Heathy grilling
Image provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

With Memorial Day behind us, it’s time to prepare for the season ahead—summer, and the favorite American pastime that comes with it: cookouts on the grill. Grilling is a popular way cook up meats and vegetables, but many people may not be aware that there are healthy, and unhealthy, ways to fire up the grill and the food we eat from it. Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), answers some key questions on how to make grilling a healthier option.

Q. First things first: Is grilling safe?

A. Grilling can occasionally be a healthy cooking method, but you need to be careful. Whenever you cook foods at high temperatures, especially red and processed meats, carcinogens may form. Processed meats have compounds in them that are known carcinogens. When red meats are cooked at high temperatures, compounds that have been associated with the development of cancer may be formed. Especially when grilling over charcoal, not only can carcinogens develop in the meat, but fat from the meat can splash, causing flare-ups and smoke, which can spread carcinogens onto the food. As a safer first step, I recommend using a gas grill over charcoal. If you choose to use charcoal, use leaner meats.

Q. How can we prevent meat juices and fat from dripping down onto the flame or heat?

A.  Start by thawing meats ahead of time before cooking them. Pre-cook meats in the microwave for up to 90 seconds to reduce amount the juices, pan fry or cook in the oven before grilling. Avoid flattening burgers while cooking them, and instead, flip them more frequently. And cook all meats on top of foil, or in a foil package, or raise the cooking surface on the grill as far away from the heat as possible.

I also recommend grilling at the lowest temperature possible to avoid charring, which can also increase the risk of exposure to cancer-causing compounds. But if charring occurs, you can also eat around those parts. Marinating meats may also reduce the formation of carcinogens when grilling.

Q. Should we stay away from grilling meats altogether?

A. You don’t need to. However, your best options are grilled vegetable or fruit kebobs with tofu, or grilling leaner meats such as chicken and fish. When it comes to meat in general, eat processed meats in moderation. As a general rule, eat meat no more than four times a week, and make sure the meat is no bigger than the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.

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If grilling meat, use a marinade to reduce the carcinogens, and trim off the fat. Lentils, beans and soy products are also a wonderful source of protein. If you are not used to these foods, try to incorporate one vegetarian meal into your diet a week, and increase it from there. For comparison, one cup of cooked beans contains on average 15 grams of protein, which is about the same as 2 ounces of animal protein.

Q. Are there any additional tips you can offer?

A. I encourage cancer patients, and people in general, to focus on a plant-based diet and exercise so they can maintain a healthy weight and have quality of life. Being diagnosed with cancer should not change your approach to healthy nutrition. However, just like every person is different, every cancer and every cancer treatment journey is different. If patients are struggling with appetite because of their treatments, we encourage them to eat more meats, but also to add in more fruits and vegetables to help protect their system. We would rather a patient eat red and processed meats than their muscles break down from lack of nutrition. The breakdown of muscles may also affect the immune system, so patients should eat an appropriate amount of calories and protein to maintain muscle mass and stay strong during treatment.

Find healthy recipes and tips, including videos featuring TV nutritionist Ellie Krieger.