By Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, FACN, CNS, FISSN
Whether on the tailgate or the deck, Americans love to barbecue. And grilling gurus now barbecue everything from burgers to vegetables— if you can eat it, you can grill it.
However, is grilling healthy? In order to clear up any misconceptions about grill safety, we’ve gathered the facts on how to stay healthy and cut fat while enjoying your barbecue this summer.
Grilling is perfectly safe when done right and in moderation. But here are the facts: when animal flesh is grilled, heterocyclic amines (HCA) are produced in the meat. During the grilling process, the fats from the meats drip onto the hot coals and are deposited back onto the meat by smoke or flare-ups. This produces compounds called polycystic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Both of these grilling byproducts have been shown to produce cancer in animals and may increase the risk of cancers in humans.
However, the production of HCA and PAH can be minimized if you grill low-fat products like fruits and vegetables and use the cooking technique “blackening” on the grill. Blackened foods char only the seasonings on the outside of the meat, rather than the flesh. Marinating meats is another way to decrease HCA and PAH production.
More recent reports point to the production of a new class of toxins, advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), which develop during cooking and may accelerate aging and serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. However, while it sounds like a barbecued burger could do you in as quickly as a pack of cigarettes, the comparison isn’t even close. When it comes to grilling, moderation and variety are important for good food and good health.
The key to a diet low in AGEs is to include the great variety of foods naturally low in AGEs, and to include smaller amounts of foods that are high in AGEs, using high heat cooking methods like grilling and broiling on an occasional basis. If you are already following the recommendations for a healthy diet, you are automatically selecting foods that are generally lower in AGEs. A diet low in processed foods and abundant in fruits and vegetables, with several daily servings of dairy, including eggs, fish, poultry and vegetable proteins as your major protein sources is going to be low on the AGE scale. The same diet will help you tone muscle and cut fat.
The bottom line is that high-fat meats are the greatest concern when grilling, but a having a grilled high-fat meat every one in a while is not going to harm you. However, if you are grilling weekly and don’t want to use the blackening technique, consider taking some precautions.
Tips for The Healthy and Fit BBQ Guru
1. Grill more fish and less meat. The omega-3 fats that you get only from fish will help your heart, your brain and your muscles work better. Fish also enhances abdominal fat loss. Add that to the lower intake of AGEs and you’ll be smarter and look younger than your 20-something neighbor grilling the big, fat steaks.
2. Grilled vegetables and fruits are great for everyone. You need all the micronutrients to enhance energy metabolism, helping to increase muscle and burn fat. Adding veggies and fruits to the grill and your plate will help fill you up so you’ll eat less meat and fewer AGEs. Another great two-fer.
3. Protect your meat. You know what I mean… use blackening seasonings and marinades to lower the production of carcinogenic compounds. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how this works, but the techniques either act as a physical barrier, or perhaps the ingredients actually cause chemical changes that protect the meat. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, acidic ingredients like citrus juices, or herbs, spices and oils may contribute to the prevention of HCAs.
4. Trim the fat… it will look better on you. Use lean cuts of meat and trim the fat from meat and skin from poultry so that there’s less to drip onto the coals. Pre-cook meats and put them on the grill for a few minutes just for flavor.
5. Reduce the drips. Use tongs or a spatula instead of forks for turning meats. Cover the grill with punctured non-stick aluminum foil to prevent much of the splattering on the coals. Use a water spray to control flare-ups. Flip foods often so that they cook more quickly and evenly. Remove any charred or burned sections of the food before serving.
You can still keep the heat outside and the oven and stove off on the inside. While you might not want to grill every day, you can cook everything on the grill and throw a great party for one, two, or many: appetizer, entrée, vegetable and dessert. You’ll be eating great, healthy carbohydrates from the fruits and vegetables; fabulous fats from the marinades, nuts, seeds, olives and avocados and very lean proteins from fish and small portions of very lean meats.
Healthy Grill Recipes
Grilled Onion Appetizer
1. Preheat grill. Trim top and bottom of onion. Remove outer skin. Cut halfway through the onion from top to bottom to form an X.
2. Combine the oil, vinegar, wine and cheese and drizzle over the onion. Wrap in nonstick aluminum foil package and place in a closed grill for 30-45 minutes or until onion is tender.
3. Serve with hearty bread toasts.
Makes 2-4 servings
Grilled Honey Yogurt Chicken
• 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
• 1 tbsp honey
• 1/4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice (from the canned pineapple)
• Pinch of salt and pepper
• 2 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
• 4 canned pineapple rings in own juice
1. Preheat grill. Stir together the yogurt, honey, pineapple juice, salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the yogurt sauce and place on heated grill for 20 minutes, turning once after 10 to 12 minutes.
2. Place 4 pineapple rings on the grill during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Turn once and serve with the chicken.
Makes 2 servings
Marinated Grilled Eggplant
• 1 medium eggplant
• 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 2 tsp dry sherry
• 1/2 tsp olive oil
1. Preheat grill. Slice the eggplant into 1/2-inch thick slices.
2. Combine the vinegar, garlic, sherry and oil and mix until blended. Place the eggplant steaks in the marinade and coat the eggplant. Marinade up to 30 minutes, and no less than 5 minutes.
3. Grill until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Turn slices over and brown the other side. Serve hot with balsamic vinegar as a dipping sauce.
Asian Sesame Halibut
• 1/2 pound (8 oz.) halibut steaks
• 1/2 tsp sesame oil
• 4 tbsp soy sauce
• 1/2 cup apple cider
• 1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger root (1/2-inch slice)
• 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
• 1 tsp sesame seeds
1. Preheat the grill. Rinse the halibut with water and place in small pan with sides to marinade.
2. Mix together the sesame oil, soy sauce, apple cider, ginger and garlic and pour over the fish. Marinade in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
3. Grill 10 minutes per inch. The steaks do not need to be turned. Sprinkle with sesame seeds for the last 30 seconds to 1 minute of cooking, until the seeds are golden brown.
Makes 2 servings
Grilled Corn on the Cob
• Ears of corn in husks
• Large pan of water
1. Clean corn tassels of any undesirable particles. Soak in water for 1 hour so that husks are completely soaked through. Preheat grill.
2. Place cobs over hot coals and turn as the husks change color from green to white and brown as they steam. When husks are no longer green the corn is done. Carefully remove corn from husks and serve.
Grilled Fruit Kabobs
• 4 cups of mixed cut fruit: bananas, strawberries, mangos
• 1/4 cup melted butter
• 2 tbsp fresh lime juice
• 1 tbsp honey (optional)
• Grill pan or basket
1. Preheat grill. Cut or cube fruit into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Place on skewers, alternating pieces of fruit.
2. Combine butter, lime juice and honey. Brush fruit with butter mixture. Place on grill pan or basket at least 2 inches from coals. Grill 5 minutes on each side, watching for (and avoiding) flares.
Makes 4 servings
1. Uribarri J, Cai W, Peppa M, Goodman S, Ferrucci L, Striker G, Vlassara H. Circulating glycotoxins and dietary advanced glycation endproducts: Two links to inflammatory response, oxidative stress and aging. J Geronotology, 2007;62A:427-433.
2. Goldberg T, Cai W, Peppa M, Cardane V, Baliga BS, Uribarri J, Vlassara H. Advanced glycoxidation end products in commonly consumed foods. J Am Dietet Assoc, 2004;104:1287-1291.
3. American Institute for Cancer Research. The Facts About Grilling. Washington, DC, 2005.