March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Warmer weather means it's time to get out of the kitchen and fire up the barbecue. While grilled foods are packed with flavor, the way you prepare them can have a big impact on how healthy they are. Follow these simple steps for a cookout that's tasty and good for you.
Dial Down the Heat
When proteins in meat, chicken and fish are cooked at searing temperatures, cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, form, especially where meat is charred. "Lower temperatures keep charring to a minimum so think low and slow," says Amanda Bontempo, MS, RD, oncology dietitian at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. Flipping food frequently can also prevent crusting.
Note: Always use a food thermometer to ensure food has reached a safe minimum internal cooking temperature.
Cut the Fat
Fat from your meat can drip into your grill's flame, causing it to flare up. The flame and resulting smoke contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which have also been linked to cancer. Trimming the fat from your meat prior to cooking can reduce PAHs, as can removing skin from chicken or fish. Cooking outside the flame rather than directly over it can also help prevent flaring.
One easy way to minimize HCAs and PAHs is to marinate meat for at least 30 minutes before grilling. Acidic ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice or orange juice are especially effective. Or try beer, wine or even green tea.
Mix It Up
Fruits and vegetables are less likely to form carcinogens at high heat, so try swapping produce for some of your animal protein. Barbecue a veggie or Portobello mushroom burger. Thread tomatoes, onions, squash and peppers on kebabs. Or grill pineapple, peaches or nectarines for a gooey, naturally sweet dessert. You'll cut carcinogens and add cancer-fighting phytochemicals to your meal in the process.
Keep It Clean
Too much heat isn't the only thing that can turn a good barbecue bad. Make sure your food is safe by discarding any unused marinade and using clean utensils and plates for cooked food. "It's also important to use a clean grill that hasn't come in contact with lighter fluid or charcoal which can also contain harmful substances," says Bontempo. When the cookout is over, make sure your grill cleaning brush has no loose bristles that can fall onto the grates and potentially stick to food next time you grill.