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Are there healthier hot dog alternatives? Can you eat hot dogs in moderation? Answers to your questions about hot dogs and health

Are there healthier hot dog alternatives? Can you eat hot dogs in moderation? Answers to your questions about hot dogs and health
Are there healthier hot dog alternatives? Can you eat hot dogs in moderation? Answers to your questions about hot dogs and health

Hot dogs are a summertime staple—you can hardly go to a baseball game or a barbecue without experiencing at least one party where someone puts those sticks of meat on the grill. While hot dogs are extremely popular, many of us are aware that they’re pretty high on the list of “not so healthy” foods. What many of us don’t know is why—and if there’s any kind of hot dog that might be a little better for you.

That’s what experts say.

There are many different varieties of hot dogs on the market (including vegan ones), but let’s talk about the most traditional variety, which is a blend of meat, spices, flavorings, and preservatives. Different brands use different ingredients in their products, but traditionally hot dogs are made from pork or a combination of beef and pork. (The fact that hot dogs are a somewhat mysterious meat doesn’t help their cause.)

Nutritionist Michelle Routhenstein tells Yahoo Life that there are a few reasons why hot dogs have a bad reputation – namely because of their “high sodium and fat content, as well as heavily processed preservatives.”

The methods used to make hot dogs typically involve brining and smoking, which can lead to the formation of nitrosamines, Routhenstein says. Nitrosamines are carcinogens – substances linked to cancer and heart disease because they trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, she says. Oxidative stress can lead to cell and tissue damage.

One study found that people who eat about 5 ounces of processed meat (or fewer than two hot dogs) a week have a 46 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 50 percent higher risk of death than people who don’t eat processed meat, Routhenstein notes. A standard hot dog weighs about 1.5 ounces.

Hot dogs fall into the processed meat category, along with ham, sausages, corned beef and biltong or beef jerky. “Animal-sourced hot dogs are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, meaning the scientific evidence that they cause cancer is as strong as that for smoking and asbestos,” nutritionist Kaytee Hadley tells Yahoo Life.

If you’re wary of traditional hot dogs, you might think turkey sausages are a better alternative. But that’s not the case, says Hadley. “Eating red meat is worse for human health than poultry in many ways, but that’s not true for processed meats like hot dogs,” she says. “The negative effects are largely due to the way the meat is processed, not just what animal it comes from. The studies linking processed meat to cancer included poultry, so while you’re probably consuming less saturated fat, all of the other risk factors still apply.”

Hadley says vegan hot dogs, such as those made by Impossible Foods, may be a better alternative because “processing and cooking plants does not produce the same high levels of toxic compounds as animal meat.”

Many plant-based alternatives also contain less saturated fat and sodium, she says, and they contain no cholesterol. “Take Impossible hot dogs, for example, which have 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 50% less saturated fat and 45% less total fat than animal-based hot dogs,” says Hadley, “as well as 12 grams of protein per serving.”

Experts are divided on this issue. Hadley recommends limiting hot dog consumption to “special occasions and a few times a year” because of the cancer risk associated with eating processed meat. Routhenstein recommends eating hot dogs only once a month or less.

However, nutritionist Stephanie Van’t Zelfden tells Yahoo Life that she prefers her clients to take a moderate approach to their diets, saying hot dogs can “absolutely” be part of an overall “nutritious and balanced diet.”

“I would consider a ‘healthy’ hot dog to be the hot dog you like,” she explains. “You don’t have to choose a hot dog with turkey or plant-based ingredients if you don’t like them – you’ll just find yourself looking for something else to eat because you won’t be full.”

Instead, she suggests adding some healthy sides to your hot dog menu. For example, you can “add vegetables on top like you would on a Chicago-style hot dog, or a side of fruits, vegetables or whole grains to give your hot dog extra nutrients.”

Routhenstein says it’s ultimately about “balancing the plate.” While a hot dog may fit occasionally, she recommends focusing on “lean protein and complex carbohydrates” at most meals.

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