Ham: The Good, the Bad, and the Better Choices

hamIs eating ham healthy? It’s certainly something to ponder, whether ham only makes a holiday appearance at your table or is a regular indulgence. Truth is, compared to other meats, ham — the cut of meat from a hog’s hind leg that’s preserved by curing — gives many nutritionists pause.

But with Easter right around the corner and ham being a crowd favorite, let’s say we start with the good!

Ham, like all meat, is an excellent source of complete protein, with a 4-ounce portion serving up around 20 grams. An important component of every cell of the body, protein is needed to build and repair tissues, as well as make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals. And while we often associate greater protein needs with growing bodies, research is increasingly showing that pumping up your protein — no matter your age — can boost your health and help prevent a decline in muscle mass with aging. Along with thwarting weakness as we head into our twilight years, maintaining muscle mass has another powerful benefit: it decreases the risk of fracture from falls.

Ham, especially lean ham with its fat trimmed away, is relatively low in fat and calories, which is good for those watching their weight and fat intake. An average 4-ounce serving, for example, has only 120 calories and about 4 grams of total fat, of which only 1 gram is saturated fat.

Three more good reasons to eat ham, notwithstanding its delicious flavor?

Ham delivers healthy doses of selenium, niacin and phosphorous. While selenium plays an important role in the health of our immune system, both niacin, which helps raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, and phosphorous, which helps regulate heartbeat and muscle contractions, contribute to heart health.

And now for the bad. Ham — versions that are not reduced-sodium, that is — can be loaded with sodium. Loaded! We’re talking around 1,200 milligrams in a 4-ounce serving, which is almost all of the 1,500-milligram recommended daily limit for people with high blood pressure and over half of the 2,300-milligram limit recommended for healthy people. Consuming too much sodium, as many know, increases your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.

Also bad: Processed meats, like ham, can increase your risk for numerous health problems. Studies show that consumption of these cured meats has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. The nitrates used to preserve processed meats and improve the flavor are known carcinogens.

Honey-Balsamic Glazed Ham with Garlic

Adapted from Eatwell 101 (serves 12-15)

1 (5-6 pound) cooked bone-in ham (uncured, if available)
40 garlic cloves (about 4 heads)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Coarse black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F. Score ham in a diamond pattern by making shallow diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals. Place ham, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, soak garlic cloves in boiling water and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain from boiling water and rinse under cold water. Remove skin from cloves; it should come off easily. Pat dry, if moist.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in small skillet; brown garlic gently for a couple of minutes until golden, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Remove garlic and set aside. In the same skillet, combine water, balsamic vinegar, honey, mustard, rosemary, thyme, and pepper and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens. Add garlic back to the glaze and cook for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat.

Brush ham with about 1/3 of the honey-balsamic glaze, tent with foil, and bake for 50 minutes. Remove foil tent, brush with another 1/3 of the glaze, add garlic to the pan around the ham and bake for an additional 50 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Serve sliced ham with remaining glaze and garlic on the side.

Healthy tips

Eat ham in moderation. Choose lean, uncured (nitrate-free), low-sodium ham whenever possible. Uncured cooked ham is preserved with a celery juice-sea salt mixture that has naturally occurring nitrites, making it less harmful. Many groceries now carry healthier ham versions. When preparing ham, consider using less salt, less sugar, and ingredients that are lower in both.

Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at avpalumbo@aol.com.