I can be Debbie Downer Dietitian at times, spoiling everyone’s food fun.

At the same time, I will be the first to admit that I do not follow my own “food rules” 100% of the time and I don’t expect my clients to do so either.

So now that we are heading into outdoor cooking and eating weather, what is my advice on grilling food – healthy or not, or somewhere in-between?  And what do I do personally?

Short answer: limit or avoid grilling, especially if you have a metabolic health problem.

Long answer: you can make grilling food healthier by taking a few simple steps. But still a good idea not to grill too often – I generally eat grilled food less than one time per week in the summer.

Why grilling meat and other animal protein is harmful.

It is because all browned meats develop toxic DNA-damaging compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are strongly linked to an increased risk for cancer. The higher temperature used for cooking and the darker brown and even black they become, the greater the amount of HCAs and PAHs that are created. Grilling temperatures are typically the highest of all cooking methods, and the food is more likely to get very dark on the outside, increasing the toxins in the foods. But even pan-searing can create an undesirable amount of these toxic chemicals.

Meats, especially fatty meats, will develop the highest levels due to the heat and flame generated when the fat drips onto the heat source of the grill. Leaner proteins such as chicken and fish are usually less problematic. Maybe this is one reason we are advised that red meat is linked to cancer?

Besides never grilling again, what can you do?

First and foremost, use the lowest grill temperature that gives you the results you want.

Beyond that, here is good evidence that marinating your protein foods in an acid-based marinade for a couple of hours can substantially reduce the amounts of HCAs and PAHs. (I have included links to recipe ideas below). You will also want to add herbs to the marinade, for example rosemary and garlic to a lamb marinade, as this can further reduce the quantities of toxins. Avoid brushing on sweet-tasting barbeque sauces, the sugar in them increases the formation of toxins during grilling.

It can be a good idea to pre-cook meat at lower temperatures in the oven and then finish with a brief grilling. Turning meat frequently also helps as the temperatures won’t get quite as high on the surface. Finally, if you like grilled chicken, here is one time I would advise you to remove the skin before grilling as the fat under the skin can increase the browning of the chicken. Save that skin for your chicken soup.

What about vegetables – grill or not?

We know that starchy foods develop a known carcinogen called acrylamide when fried or baked – an indication again is how brown they turn. Because vegetables are moister and have substantially less protein (which is part of the undesired reaction) grilling vegetables is not generally considered a problem compared to meats and poultry. But still, avoid letting your vegetables get more than just a medium brown to be on the safe side.

What else should you eat when you do choose to eat grilled meats?

Broccoli to the rescue! Compounds found in vegetables in the cabbage family help block the damage that HCAs and PAHs do to our DNA, but they can’t completely prevent it of course. This is where a nice lemony-vinegary-cabbage-broccoli slaw comes in. Not only a good balance of flavors with a heavier meat entrée, but protective of your health at the same time. And if you are really want the most protective veggie, include a salad made with arugula or watercress and perhaps a handful of broccoli sprouts.


Tips to make a marinade for grilling meats:

References for additonal reading: