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7 Dangerous Side Effects of Eating Deli Meats, According to Experts

This highly-processed lunch protein is riddled with sodium and chemicals, which can have a disastrous impact on your health.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

Deli meat is the protein star of lunches, snacks, and sandwiches. But because it's processed, it may not be the best thing for your health.

"In general, deli meats can be a convenient, pre-cooked source of protein," says Amber Pankonin, MS, RD, LMNT, registered dietitian, and owner of Stirlist. "However, consuming multiple servings a week might pose risk for those with high blood pressure, heart disease, or women who are pregnant."

Part of the reason they've been associated with poor health issues is that lunch meats are highly processed.

"Deli meats are quite processed, containing a lot of sodium and preservatives, like nitrates and nitrites," says Brenda Braslow, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist for MyNetDiary. "These chemical compounds are not present in fresh meat and have been associated as contributors to various cancers."

Another reason why there are some dangerous side effects associated with deli meats is because of the way people eat them. "Most people have deli meat with cheese on bread, which adds to the sodium content," adds Braslow. "On top of that, they often load on the condiments plus chips and a pickle on the side, which continues to increase the sodium content."

Looking for healthier deli meat? "As an alternative, I would propose getting reduced-sodium and nitrate-free deli meat as well as limiting the amount," says Braslow. For example, opt for any of these 10 Best Low-Sodium Lunch Meats to Buy, Accord to a Dietitian. "I also suggest loading up on fresh vegetables to balance processed meat," she adds.

Read on to find out the dangerous side effects of eating deli meats, and then take Braslow up on her suggestion with these 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.


It may cause fluid retention and increase of blood pressure.


"Deli meats are high in sodium, and high sodium intake can cause fluid retention and elevated blood pressure in those susceptible to high blood pressure," says Braslow.

Adds Pankonin, "Sodium is a mineral that helps control fluid balance in the body. But when there is too much sodium in the bloodstream, this can increase blood volume in your blood vessels which could lead to increased blood pressure. So, if you have high blood pressure, it's important to monitor blood pressure levels regularly and choose foods and beverages that are lower in sodium."

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It might put you at risk for foodborne illness.

Man suffering digestive distress after overeating

"Deli meats might contain Listeria bacteria due to cross-contamination, which can affect pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems," says Pankonin. "Outbreaks of Listeria have been linked to deli meats, hot dogs, and soft cheeses. It is recommended to avoid deli meat if you're pregnant or have a weakened immune system unless heated to a temperature of 165 F before eating."

Listeria infection can cause a fever, muscle aches, nausea, or diarrhea, and may lead to bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening complication. If you feel any of these symptoms after eating food that's been recalled because of a listeria outbreak, seek medical treatment.


It may cause cardiovascular disease.

Woman having bad ache and pain heart attack health problem.

"Intake of processed meats is associated with an increase in cardiovascular disease," says registered dietitian Jonathan Valdez, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Processed meat has a higher content of saturated fat than other proteins, and processed meats are high in sodium. Nitrate, a preservative found in processed meats, can also increase the risk of atherosclerosis and insulin resistance."


It may increase your risk for colorectal cancer.

doctor patient

"Nitrates and nitrites are chemical preservatives often used in deli meats," says Braslow. "High nitrate and nitrite intake has been linked with an increased risk of colorectal cancer however, you can purchase nitrate and nitrite-free processed meats."

Adds Pankonin, "Some deli meats are cured, which is why you might see a pink or red tint in your meat. This is due to nitrates or nitrites being added for preservation purposes. These aren't necessarily a bad thing, as vegetables contain natural forms of nitrates. However, when nitrates are cooked with protein at high temperatures, this might lead to a cancer-causing compound. Again, this is why it's important to eat a balanced diet with plenty of forms of fruits and vegetables in order to decrease cancer risk."


It might lead to weight gain.

woman stepping on scale in pink flats

"Certain types of deli meat are higher in fat and calories than others. Salami and bologna are often the highest in fat," says Pankonin. "In fact, certain brands of bologna might be as high as 90 calories and 7 grams of fat per slice. This is why it's important to pay attention to serving size and calories from fat when purchasing deli meat."


It may increase your risk of diabetes.


"Preservatives added to deli meats such as nitrate turns into nitrosamines after reacting to meats which may generate oxidative stress, a pro-inflammatory phenomenon," says Valdez. "This phenomenon may then cause insulin resistance."


It might increase cancer risk for thyroid cancer.

doctor examines with her fingers, palpates her neck and lymph nodes

"Evidence is limited, but there have been studies and numerous literature reviews examining the relationship between deli meat and certain types of cancer," says Pankonin. "However, it could be that people who consume deli meat might displace certain nutrients like fiber and other cancer-preventing nutrients. This is why consuming a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is important to help lower cancer risk." For more reasons to add more whole foods to your diet, don't miss these 10 Benefits of Eating a More Plant-Based Diet.

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