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Hamburger vs. hot dog: Which is healthier? Experts chime in

How bad are hamburgers and hot dogs for you? Nutrition pros weigh in to settle the debate about these classic American dishes that are summer-grilling staples.

With summer in full swing, your head may be swirling with thoughts of all the delicious condiments you’re going to pile high on your hot dog or hamburger. 

Before you dig in, you might want to educate yourself on the not-so-enticing health stats of these BBQ staples if you see healthier eating in your future.

"Both hamburgers and hot dogs are hyper-caloric foods with a higher saturated fat content relative to other foods or sources of meat," says Ben Schuff, a licensed dietitian nutritionist and director of naturopathy and nutrition at BIÂN Chicago. 

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"Summer is a time when people fire up the grill and indulge in delicious hot dogs and hamburgers, but it's important to remember that these foods may not always be the healthiest options," adds Melissa Wasserman Baker, a New York-based registered dietitian and founder of Food Queries.

Ahead, a breakdown of the nutrition content of burgers and hot dogs, plus the final verdict on which may be better for you, according to health experts.

Apparently not all burgers are created equal.

As Wasserman Baker shares, hamburgers can vary in nutrition content, depending on ingredients.

That’s why the registered dietitian says to look for lean ground beef or turkey with lower fat percentages.

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Going organic is also the healthier choice. 

Schuff says to seek out grass-fed, grass-finished organic lean ground beef, which "can reduce the saturated fat content and potential inflammatory nature of hamburgers." 

Schuff adds that store-bought burger patties often contain added sodium, preservatives and other additives to enhance flavor and prolong shelf life.

"Avoid terms like ‘pre-seasoned’ or ‘fully loaded’ as they may indicate higher fat and sodium levels," says Wasserman Baker, adding that you should opt for whole-grain buns and load up on veggies for added nutrients.

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Hot dogs, says Wasserman Baker, are often high in sodium and saturated fat, which can negatively impact your health. 

"When purchasing hot dogs, choose ones labeled ‘uncured’ or ‘nitrate-free’ to minimize exposure to potentially harmful additives," she says. 

Schuff comments that buying hot dogs with lower sodium levels can be a healthier choice, too. 

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Wasserman Baker advises seeking out options made with leaner meats, like turkey or chicken, and again, put your hot dog on whole-grain buns for added nutritional value.

Wasserman Baker says that in the face-off between hamburgers vs. hot dogs, both can be enjoyed in moderation. 

When it comes to the overall nutritional profile, though, she says that "hamburgers made with lean meat and loaded with veggies tend to offer a better balance of protein, healthy fats, and essential nutrients."

Schuff agrees.

"Hamburgers, typically made with ground beef, can provide a significant amount of protein, iron, and other essential nutrients," he says. "However, they are often higher in saturated fat and calories." 

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Meanwhile, says Schuff, hot dogs are generally lower in calories and fat, but they may contain more sodium and processed ingredients." 

Ultra-processed foods containing high sodium like hot dogs, cold cuts and bacon are linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, according to Harvard University's School of Public Health.

As Schuff puts it, in a head-to-head comparison, "you can much more easily choose a healthier option in hamburgers relative to hot dogs simply because hot dogs are, by nature, a significantly processed product without quality meats being sourced for the vast majority of products." 

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With hamburgers, he says, you can choose quality meat as mentioned earlier, season to your liking and prepare appropriately more so than hot dogs.

These aren’t health foods, either. 

"Veggie hot dogs and burgers can be an occasional alternative to someone at a summer cook-out that wants to be plant-based," says Schuff. 

"However, in general these foods, like conventional hot dogs and hamburgers, shouldn’t be a regular part of any diet as they are ultra-processed and are often derived from genetically modified and non-organic plant sources like soy, grain and wheat," he continues.

Schuff also notes that veggie-based hot dogs and hamburgers are naturally lower in calories and have some portion of dietary fiber, which is arguably healthier since dietary fiber is absent in meat-based hot dogs and hamburgers. 

Making a homemade veggie burger from scratch with ingredients like beans, quinoa and veggies, meanwhile, can be a nutrient-dense meal.

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If you’re buying veggie burgers or veggie hot dogs at the supermarket, keep these guidelines in mind, Wasserman Baker says.

"When opting for veggie dogs and veggie burgers, look for products made with whole food ingredients like legumes, vegetables and whole grains," she adds.

"Check the labels for minimal additives and avoid high sodium or artificial flavorings," Wasserman Baker continues. "Choose options that are lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber for a healthier choice."

The cooking method of grilling hot dogs or hamburgers (or any kind of meat for that matter) isn’t health supportive. 

"It’s important to note that grilling meat at high temperatures can lead to the formation of potentially harmful compounds, such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)," says Schuff. "These compounds have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer." 

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"Overall, these are foods that should be reserved for special occasions and not foods that are consumed on a regular basis, especially with the risks associated with grilling meats and converting surface compounds to more dangerous chemicals," he adds.

Wasserman Baker says enjoying hamburgers or hot dogs from time to time as part of an overall balanced diet and an occasional summer indulgence is perfectly fine.

"The key is to focus on portion sizes, leaner protein choices, whole-grain buns, and plenty of fresh toppings to boost the nutritional value," she says.

"Variety and moderation are key to a healthy eating pattern."

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