Baseball season has officially begun and if barbecue season hasn’t kicked off in your region, it will soon enough. As you scan the stadium menu or what's sizzling on the grill, you may be wondering which of these all-American foods — a hot dog or hamburger — is the healthier option.
The quick answer is that neither one of these picks is going to hit it out of the ballpark, nutritionally speaking. But, then again, few of us head to the ballpark or to a barbecue to eat a salad, so let's take a look at how both stack up.
A typical frank is about 150 calories. Add the bun and some standard toppings (let’s say, ketchup, mustard and relish, though I know much could be said about hot dog toppings), and all in, you’re in the 300- to 350-calorie range. This is pretty tame as far as barbecue and stadium food goes.
The thing is, hot dogs are highly processed and contain lots of sodium as well as nitrates, which are chemical compounds that are used to preserve processed and smoked meats. Though nutrition and medical experts may dispute the healthfulness of certain foods or nutrients, processed meats are one of the very few foods that have been definitively linked to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat, like hot dogs, bacon, jerky and some deli meats, as a carcinogen — meaning, they cause cancer. To repeat: They cause cancer; not might, or may, possibly, or any other qualifier.
Processed meats are one of the very few foods that have been definitively linked to cancer.
Make no mistake: Even gourmet or organic versions carry the same risk. Un-cured or nitrate-free versions have natural sources of these preservatives (such as celery juice), that ultimately get converted to worrisome compounds once you eat them.
On the bright side, if you’re eating hot dogs from time-to-time, I wouldn’t worry excessively about this. Overall, it’s a good idea to limit processed meats, but a hot dog every now and then — especially in the context of an otherwise healthy diet (meaning, lots of veggies, fruits and other plant foods) — isn’t going to do you in.
A 4-ounce burger (which, let’s face it, isn’t that big) made from the typical 85-percent lean ground beef creeps close to 300 calories without the bun and toppings. Add the bun and a slab of cheese and you’re nearing the 500-calorie mark (and I’m being conservative here).
There’s also the pesky issue of red meat. The same agency report, which involved 22 experts from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies, suggests that red meat is a probable carcinogen. Not quite as bad, but not so good, either. And if cancer doesn’t concern you, both red and processed meats have also been linked to diabetes and heart disease.
But enough bad news. A single hamburger once in a while isn’t going to wreck an overall healthy diet, just as a single hot dog won’t. (Hopefully you knew I’d get here!) The idea is to keep tabs on your overall processed and red meat intake, while also making sure to get enough vegetables, fruits and other plant-based, wholesome foods, such as whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
From a calorie standpoint, the hot dog is the winner, but from an overall perspective, the hamburger is a better option. The 4-ounce hamburger has about six times the amount of protein as a hot dog, but about a quarter of the sodium. Nutritionally, that’s a better bargain. And the protein will help tame hunger — good news considering all of the other food choices that are probably staring you in the face when hot dogs and hamburgers are being served.
The 4-ounce hamburger has about six times the amount of protein as a hot dog, but about a quarter of the sodium.
TIPS FOR A BETTER BURGER OR DOG
Whichever way you go, there are a few ways to make these all-American favorites a bit healthier.
- Take note of toppings. Things like chili and cheese add more calories and sodium so see if you can live without these additions.
- Go for a whole-grain bun, when possible, or skip it altogether. If you’re dining at a stadium or even a friend’s backyard, you may not be in luck with a whole-grain bun, in which case, the white bread, while tasty, is another nutritional ding. The subject of burgers recently came up in separate conversations with two dietitian pals (for a total of three dietitians). Three out of three dietitians skip the bun.
- Consider what else you’re eating (or drinking). If the hot dog or burger is the main event, consider lightening up on some of the sides. This is another dietitian hack. If I’m having a burger, I’ll skip the fries (and the bun), and go for a salad and coleslaw instead.