It’s almost the Fourth of July, and chances are you’re about to face the toughest choice of your summer: hot dog or hamburger? If you’re thinking “Both!” you’re in good company. But if you’re trying to make healthier choices this holiday, “both” probably shouldn’t be your response. Consider what a registered dietitian says about this age-old American debate.
The Hot Dog
Hot dogs typically have about 150 calories. Add a bun and some condiments, and you quickly hit about 300 calories — still a very reasonable amount of calories for a dinner entree. Their smaller size gives them a caloric advantage over the hamburger, but there are some disadvantages to hot dogs.
Hot dogs have about 5 grams of saturated fat, which is pretty high for what you’re getting. They’re also packed with sodium (about 500 mg in contrast to 375 mg a burger might have) and sodium nitrites or nitrates, which may have links to cancer. But most of all, because hot dogs are small, and not terribly filling, you’re more likely to have more than one, leading you to potentially eat more food overall.
How to make a hot dog healthier
“The biggest thing overall is being careful how many hot dogs you’re having,” said Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, and owner of nutrition consulting company Active Eating Advice. “Hotdogs are going to be fattier and contain more sodium content when compared to a piece of grilled chicken, for example, but are they terrible for you? Not necessarily. If you’re just having one or two throughout the day, you’re probably safe, but if you’re doing a Fourth of July eating contest with them, then yes. That’s a problem.”
Bonci also points out that people typically don’t put cheese on hot dogs at the Fourth of July, so that’s one step in the right direction. Relish, mustard, and onion are all healthy topping options. Even the bun, she said, isn’t a big deal, since hot dog buns are relatively small.
If you’re looking to cut carbs, skip the bun and maybe just eat a teeny bit of potato salad to satisfy instead, said Bonci.
And if you’re concerned about the nitrites, eating your hot dog with sauerkraut or a side of fruit salad offsets the risks, said Bonci.
Hamburgers are tricky because they can vary so much in size. The USDA recommends a 3-ounce serving of meat, but a standard fast food burger is about 4-ounces, and a typical restaurant burger is at least twice that.
Then there is the fat level of the beef. An average burger with cheese and toppings can easily add 700 to 800 calories onto your day. So how should you navigate your holiday to make sure you don’t end up with a — er — Whopper of a burger?
How to make a hamburger healthier
First, consider the fat content. Some people buy 80/20 for a juicier burger and some people go for 90 percent ground sirloin.
“That’s the biggest differentiator,” said Bonci. “People can make a healthier burger by choosing a meat that is lower in fat.”
If you’re in charge of making burgers, splurge. Leaner costs more, but you’ll be setting yourself up for a Fourth of July meal that won’t tip the scale. Or consider a blended burger.
“A blended burger is basically a 50/50 blend of ground meat and finely chopped mushrooms. The mushrooms help keep it moist, too,” said Bonci. “You’ve just reduced the calories and fat by half.”
Ground chicken, turkey or even salmon, tuna or veggie burgers are great options, as well.
“Even the idea of sliders is great for the Fourth. That way you can decide to have a little burger instead of something enormous,” said Bonci. “Plus, you’ll be able to enjoy tastes of some of the other options on the table.”
Whatever you choose as a burger base, skipping the cheese, or using less cheese, is a sure-fire way to make your meal healthier. Bonci suggests topping it with thick cut tomato and lettuce, and maybe skipping the bun, since hamburger buns are usually fairly large in size.
“The bun doesn’t really add much enjoyment to your meal. You can skip it, and eat a teeny bit of pasta salad or potato salad instead and still feel full, and be much more satisfied.”
So what’s the healthier Fourth of July pick?
“I would go with the burger,” said Bonci. “You’re going to get more protein, and you can make it a lot healthier if you’re cooking it yourself.”
With the proper portion and without cheese, you can come in with a 300 calorie (about the same as a hot dog) protein-packed main entree that has much less sodium than your average hot dog. You can load it with fresh veggie toppings and it’s a much leaner choice overall.
Other Fourth of July dietary considerations
Of course, for most Fourth feasts, the meat is just the beginning. Cookouts come complete with a shameful number of sides, snacks and desserts. Here are some other tips Bonci has for eating healthy this holiday:
- Potato salad and macaroni salad can be made healthier with just a few easy changes. “Do half mayo, half Greek yogurt, and add a little mustard in there for some zip,” suggest Bonci. “You get a really creamy mouth feel, but with fewer calories.
- Instead of baked beans with pork fat, choose a vegetarian baked bean or make a mixed bean salad with black, red and white beans with a vinaigrette.
- And update that old pasta salad by adding half pasta and half zucchini or veggie noodles. It’s less carbs and less calories, but once you cover it in pesto, or your favorite dressing, you’ll never notice.
- Try new interesting dishes like broccoli slaw for variety.
- You can do better than chips and pretzels. While you have that grill fired up, consider what else you can make with it. Grill watermelon, pineapple, onions and veggies brushed with a bit of orange marmalade or red pepper jelly for a fantastic treat.
- Fill up on fruit. It’s going to be hot, so keep some hydrating fresh fruits like cantaloupe and watermelon handy.
- Look for the tiny cones they sell in some stores. You can still get a small taste of ice cream without eating a larger serving.
- Serve fresh fruit with maybe some whipped ricotta or chocolate sauce for dipping. “It tastes indulgent, but it’s relatively healthy,” said Bonci.
- If you’re trying to stay slim, skip the colossal cocktails. Instead of a pina colada, try some rum with a bit of pineapple juice and coconut water, suggests Bonci. Or use one of the many popular seltzer waters as a mixer instead of sugary colas.
- Soda and pop will only add empty calories to your day. Try infusing water by adding melon, berries or cucumber to your pitcher. And remember to drink up! Fourth of July is going to be a hot one, and staying hydrated should be the easiest food and drink decision you’ll make all day.
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