When you're trying to eat nutritiously, grilling can be an excellent way to prepare meat, chicken, fish and veggies. But, as easy as grilling can be, you should follow some precautions to ensure your healthy meal isn't causing you unwanted harm.
Whether you're lighting up the outdoor grill or putting that indoor grill pan to good use, these tips can keep your grilled meal as delicious — and healthy — as possible.
1. Choose Lean Cuts — and Stay Away from Processed Meat
When it comes to choosing a piece of meat, make sure to grab a lean cut — such as flank steak, sirloin and choice grades — to cut down your intake of saturated fats. And definitely limit processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and sausage.
A June 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Heart Association's Circulation journal found that while red meat didn't increase participants' risk of heart disease, each 50-gram serving of processed meat was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease as well as a 19 percent higher risk of diabetes. To put that into perspective, a single hot dog clocks in at about 50 grams!
If you do happen to have a fattier cut of steak or pork that you want to throw on the grill, trim excess fat prior to cooking. Remove the skin from chicken to reduce the fat content as well. Not only will trimming fat keep calories off your plate, but it will also reduce the drippings in your grill — which means less post-dinner cleanup!
2. Use a Meat Thermometer
Use a meat thermometer to ensure that your meats are cooked to a safe temperature before digging in. Raw meat increases your chance of developing a foodborne illness. Safe temperatures as listed by the USDA are:
- Beef, pork, lamb and veal: minimum internal temperature of 145°F
- Ground meats: minimum internal temperature of 160°F
- Poultry: minimum internal temperature of 165°F
3. Prevent Char
While avoiding processed meats is one way to reduce your risk of disease, you should also be concerned with cooking technique.
Grilling meat over high heat causes the formation of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to cause changes in DNA that may increase your risk of cancer.
Research published in Cancer Medicine in April 2015 found that frequent intake of overcooked spare ribs or short ribs may cause colorectal cancer. Another study published in Cancer in November 2015 found that consuming charred and barbecued meats creates carcinogenic compounds that may increase your risk of kidney cancer.
Keep yourself safe by avoiding prolonged cooking times and remember to remove any charred portions of meat before you chow down.
Read more: How to Grill Steak on a Foreman
4. Flip Meat Often
The National Cancer Institute recommends flipping meat as often as you can to reduce the development of HCAs. Don't leave meat on the fire for long periods of time, which will prevent deep char marks from developing.
The Journal of Food Protection published a study in February 2014 that discovered that flipping your steak every two minutes during cooking also eliminates E. coli contamination. But, if you flip every four minutes, some bacteria may remain.
5. Throw Fish on the Grill
Barbecue staples are often burgers, hot dogs, sausages, ribs and steak. The American Heart Association suggests you choose fish as an alternative because it contains heart-healthy unsaturated fats including omega-3s, which can help guard against heart disease.
Choose firm fish, such as salmon or halibut steaks, and use a specialized fish grill basket to achieve that smoky flavor without losing your fish between the grates. Shellfish such as shrimp also cook quickly and tastily on the grill.
Read more: 7 Fish Recipes That Are Good for Your Heart
6. Add Some Beer
To your marinade, that is! A beer-based marinade may help reduce the formation of potentially harmful PAHs on your meat as it grills. Research in a March 2014 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that dark beer had the strongest effect on reducing eight major types of PAHs by nearly 70 percent compared to unmarinated pork. Lighter beers also had some effect, and wine and tea marinades can work, too.
Read more: 19 Ways to Improve Your Barbecue
7. Use Spices, Herbs and Citrus
Bottled barbecue sauces are often full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and preservatives. Not only that, but the April 2015 Cancer Medicine study found that BBQ sauce marinades can actually increase harmful HCA formation while grilling.
Skip the bottled stuff and boost the flavor of your grilled meat with a hearty spice rub, fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
Dried or fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley are fantastic flavor additions to a homemade marinade. Rub beef or chicken with spices such as cumin, chili powder and black pepper. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on grilled shrimp.
Throw out marinades that have come in contact with raw meat juices. The contaminated sauce could spread germs to cooked food, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns.
8. Don’t Forget the Vegetables
Grilling doesn't have to be synonymous with meat. Caramelize veggies for a scrumptious side dish or main entrée. Bell peppers, onions, zucchini, eggplant, corn, portabella mushrooms, sweet potatoes and radicchio are just a few to toss on the grill this season. Plus, you'll benefit from an array of minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients and fiber when you add more veggies to your diet.
Replace mayonnaise-based sides like coleslaw and potato salad with your grilled veggies. You can also offer cut-up veggies with hummus or guacamole as a side dish and make coleslaw with a vinegar-based dressing.
Read more: How to Grill Carne Asada
9. Grill Fruit for Dessert
Brownies and chocolate chip cookies may be standard barbecue dessert fare, but healthier options are just a grill rack away. Pineapple, mango and stone fruit (like peaches) grill up beautifully. The heat caramelizes the natural sugars to make an extra delicious treat that won't show up on your waistline.
Read more: Costco's Best and Worst Summer BBQ Foods
10. Buy a Better Bun
Place your perfectly cooked burger on a whole-grain bun rather than opting for white bread. The Journal of Chiropractic Medicine published a meta-review of studies in November 2016 that highlighted the benefits of consuming two to three servings of whole grains per day. Whole grains, the study found, may help ward off type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, including colorectal, pancreatic and gastric.
We like Angelic Bakehouse's sprouted buns and rolls, which serve up plant-based fiber and protein.
Read more: The Best Way to Grill a Frozen Burger
11. Keep the Grill Clean
After your cooking adventure, don't forget to thoroughly clean your grill so that burnt bits don't transfer to your food.
Not only does this buildup make your next meal taste bitter, but it can also lead to burning and smoking that makes your meat cook unevenly and form those potentially carcinogenic compounds.
If you use a wire bristle brush, wipe down the grill's surface with a damp paper towel to remove any bristles that may have gone astray and could make their way into your meal, the CDC warns.
Read more: 9 Must-Know Indoor Grilling Hacks
- Journal of Food Protection: "Effects of Selected Cooking Procedures on the Survival of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Inoculated Steaks Cooked on a Hot Plate or Gas Barbecue Grill"
- USDA: "Grilling and Food Safety"
- Cancer Medicine: "Meat Intake, Cooking Methods, Dietary Carcinogens, and Colorectal Cancer Risk: Findings From the Colorectal Cancer Family Registry"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Meat, Charred Meat Compounds and Kidney Cancer Risk"
- National Cancer Institute: "Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk"
- American Heart Association: "Meat, Poultry, and Fish: Picking Healthy Protein"
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: "Effect of Beer Marinades on Formation of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Charcoal-Grilled Pork"
- Journal of Chiropractic Medicine: "Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How to Grill Safely"
- Circulation: "Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus"