Hot dogs are a staple American indulgence, particularly in the summer. We love to grill wieners during backyard barbecues, sink our teeth into red hots at the ballpark, and enjoy frankfurters at festivals and other events.
But as most of us are aware, hot dogs will never be mistaken for a health food. In fact, they can be downright dangerous to our long-term well-being, says Nancy Farrell Allen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Farrell Dietitian Services in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“Hot dogs are a processed meat food that may contribute to colon cancer and cardiovascular disease,” says Farrell Allen, who also is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They have a high saturated fat and sodium content.”
Studies have found that regularly eating processed meats such as hot dogs also can raise your risk of type-2 diabetes.
Still, only a culinary curmudgeon would suggest banning hot dogs from our diet. Fortunately, there are ways to make this traditional treat a bit more healthful.
How to make hot dogs better for you
Given that a hot dog itself packs an artery-clogging punch, there is no need to compound the program by loading up a wiener with cheese, sugary ketchup and even bacon. Instead, Farrell Allen suggests keeping your condiments simple.
“Use veggies to top off a hot dog,” she says. Examples of more healthful toppings include:
- Sliced tomatoes
- Purple cabbage
“Adding baked beans is a fun topping,” Farrell Allen says.
She also suggests eating a small snack before any major picnic or summer outing where you might be tempted to eat hot dogs or other unhealthful fare. “It may prevent you from overeating during the main event,” Farrell Allen says.
It also goes without saying that avoiding jumbo hot dogs can help to reduce the unhealthful impact of eating a frankfurter. And even the smallest of changes – such as dropping your hot dog into a 100% whole wheat bun – can help.
What about “all natural” hot dogs that have no sodium nitrite? Some experts say these hot dogs might not be as healthful as many think.
Manufacturers typically replace sodium nitrite with celery extract or powder. However, experts say celery is high in nitrates, which are converted into nitrites in amounts that make them little better than the sodium nitrite they replace.
Substitutes for hot dogs
An even better way to protect yourself from the unhealthful aspect of hot dogs is to choose a similar but more healthful alternative to hot dogs themselves.
“Vegetarians or vegans sometimes swap a carrot for the hot dog,” Farrell Allen says.
With this option, you boil a whole carrot, then season and marinate it with a combination of vinegar and seasonings for several hours.
When the carrot is ready, you grill it. “You might want to use a vegetarian chili for a topping,” Farrell Allen says.
Farrell Allen lists several other more healthful alternatives to hot dogs, including:
Want a true “out of the box” alternative? Farrell Allen suggests elk burgers.
“Elk is low in fat and cholesterol, contains heart-healthy omega-3 fat and is high in protein,” she says.
Making your summer diet more healthful
Hot dogs aren’t the only summer staple that can put your long-term health at risk. People tend to indulge in red meats, fried foods and other unhealthful fare at everything from summer parties to food festivals.
To limit the damage, keep the following in mind.
Choose more healthful cuts of meat.
Grilling is a way of summer life in America. So, try to build your barbecue around better choices, such as eschewing red meats and processed meats and instead grilling skinless chicken breast, fish and lean ground poultry.
Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Summer foods don’t have to be unhealthful. More nutritious summer choices include sweet watermelon and juicy red tomatoes.
Avoid sugary beverages.
Summer is a time when we tend to reach for sodas, lemonade and other sugary beverages. But such drinks raise the long-term risk of developing health conditions ranging from obesity to type-2 diabetes to heart disease. Instead, choose a glass of ice-cold water more often, perhaps with a twist of lemon or lime.