic acid, which promotes the growth of ‘good bacteria’ in the intestines.”
Rye bread is another healthy option, according to Friedman. “A study published in the Nutrition Journal shows that rye bread can help decrease hunger for up to eight hours,” he says. “Another study published in PLOS Medicine found that whole-grain rye toast lessens blood sugar surges.”
Finally, if you’re gluten sensitive, Friedman recommends sourdough bread. “Sourdough utilizes natural fermentation, which breaks down the gluten,” he says.
With all of that in mind, let’s rank what’s actually between those slices…
1. Turkey and Cheese: “Rich in protein, potassium [which supports our muscles], zinc [which supports the immune system] and niacin [which helps the body convert food into energy], turkey also has less fat than most other meats,” Friedman says. “Turkey also contains tryptophan, which helps support healthy levels of serotonin, our ‘good mood’ chemical.” Friedman also recommends opting for pasture-raised turkey if possible, since it provides “more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than factory-farmed turkeys.”
“Adding cheese to your lean turkey sandwich, however, can add a lot of fat and calories,” Friedman continues. “For example, two slices of cheddar contain a whopping 226 calories and 18 grams of fat — not to mention, most cheese is loaded with sodium.” To cut down on calories and fat, Friedman suggests opting for low-fat mozzarella, Swiss cheese or goat cheese. “I prefer goat cheese on my turkey sandwiches,” he says. “Its creamy flavor goes great with turkey and only adds 103 calories per ounce.”
2. Egg Salad: “For decades, we were told that eggs contribute to high cholesterol and heart disease, but the truth is that eggs are a nutritional superfood,” Friedman says. “Eggs contain lecithin, which helps lower cholesterol levels and protects against heart disease.” Friedman also explains that eggs are great sources of protein and healthy fats. “One egg contains six grams of high-quality protein, as well as all nine essential amino acids, and eggs are one of the few foods that contain naturally occurring vitamin D [which promotes bone health].”
Friedman does, however, recommend alternatives to mayonnaise when making your own egg salad sandwich. “Just one tablespoon packs on 94 calories and 10 grams of fat,” he warns. “To make your egg salad healthier, hold the mayo, instead opting for nonfat yogurt or avocado.”
What the heck even is an egg, though, really? It’s complicated.
3. Tuna Salad: “Tuna is a rich source of vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and niacin,” Friedman says. “Niacin metabolizes carbohydrates, proteins and fats into energy, while vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 remove the amino acid homocysteine from the bloodstream, which is beneficial because high levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Tuna also gives us 80 percent of our daily recommended amount of selenium, which research shows may help prevent cancer. It’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health and brain function.”
“Unfortunately, the fear of mercury is doing to tuna what the fear of cholesterol once did to eggs,” Friedman adds. “It’s way over exaggerated and I debunk the ‘mercury fish farce’ in my book; however, if developing mercury toxicity is a concern, go for a ‘safe catch’ brand of tuna — their allowable limit for mercury is 10 times stricter than the FDA’s mercury limit.”
Again, Friedman recommends swapping Greek yogurt or avocado for the mayonnaise that most tuna salad recipes call for. “Or you can go with low-calorie rice vinegar, which is what I use to make mine,” Friedman says. “It helps aid with digestive health and supports a healthy liver.”
4. Peanut Butter and Jelly: “Peanut butter is a great source of protein, B-vitamins, iron [which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells] and zinc,” Friedman explains. “Peanut butter is also a good choice of healthy unsaturated fat and will keep you full for hours. But because peanut crops are highly sprayed with pesticides, it’s best to use certified organic peanut butter. Also, avoid peanut butter with a bunch of added oils or sugar — there should only be two ingredients on the label: Peanuts and salt.”
Friedman does, however, recommend using jam instead of jelly. “Jelly is made from only the juice of the fruit, while jam uses the whole fruit,” he explains. “Jam won’t spike your blood sugar as much as jelly, because the fiber in the fruit helps to buffer the glycemic load (how quickly sugar enters your bloodstream).”
And if you’re not fond of jam, Friedman says that honey works, too. “Raw honey is loaded with vitamins, enzymes and powerful antioxidants,” he says. “Plus, the combination of peanut butter and honey tastes amazing.”
5. Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato: “America is infatuated with bacon, and the popular keto diet advocates consuming bacon,” Friedman says. “However, there’s no research showing that bacon is healthy — in fact, evidence shows quite the opposite: The American Institute for Cancer Research performed one of the most in-depth studies to date. Hundreds of cancer researchers took part in a five-year project, and they reviewed more than seven thousand clinical studies that showed a link between diet and cancer. Their conclusion? Processed meat should be avoided for life.”
Friedman goes on to explain that bacon is one of the worst offenders when it comes to processed meat, emphasizing that bacon contains tons of saturated fat, which “increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.” Friedman also says that bacon usually contains nitrates, which are preservatives that can “lead to bloating, hypertension, inflammation, cell damage and joint problems.” To negate some of the damage, Friedman recommends using turkey bacon instead of pork bacon.
All that said, Friedman explains that tomatoes save this sandwich from dropping even lower on the list. “Tomatoes are great sources of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer,” he says. “Tomatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate [which helps the body produce DNA] and vitamin K [which plays a role in blood clotting and regulating blood-calcium levels].” The lettuce provides some additional vitamins and minerals as well, says Friedman.
6. Grilled Cheese: “The traditional grilled cheese sandwich is made with American cheese, but unfortunately, two slices contain 220 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat and 360 milligrams of sodium,” Friedman explains. “Have no fear, though, as there are ways to make this sandwich tasty and healthy: The key is going with a less fattening cheese, like vegan cheese, brie cheese or goat cheese. Also, add tomatoes to your grilled cheese and you’ll get the health benefits of lycopene.”
However, when you’re grilling your grilled cheese, Friedman recommends using something besides butter. “There’s an ongoing butter debate: Some health experts now believe consuming butter is healthy,” he says. “But I personally avoid butter, because it contains lactose and casein [animal protein], and both can cause inflammation in the body. You’re better off using ghee, aka clarified butter, which is lactose-free.” Friedman says that extra virgin olive oil works fine, too.
7. Ham and Cheese: “Ham isn’t the healthiest meat option, because it falls into the ‘processed meat’ category,” Friedman says. “Research published in PLOS Medicine found that eating ham may increase your risk for colon and lung cancer. If you have a hankering for a ham-and-cheese sandwich, the healthiest choice is low sodium, baked ham that isn’t cured and contains no nitrates.”
8. Meatball and Mozzarella: “Better loosen your belt for this one,” Friedman warns. “A 12-inch meatball marinara sub from [a popular sandwich chain] has 1,160 calories — if you decide to have one for lunch, you’ll have to jog 12 and a half miles to burn off all those calories.”
“Meatballs are made with ground beef or a mix of ground beef and pork, which are high in fat and sodium,” Friedman continues. “If you’re making this sandwich at home, try it with ground turkey for a much healthier and leaner option. If you want to go with the ground beef variety, just make sure the beef is grass fed and USDA-certified organic, which means it doesn’t contain hormones or antibiotics. As for the mozzarella cheese, opt for the reduced fat variety or try vegan mozzarella cheese.”
9. Philly Cheese Steak: “This tasty Philadelphia favorite is high in calories, and loaded with grease, salt and fat,” Friedman says. “A 12-inch cheese steak with provolone, peppers, onions and mushrooms packs a whopping 1,278 calories and 27.5 grams of saturated fat — that’s not including the greasy fries that often come with it (add another 364 calories). You’d have to do approximately 1,500 vigorous jumping jacks to burn all that off, but I bet you’d have a hard time doing any after eating this giant brickwich.”
“A Philly cheese steak also contains 1,480 milligrams of salt — the kind that makes the cardiologist put paddles on your chest and shout, ‘CLEAR!,’” Friedman explains. “If this sandwich doesn’t give you a heart attack, you’re more likely to get heartburn than from any other sandwich.”
Friedman recommends washing a Philly cheese steak down with Alka Seltzer. “I could share some tips on picking the healthiest steak choices and low-calorie cheese substitutes for this sandwich, but I’d risk losing my friends from Philly,” he says. “Enjoy this sandwich as an occasional indulgence and eat it at your own risk.”
With these sandwiches ranked, Friedman also recommends going easy on the condiments if you’re watching your weight. “Commercially prepared ketchup is extremely high in high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to causing obesity,” he says. “Mayonnaise is the worst condiment: Two tablespoons of mayonnaise adds 190 calories, 175 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of fat to your sandwich. Instead, reach for mustard: A 1.5-teaspoon serving of yellow mustard contains virtually no sugar and only adds five calories to your sandwich.”
*runs away with entire bottle of mayo in hand*