The rich, smoky smell of grilled meat wafting through neighborhoods is a summer ritual. But while many of us love the taste of a charred steak, burger, or hot dog straight off the grates, flavor comes at the expense of healthfulness. Red meat – particularly processed meats like hot dogs and sausages – are high in fat, and they’ve been linked to an increased risk for cancer.
That doesn’t mean meat has to be entirely off the table – or grill. “We should be limiting red and processed meat to help reduce colon cancer risk, and possibly, the risk of other cancers. The occasional hot dog or hamburger is okay,” said Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, American Cancer Society managing director of nutrition and physical activity.
When it comes to staying healthy, how you cook your meat matters. Grilling a steak or burger until it’s well done might give it a nice charred flavor, but it also produces chemical byproducts called heterocyclic amines (HAs), which have been linked to cancers of the stomach and colon. As the fat cooks off and drips into the fire, the smoke it creates also blows other carcinogenic chemicals up and onto the meat.
If you’re going to grill red meat – which you should do sparingly – choose leaner cuts. When meat has less fat, it produces less smoke. Before cooking the meat, marinate it for about 30 minutes. A marinade made from wine or beer might significantly cut down on cancer-causing chemicals, research finds.
Place the meat on a piece of foil to reduce the amount of smoke that touches it. Cook it over a low fire for a longer period of time to avoid charring the meat. And keep meat on the grill only until it’s done – when the internal temperature registers 145 degrees Fahrenheit for steaks and lamb chops, and 160 degrees for burgers.
Although burgers and hot dogs are grill staples, they’re not the only foods worthy of a backyard cookout. Vegetables also get a nice char and smoky flavor on the grill, and you can cook them to well done without producing cancer-causing chemicals.
Portobello mushrooms make a good substitute for hamburgers, because they have a meaty, earthy flavor that pairs well with melted cheese and burger toppings. If you don’t want to give up red meat entirely, eat smaller portions of burgers and steaks and make up the rest with a medley of chopped onions, red and green peppers, squash, eggplant, and zucchini. Or, pile vegetables on a skewer to make grilled kebabs.
Fish is another healthy alternative to meat. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart and brain. Swordfish, halibut, salmon, and arctic char have a firm, rich texture that makes them excellent substitutes for steak. Sardine and mackerel are also good grilling fish because their skins crisp up over the fire. If you’re worried about the fish falling apart, sit it on tinfoil or in a metal pan on the grill. Shellfish like shrimp, scallops, and clams also cook well on the grill.
If you’re reluctant to let go of your hot dogs and burgers, switch to healthier versions. Make burgers with ground turkey or chicken, and use veggie or turkey hot dogs instead of beef or pork. Once you put them on a bun with a few condiments, you won’t be able to tell them apart from the real thing.
Don’t stop cooking after your main course is done. You can do dessert on the grill, too. When you grill fruits like pineapple, apples, and watermelon, which are high in sugar, the flames caramelize the fruit and make them even sweeter. Grilled fruit is a decadent dessert that avoids the guilt-ridden calories of cake and ice cream.
By making a few easy substitutions, you won’t have to sacrifice your summer cookouts to stay health-conscious.
June 20, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN