Building a Better Sandwich

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Building a Better Sandwich

Now that it’s August, you might be thinking about getting your kids back to school (or maybe heading back to school yourself), or returning to work after a well-deserved vacation. Heading back to work or school often brings up the issue of what to take for lunch, and inevitably, sandwiches come to mind. Given that August is National Sandwich Month, what better topic to write about this week?

Sandwich stats
Whether we make our own or stop to pick up a wrap or a panini, we Americans sure like our sandwiches. And, not surprisingly, there’s research to back that up. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2009–2012:


• On any given day, 47 percent of American adults ate a sandwich.
• More men than women ate sandwiches.
• Nearly one-half (48 percent) of sandwiches were eaten at lunch and about one third (31 percent) were eaten at dinner.
• Almost 80 percent of sandwiches eaten contained meat, poultry, or fish, and the most popular types of sandwiches were cold cuts, followed by burgers, and then poultry.

Sandwich pitfalls

Today’s sandwiches are a far cry from what you may have eaten as a kid. When I was in elementary school, my favorite sandwiches to bring were either peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Occasionally I had tuna fish. Always on Arnold or Pepperidge Farm white bread. You might pride yourself on eating your sandwiches on whole-grain bread (thumbs up) or slathering on mustard instead of mayo, but chances are, your sandwiches are bigger, not necessarily better. And bigger means more calories, more carbs, and more sodium. Take a look at the calorie count of some fast-food and chain restaurant sandwiches that seem, well, seemingly healthful:

• Panera Bread’s Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT:
640 calories, 50 grams of carbohydrate, 1,180 milligrams of sodium

• Subway’s Italian BMT:
390 calories, 51 grams of carbohydrate, 1,310 milligrams of sodium

• McDonald’s Chicken & Bacon Signature McWrap with Crispy Chicken:
600 calories, 48 grams of carbohydrate, 1,320 milligrams of sodium

Considering that sandwiches are rarely eaten in isolation (meaning, you might grab a bag of chips, a yogurt, a piece or fruit, cookies, and/or a beverage to go with that sandwich), you can see how some of these sandwiches aren’t exactly pictures of good nutrition for most people.

Making sandwiches better

If you’re willing to spend a little time in the kitchen, you can make a sandwich that’s tasty, filling, and nutritious. And you’ll save some money at the same time. Here’s how:


Whole-grain breads provide more nutrition and fiber, and may have less of a glycemic impact than white breads. Plus, they’re more filling than white bread. Look for whole-grain bread with at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.

Trying to cut carbs and calories? Give whole-grain sandwich thins a try. Or look for lower-carb breads. Whole-grain tortillas and lavash are other options. And to really slash carbs, use lettuce leaves in place of bread.


Including a protein food in your sandwich is a great way to help you meet your daily protein needs; protein can also help keep you feeling full so that you’re not hungry two hours later. Smart protein choices include:

• Turkey or chicken breast (minus the skin)
• Lean ham or roast beef
• Tuna
• Hummus
• Reduced-fat cheese
• Eggs
• Nut butters
• Edamame
• Tempeh strips

Skip the processed luncheon meats, or at least look for lower-sodium versions. If you’re at the deli, ask for thinly sliced or shaved meats. Also, go beyond traditional hummus and try white bean or black bean spreads on your sandwiches.


Make a point to include a vegetable in your sandwich whenever you can. Vegetables add nutrients, fiber, and water, and they’re a great way to bulk up your sandwich without going overboard on calories or carbs. Anything goes when it comes to veggies:

• Greens: lettuce, baby spinach, kale, Swiss chard
• Tomatoes
• Cucumbers
• Peppers
• Carrots
• Mushrooms
• Avocado
• Zucchini slices
• Onion
• Celery
• Jicama

Go easy with pickled cukes or peppers — they’re low in calories, but can be sky-high in sodium. Fresh is best.


Fruit on a sandwich? Why not? Fruit adds important nutrients and can provide a new twist to an old-standby. Try thin slices of these:

• Apples
• Pears
• Cantaloupe
• Honeydew
• Watermelon


Many a healthful sandwich has been undone with fatty spreads — namely, mayonnaise. One tablespoon of mayo weighs in at 90 calories. If you’re a die-hard mayo fan, use it sparingly. Lower-calorie options include:

• Reduced-fat mayo
• Low-fat plain Greek yogurt
• Mustard
• Hummus
• Mashed avocado

Even a drizzle of oil and vinegar (as used on many Italian sandwiches) can add flavor and moisture without all of the calories.

You now have the makings of a healthy sandwich! Some final advice: Keep portion sizes in check. Foot-long subs and oversized bulky rolls have “high-calorie” written all over them. By avoiding or limiting fast-food sandwiches and making your own, you’ll have more control over portion sizes and ingredients. And you can successfully join the ranks of healthy sandwich eaters everywhere!

Want to learn more about making your meals healthier without sacrificing taste? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” then check out our selection of diabetes-friendly sandwich recipes!

Originally Published August 15, 2016

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