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I’m a fan of summer. The beach, the outdoors, more sunshine… not to mention backyard cookouts featuring our favorite mouth-watering BBQ on the grill.
While I love a good barbecue (I am a Southern girl, after all), grilling recipes don’t always make for the healthiest meal. For one, most of us grill more meat than veggies, and second, charring food just isn’t the healthiest way to eat it.
Before you think I’m a total killjoy, hear me out… I am not suggesting we quit our backyard BBQs! Far from it. There are things we can do to reduce the health hazards of grilling, and many delicious grilling recipes that involve plenty of veggies.
Basically, a few simple changes in the way you grill can make all the difference!
The (Health) Trouble With Grilling
In the hot days of summer, cooking out-of-doors just makes sense. Unfortunately, the process of cooking over a high-heat open flame creates chemical reactions that can turn healthy food into a health hazard.
Cooking meat on high heat can produce chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are mutagenic, meaning they change DNA, possibly increasing risk of cancer. HCAs are not formed when cooking on lower heat.
Food (and our bodies) contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs) naturally. But cooking over high heat creates more. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND) explains that dry high heat increases AGEs in food by 10-100 times.
Grilled foods have more AGEs than foods that are not grilled (even vegetables). But the highest numbers come from grilled foods that contain fat (meat).
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created when wood, coal, oil, etc aren’t burned completely. They are also created when meat is cooked over high heat and the fat drips into the fire. The smoke that comes from both of these deposits on the food. (You can also breathe them in when standing at the grill.) Since PAHs are linked to GI and lung cancer as well as leukemia, it is best to avoid them.
None of these sound like tasty additions to our backyard meals, so let’s talk about how to minimize the risks.
Tips for Grilling Without Guilt
Avoiding grilled food is an obvious solution here but definitely not a fun choice. Grilling is a staple of summer entertaining and I’d sooner give up my coffee than my backyard barbecue! Luckily there are some options for reducing the health issues surrounding grilled food so we can enjoy summer the way we want to.
Use a Gas Grill
When trying to decide between charcoal and gas grills, gas is the better choice. Gas does not create PAHs in the amount that other materials (like charcoal) do. In fact, a 2018 study found that grilling over charcoal created four times more carcinogens than gas.
In addition, it’s easier to control the heat on a gas grill than a charcoal grill so you can keep the heat low to avoid creating HCAs.
However, the same study found that lump charcoal (charcoal created by burning wood, like in a campfire) is less harmful than charcoal briquettes. The reason is probably because there are additional chemicals added to briquettes during manufacturing to keep the charcoal burning evenly. Gas is still the winner by far, but if you must cook with charcoal, make it lump charcoal (and skip the lighter fluid!).
Rather than use charcoal when we camp or go to the beach, we take along this portable gas grill.
Use Marinades and Rubs
Marinating and dry rubbing meat before cooking is a good way to reduce harmful compounds (and they make the food taste amazing too!). Here’s what the science shows:
- Marinating meat in beer or wine reduces carcinogens by 40 percent according to a 2008 study.
- Herbs and spices are even better for reducing harmful compounds in grilled food.
- Research published in the Journal of Food Science shows that a marinade made with garlic, thyme, and sage reduced carcinogens by 88 percent.
- A 2010 study published in the same journal found that rosemary extract reduced carcinogens by 90 percent! (Yay for the naturally powerful benefits of herbs and spices!)
The lesson here is: always marinate (or dry rub) your meat before grilling. Also, use culinary herbs that have medicinal properties to combat the negative effects of grilling.
Cook a Little Differently
Grilling is usually a hot and fast cooking method, which is what gives it the crusty outside and soft inside. But if you plan ahead to have some extra time for grilling, you can reduce some of the risks. HCAs begin to form at 325 degrees, so if we can cook foods at a lower temperature we can avoid them in grilled food.
Additionally, another JAND study found that acidic mediums (like a tomato-based BBQ sauce) and low moist heat stop new AGE formation.
Eat a Little Differently
Typical summertime fare usually includes a lot of pasta, potato salad, and other starchy sides. Healthier versions of these sides (ideas below) can change how these toxic compounds affect the body by providing antioxidants that fight oxidative stress and free radicals in the body.
Healthy Grilling Tip: If your food is already charred, remove the outer blackened or charred pieces and eat the insides instead.
The longer food is being cooked at high temperatures, the more likely toxic compounds are to form. Pre-cook meats in the oven, slow cooker, or pressure cooker, and then put on the grill for a few minutes for the grill marks and BBQ flavor.
Additionally, vegetables take much less time to cook on the grill (and contain antioxidants). So consider grilling vegetables with, or instead of, meat.
Choose Protein Wisely
Steaks and burgers are pretty standard backyard foods but other protein sources may be better for grilling. Fish and chicken have lower levels of the amino acids that contribute to HCAs. Cooking them on the grill won’t produce as many HCAs (but will still have a grilled taste and texture). Fish and other seafood is especially good choice because it doesn’t need to cook as long as other meats so it’s less affected by the high heat.
