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Healthy Summer Cookouts in 12 Easy Steps

Small tweaks can make a big difference

I love a good cook-out – after all, al fresco meals are the quintessence of Mediterranean summer dining.

Nonetheless, I get a little nervous about the health implications of some of the foods traditionally eaten at summer picnics and barbecues. So at the risk of sounding like a party-pooper, I want to show you here how you can avoid some of the pitfalls of barbecuing and still have fun-filled summer feasts with friends and family.

First, the bad news.

Many barbecue staples – processed hot dogs and sausages, hamburger patties made from industrially reared beef, factory-made white-flour buns, sugary ketchup, mayonnaise made from low-quality seed oils, deep-fried potato chips and artificially flavored and colored desserts – aren’t exactly nutrient-dense super-foods.

Moreover, grilling meat over charcoal, wood or gas fires can lead to the formation of highly toxic compounds associated with increased cancer risk.

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These include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are formed when fat drips into the coals, creating flare-ups and smoke that carries the PAHs back on the meat where they settle. Several of these are mutagenic – i.e. they can change the DNA in our cells, which in turn can give rise to cancerous changes. Fatty meats, where the fat melts and drips into the heat source, are particularly prone to producing PAHs.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are another unhealthy compound that’s produced when muscle meats and fish are cooked at high temperatures (above 300°F/150°C) – and not just on the BBQ, but also in frying pans.  HCAs are thought to increase the risk of colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, breast and prostate cancers.

Another potential health risk of summer dining lurks in mayonnaise-smothered pasta or potato salads as these sit in the sun; they can breed bacteria which can really take the fun out of summer parties.

But now for the good news: Many of the risks posed by summer cookouts can be reduced! Here’s how:

  1. My number-one rule for indoors eating also applies for cookouts: Eat Real Food (minimally processed, fresh, seasonal and, in some cases, organically produced). Meat should ideally come from pastured, free-ranging animals that haven’t been treated with antibiotics, hormones and any of the other sorts of chemicals used in intensive animal farming. If you find this prohibitively expensive, buy a little less; most of us eat much larger meat portions than we need anyway. Vegetables and fruits should be fresh, local and minimally treated; the best place to obtain these is your local farmers’ market.
  2. Before you start grilling, scrub your grill with a wire brush so you don’t end up eating the charred remains of your previous cookout.
  3. To reduce PAHs, grill leaner cuts of meat, or remove any obviously fatty parts and skin. Avoid meats like sausages or ribs, which can cause major flare-ups as their fats drip into the embers. Alternatively, cook them in the oven and finish them on the barbecue, 1-2 minutes on each side.
  4. To reduce HCAs, marinades are a powerful ally: In various studies, marinades containing herbs such as rosemary, oregano, thyme, garlic and turmeric were found to reduce HCA formation by up to 90%! Avoid commercial marinades that contain sugar; indeed, one study found that a commercial BBQ sauce containing sugar increased the formation of HCAs. So stick with sugar-free marinades with lots of herbs, spices and a natural acidity source. The latest issue of Modern Mediterranean Meal Plans has a recipe for lamb chops marinated in lemon juice, garlic and olive oil for several hours before cooking. This not only reduces HCAs, but also tenderizes the meat and infuses it with delicious Mediterranean flavors. If marinating the meat, wipe off the marinade before grilling the meat to reduce dripping and smoke. Marinades that contain an acid, like lemon juice, orange juice or vinegar, create a protective barrier around the meat that protects it from PAHs.
  5. Reduce cooking time: Cut meat into thinner slices, and avoid barbecuing dense or thick meats like whole chicken thigh portions or racks of ribs. Cubing meat and threading it onto bamboo or stainless steel skewers (see picture above) is great – especially as this offers the added benefit of including vegetables, such as onions, mushrooms, zucchini or peppers, on the kebabs.
  6. If you do plan to grill meats that are very thick or dense, pre-cook them in the oven; this will shorten their cooking time – and exposure to dangerous carcinogens – on the barbecue.
  7. Grill at moderate temperatures, rather than over blazing heat. When using a gas grill, this is easy enough to regulate. Charcoal or wood fires are more difficult to control, so watch the meat carefully and move it away from the heat source in the case of any flare-ups. While grilling, flip meat often – every minute – and keep it at a distance of at least 6 inches from the heat source.
  8. Eat lots of vegetables – raw and cooked – alongside grilled meats. This should offer further protection, especially if they’re prepared with dressings containing olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and herbs. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, or kale and arugula, are especially protective against HCA mutagenicity. Salads of lettuce, tomatoes, grated beets or carrots, raw onions, pepper cubes, berries and any of the many other delicious tidbits you can add to them are another great way of adding protective nutrients. This will also crowd out delicious but unhealthy barbecue staples such as potato chips and French fries, which are high in calories, salt and unhealthy fats, low in nutrients and contain yet another type of carcinogen typically found in carbohydrate foods cooked at high temperatures (acrylamide).
  9. Grill some vegetables. (Unlike meat, grilling vegetables doesn’t produce toxic chemicals.) You can either thread them on skewers and grill them that way, or simply lay them across the grill (in which case, slice them fairly wide so they don’t fall through the grill into the embers). My favorite vegetables for grilling are red and spring onions, zucchini slices, red pepper strips, asparagus, cherry tomatoes (on skewers) and corn on the cob. Your vegetarian friends will thank you.
  10. Keep cold foods cold. By all means, enjoy some coleslaw, pasta or potato salad alongside your barbecue meal (ideally, homemade for optimum freshness and nutrition), but make sure you chill them well before your picnic and keep them cool and covered until the last minute (e.g. in a car-battery-powered cooler). For lighter, fresher-tasting salads, swap mayonnaise for a gutsy olive-oil dressing and add Mediterranean flavorings such as chopped olives, pesto or fresh basil leaves, pine kernels, capers, chopped grape tomatoes or arugula leaves to your salads. For your vegetarian guests, prepare a salad of legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.), topped, perhaps, with some crumbled feta cheese, as a satisfying protein source. 
  11. Healthy desserts are not an oxymoron: Just say "no" to sugary sponge cake slathered with garishly colored red-white-and-blue frosting, or multicolored ice pops packed with sugar and artificial everythings.  Instead, why not enjoy patriotic popsicles (made with yogurt, raspberries and blueberries) or a berry-filled tiramisu for a healthy and refreshing 4th of July treat? 
  12. Stay hydrated. Standing in the sun next to a hot barbecue or playing a vigoros frisbee game withthe kids can dehydrate you without you even noticing. Before you reach for the next beer or soda, first quench your thirst with a large, cooling, alcohol-free drink. Many people find water boring, so why not jazz it up with cucumber and mint, strawberries and lemon or lime and ginger? Chilled green tea – with or without added lemon juice, mint or ginger – is also a delicious thirst-quencher; as an added bonus, it offers antioxidant protection from sunlight and charred meat.

Here’s wishing you a summer filled with delicious, healthy cookouts! (The recipes for Patriotic popsicles, Berry tiramisu, marinated lamb chops and two bean-and-vegetable salsds can be found in the June issue of Modern Mediterranean Meal Plans.)

(c) Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nutrition coach and cookbook writer specializing in the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet . She offers Mediterranean diet coaching (online and in-person) and publishes Modern Mediterranean Meal Plans, a recipe and meal-planning service for busy people wishing to "Mediterraneanize" their diets. For more information about her work, please visit her website, www.modernmediterranean.com.    

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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