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Barbecue and cancer: Make a healthy plate

Focused on Health - July 2014

By Brittany Cordeiro

Barbecuing at home is a perfect way to relax, celebrate holidays, and spend time with family and friends. But before you fire up the grill, plan a healthy menu.BBQ

“Many meats traditionally served at barbecues, such as beef, hot dogs and sausage, have been shown to increase the risk of some types of cancer,” says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian in MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center. And, side dishes such as pasta and potato salads often include unwanted fat and calories, leading to unwanted weight gain.

So, what should go on your plate? Maxson shares the best foods and cooking tips for your next barbecue.

Choose healthy proteins

Ditch the hamburgers and hot dogs. Red meats like pork, lamb and beef, and processed meats like hot dogs, ham, sausage and bacon can increase your risk for colorectal cancer.

Instead, choose healthier proteins such as:

  • Skinless chicken
  • Turkey breasts
  • Fish

“These options are lower in fat and can help you maintain a lean body weight,” Maxson says.

If you must keep hamburgers and hot dogs on the menu, choose low-fat and preservative-free meats. And, limit red meat to no more than 18 oz. – that’s six 3 oz. servings (each serving is about the size of your palm or a deck of cards) – each week to curb your cancer risk.

In addition, it’s important to cook your meats properly to avoid exposure to cancer-causing substances. Some ways to do this include:

  • Not charring or burning meat.
  • Using a marinade.
  • Trimming the fat.

Find more suggestions in this healthier ways to grill meat guide.

Choose in-season fruits and vegetablesvegetables

Add a variety of colors to your plate with fruits and vegetables. “They’re loaded with phytonutrients, antioxidants and vitamins to help prevent cancer and improve overall health,” Maxson says. Plus, eating more plant foods makes it easier to reduce body fat and maintain a healthy weight.  

Maxson suggests grilling onions, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, corn on the cob and watermelon. Choose foods in season to enjoy the most flavors. To cook:

  • Lightly oil the grill to keep food from sticking.
  • Chop but don’t peel veggies and leave corn on the cob whole and in the husk. The peels provide more nutrients and a smokier flavor.
  • Use skewers, foil or a grilling pan as helpful cooking tools.
  • Marinate or add a dash of seasoning to maximize flavor. For fruit, try cinnamon.

Also, fresh, chopped fruits and veggies are perfect add-ins for tossed salads. But when it comes to pasta and potato salads, you’ll need to make a few additional changes

  • Use low-fat mayonnaise or replace half the mayo with non-fat Greek yogurt.
  • Choose light salad dressing and use less than what the recipe requires.
  • Pick whole wheat pasta.

Create fresh fruit dessertsshortcake

Good news: the apple crisp and peach cobbler can remain on your picnic table. Just make sure you don’t overindulge.

“You can create healthy, delicious desserts using fresh fruits and little or no added sugar,” Maxson says. Your healthiest dessert options include:

How to fill your plate

Now that your table is loaded with healthy foods, fill your plate appropriately. Make two-thirds your plate plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans, and one-third lean proteins. “Watch out for starchy vegetables, like baked beans, corn and potatoes,” Maxson says. “They have beneficial fiber and vitamins, but should be no more than one-quarter of your plate.”

In addition, your next barbecue shouldn’t be all about the food. Include a physical activity to get everyone moving, like kickball, softball or whiffle ball, badminton or Frisbee. “An activity will not only burn more calories, but also encourages family interaction and fun,” Maxson says.

So, grab a Frisbee, toss on your apron and enjoy a barbecue that could help lower your chances for cancer.  

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center