We’ve been grilling a lot less since getting our Cinder Grill. It looks like a giant panini press and you can use it indoors to cook meat, fish, veggies, or anything that needs that perfect sear. It also works like a sous vide (without the plastic or boiling) and is temperature controlled so you can’t overcook food.
It’s a pricey appliance (we got ours on Amazon) but makes food so perfectly that it saves us from ever feeling the need to have an expensive dinner out… the food at home is just as good if not better!
What to Make: Healthy Grilling Recipes
Hot dogs and hamburgers are not the only choices for the grill. (And certainly not the healthiest!) Use the above tips with the following easy grilling recipes for a perfect backyard BBQ!
Meaty Main Dishes for the Grill
Meatball Shish Kabob – These easy meatball shish kabobs get their incredible flavor from shredded pineapple and coconut aminos, mixed right into the meatball. Also a good one to make in bulk and freeze for last-minute entertaining.
Honey & Spice Grilled Pork Loin – Simple and flavorful pork tenderloin to feed the family or a crowd.
Grilled Thai Shrimp – We eat a lot of seafood, so this is a family favorite with flavors of garlic, orange, lime, honey, and a touch of sriracha. I like to serve this with a big green salad with ginger dressing. If you can’t find good shrimp, I recommend this source.
Grilled Chicken Pineapple Kebab – The name pretty much says it all. Again, kids love any food they can eat with their fingers!
Slow Cooker BBQ Ribs – This one avoids the grill altogether, but still deserves high honors in the BBQ lineup.
Smokey Lime Grilled Chicken – Just the description is guaranteed to make your mouth water. Say it with me: smokey lime grilled chicken with strawberry salsa. Mmmm… also try this sweet and savory citrus grilled chicken.
Grilled Salmon Burgers with Sweet Potato Buns – Doesn’t this sound amazing? I haven’t made this one yet but it’s on my must-try list.
Grilled Spatchcock Chicken – Funny name, but it’s just a simple way to cook a whole BBQ chicken. Minimal prep, simple spices, and feeds a crowd.
Kofta Kebabs – Forget burgers! These delicious meat kebabs use ground lamb and warming spices like cinnamon and cumin for an exotic and exciting meal. Highly recommend with a big Greek salad.
Vegetables on the Grill
Lemon Parsley Grilled Zucchini – Think vegetables can’t be mouth-watering? Think again!
Marinated Grilled Vegetables – I love this colorful mix and often throw in whatever is looking good at the farmer’s market. This recipe also follows the healthy grilling practices thanks to the marinade.
Grilled Yellow Squash Recipe – My favorite way to make summer squash from the garden.
To go with your grilled food, here are some tasty and antioxidant-rich side dishes.
Grilled Chicken and Citrus Salad – Apples, oranges, strawberries, cucumber, and hardboiled eggs make this a salad a meal in itself. Add optional grilled chicken to round it out.
Strawberry and Feta Salad – Hands down my favorite summer salad. A beautiful dish to serve to company as well.
Notato Salad (Nightshade-Free Potato Salad) – If you’re working on an autoimmune issue or undergoing an elimination diet, this is a great substitute for potato salad.
Fourth of July Watermelon Blueberry Salad – Of course you can have it other times of the year, but the red, white, and blue (and seasonal produce) make it perfect for July 4th!
3-Ingredient Mediterranean Salad – Simple is always best in my book. I love this take on a summer salad with loads of fresh parsley for extra health benefits.
Honey Lime Fruit Salad – This fruit salad often serves as dessert at our house.
Bottom Line: Heat Up the Grill and Enjoy!
There are plenty of ways to reinvent what goes on the grill. I may not be loading up on the all-American favorites like hot dogs and s’mores, but I will be enjoying time with family and friends cooking outdoors this summer. If you try some of these grilling recipes, let me know how you like them!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Galamaga, whois a board-certified internal medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
What are your favorite grilling recipes (and how do you make them healthier)?
- Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet
- Uribarri, J. (n.d.). Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet. Retrieved from https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(10)00238-5/fulltext
- Palimeri, S., Palioura, E., & Diamanti-Kandarakis, E. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562717/
- Melo, A., Viegas, O., Petisca, C., Pinho, O., & Ferreira, I. M. (2008, November 26). Effect of beer/red wine marinades on the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines in pan-fried beef. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18950185
- Smith, J. S., Ameri, F., & Gadgil, P. (2008, August). Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19241593
- Puangsombat, K., & Smith, J. S. (2010, March). Inhibition of heterocyclic amine formation in beef patties by ethanolic extracts of rosemary. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20492265
- Badyda, A. J., Widziewicz, K., Rogula-Kozowska, W., Majewski, G., & Jureczko, I. (n.d.). Inhalation Exposure to PM-Bound Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons Released from Barbecue Grills Powered by Gas, Lump Charcoal, and Charcoal Briquettes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28681185