Healthy Grilling

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN
grilling vegetables

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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. "Charred meats that have been grilled at high temperatures or over an open flame undergo changes that increase chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer," says Kristen Gradney, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It is best to grill meat low and slow to prevent excess charring." Flipping food frequently also can prevent crusting.

Note: Always use a food thermometer to ensure food has reached a safe minimum internal cooking temperature.

Cut the Fat

Fat from 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 also have been linked to cancer. Trimming the fat from meat prior to cooking can reduce PAHs, as can removing skin from chicken or fish. Cooking outside the flame rather than directly over it also can help prevent flaring.

Marinate

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 burger or portobello mushroom. 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. "Cooking with a clean grill, free of lighter fluid or charcoal, prevents the contamination and consumption of food with these harmful substances," says Gradney. 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.

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