Is Grilling Healthy? (+ Grilling Recipes)

Katie Wells Avatar

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This post contains affiliate links.

Read my affiliate policy.

Healthy Grilling Recipes
Wellness Mama » Blog » Recipes » Is Grilling Healthy? (+ Grilling Recipes)

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.

Here’s why:


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.

Pre-cook Meats

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.

Skip Grilling

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!

And don’t forget the homemade BBQ sauce!

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!

BBQ Grilled Chicken Breasts – A summertime classic, topped with homemade barbecue sauce. I use this method to get tender, juicy chicken every time.

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

Grilled Okra – I could go on all day about the health benefits of okra (hmm, blog post idea…). Here’s how I usually make it, but the grill is a great way to prepare it too!

Grilled Zesty Sweet Potatoes – I’m always a fan of sweet potato “fries.” This is a delicious version for 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.

Side Dishes

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.

Broccoli Slaw – If you buy a pre-made slaw mix this one takes only minutes to mix up (and no chopping). I keep this mayo on hand when there’s no time to make homemade mayo (which you can’t beat!).

Caprese Salad – Some classics are already healthy! Fresh basil from the garden and a quality olive oil really takes this salad to the next level if you have it.

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.

Mango Lime Cabbage Slaw – If you’re really wanting the freshness of summer in a bowl, this is it. This one will take a bit of chopping, but with a glass of wine nearby, who cares?

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.

Cilantro Lime Rice – I love this recipe with fish tacos (just grill the fish instead). I double the liquid ingredients and then strain when the rice is cooked to reduce any arsenic.

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)?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


15 responses to “Is Grilling Healthy? (+ Grilling Recipes)”

  1. Dawn Avatar

    Hey, there mama(Katie)! I was wondering what you do you think of infrared grills? I just saw it on a few tv shows and thought I better ask. Never seen them before. I think it’s becoming a thing. But I was wondering about the radiation? If that is an issue even? Not sure. What’s your thoughts?

    Thank you for your time 🙂

  2. Sue Avatar

    Hi Katie. That’s a good idea for healthy grilled menu. I’m interested in Pre-cook Meats, so we can grill in a short time. I intend to do as you suggested. I think I should have a slow cooker for pre-cooking. Thanks for your sharing. I believe that my dinning party must be fun, full, and healthy.

  3. Kimberly Avatar

    Katie, What are your thoughts on the infrared grills? Same as a standard gas grill or do you have concerns with this type of heat? Thanks!

  4. Whitney McCarthy Avatar
    Whitney McCarthy

    What is your go to burger patty recipe? What spices? Egg or no egg? Bread crumbs? Etc??? Thanks so much!!

  5. Justin Avatar

    This is such a great resource! Thanks so much for including our Marinated Grilled Veggies! 🙂

  6. Judy Avatar

    I too would have a hard time giving up summer grilling and I’m glad to know there are healthier ways to keep enjoying it! Thanks for including our 4th of July Watermelon Blueberry Salad in your side dish options!

  7. Anne Avatar

    Questions about the “Honey & Spice Grilled PORK LOIN” recipe. It calls for a 3-4 lb PORK LOIN. but at other times it’s referred to as a TENDERloin. I’ve never seen a TENDERloin more than 2 pounds. So are you referring to the LOIN or the TENDERLOIN cut?

  8. Robyn Stone Avatar
    Robyn Stone

    Great tips for grilling – and some delicious recipes! Thanks so much for sharing a link to my Grilled Okra! It’s one of our family summertime favorites! Have a wonderful summer!
    Robyn xo

  9. Brittney Avatar

    Great post! I’d love to know your thoughts on pellet grills/smokers like the Traeger. We have yet to own any sort of grill and I’ve been considering just keeping things that way while we save up for a Traeger.

  10. Dianne Avatar

    I know people that are neighbors of mine always use the charcoal in grilling but wait till he charcoal is just glowing and use aluminum foil on the grill part and no fat gets in the grill and then put a lid cover over the food to cook it. Therefore the food isn’t charred and tastes great and I feel safer to eat than if you cook over the flame and get the meat and vegies charred.

  11. Sharon Avatar

    Great article! Shared with my Facebook friends. One of my friends is battling cancer and grills almost daily. Great way to share this information. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *