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How To Make Grilling Healthier | A Guide to Healthy Grilling

Lifestyle, Nutrition, Seasonal

How do you know that summer has arrived? When the smell of rich, savory grilled meat wafts through the neighborhood, of course! If you know what I’m talking about, you know how mouth-watering the simple thought of such a meal can be — not to mention the taste. Grilling isn’t just a tradition, it can also be one of the healthiest ways to cook. There’s no oil to add extra fat and calories; no heavy breading or frying to weigh grilled foods down.

However, for the past few years, I’ve paused a few times before lighting a fire. There are a few dangers lurking under that grill cover! In short, grilled meat can be contaminated meat.  Not from the bacteria we are warned about that give meat a bad taste, a foul odor or a weird color, but rather, it’s the process of grilling (that makes meat taste so good) that is the contaminating culprit! 

Grilled Meat & Its Cancer Connections

When meat, poultry, pork, or fish is cooked over flames or very high temperatures, muscle proteins react with the heat to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs have been shown to cause DNA changes in cells that can lead to certain cancers.

As fat from the meat drips down onto the coals of the grill, it ignites and produces smoke, which contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When the smoke rises, it can deposit these chemicals on the meat. Exposure to this chemical is believed to cause certain cancers.

Studies have linked the consumption of grilled meat to an increased risk for colon, prostate, pancreatic, stomach, and breast cancers, especially if the meat is cooked to well done. One study found that eating charred meat on a regular basis increases the risk for pancreatic cancer by up to 60%.

Hot dogs and sausages pose an additional cancer threat in the form of chemical preservatives called nitrates and nitrites. These processed meats are associated with a higher risk for prostate, pancreatic, and other cancers.

How to Grill Meat to Reduce Toxins

To safely cook meat on the grill, time, temperature, and cut of meat are all important to take into consideration. Time will depend on the size of the cut of meat, as well as the cooking method. If necessary, you can cut your meat into smaller pieces to reduce the time necessary to bring it to a safe temperature for consumption.

Grilling is still a safe way to cook, provided that you do it in moderation and follow a few more grill safety tips:

  1. Keep It Lean 

Start with lean meat and cut off all the skin and visible fat before you grill. Not only will this make the meat healthier, but it also will limit flare-ups that can char the meat.

  1. Keep On Flipping!

Flipping food frequently may help prevent the formation of HCAs, according to recent research using hamburger patties. To turn meat without piercing it (which releases juices that drip onto the coals), use tongs or spatulas instead of a fork.

  1. Avoid Burning

Sorry, but burnt ends aren’t your friend. Limit HCAs and PAHs in your grilled meats by not consuming meat that has been over-cooked or charred (intentionally or otherwise). Cut off the charred pieces before eating any grilled meat!

  1. Marinate!

I love the idea of infusing flavor into meats, fruits, and vegetables by soaking them in a tasty marinade. Some favorite marinade ingredients include wines, vinegars, lemon or lime juice, low-sodium soy sauce, honey, garlic, onions, herbs, and spices. Use fat-free or low-fat marinades on your grilled meats, fish, and poultry to limit the fat that drips on the coals. The simple act of marinating before grilling has been shown in some studies to reduce the formation of HCAs by as much as 92% to 99%.

  1. Grill Veggies and Fruits

PAHs and HCAs don’t form on grilled fruits and vegetables! Plus, if you are having grilled meat, it’s a great idea to get antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in the same meal.

Oils To Use

Healthy oils and seasonings can add flavor and color, and also reduce HCA levels by as much as 90% in grilled meats and chicken. The oils provide potent antioxidants that block the formation of cancer-causing HCAs and PAHs.

Here are my tips on particular oils to use when grilling:

  1. For maximum flavor, and less toxins, use a non-seed oil that has a high smoke point when cooking so the oil doesn’t burn. Avocado oil has a smoke point of 400F and is the preferred choice over olive oils such as extra-virgin that have a low smoke point which means they start to burn, lose their flavor and become carcinogenic at 325°F.
  1. Save your olive oils for finishing your food with a drizzle, dressing a salad or dipping with bread.
  1. Use a dry rub instead of oil-based marinate.
  1. Spray or lightly brush food with oil rather than directly onto the grill to avoid creating more toxins due to high heat of grill’s grate.

Smoking vs. Grilling Meats

Although sauteed and pan-fried meats can also lead to the formation of PAHs and HCAs, studies show that smoking leads to higher levels of contamination. The smoking process creates these substances and also carries them to the surface of the meat.

Great, Safer Grill Recipes

Here are a few plant-based grilling recipes my clients love! They are packed with flavor and don’t create the harmful toxins that grilled meats do.  You could roast or braise your meat ahead of time and grill your side of veggies, or grill fruit for dessert!  

I’m confident your guests will be very impressed with your creative grill use, especially when you share that you prepared the food specifically with their health in mind. Try out one of these recipes at your next backyard BBQ and let me know how it goes in the comments.


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angela sitting outdoors on laptop eating healthy foods

About the Author

Angela is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), board-certified health coach and trained yoga teacher who helps clients achieve a healthy weight and gain control over their GI distress.

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