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Healthier Ways to Grill Meat

Focused on Health - June 2011

meat and cancerby Laura Nathan-Garner

Warm weather. Family gatherings. Independence Day. Some things just call for a barbecue.

But before you fire up, beware.

Convincing research shows that many meats traditionally served at barbecues may increase your risk for colorectal cancer. And, even some ‘safer’ meats can expose you to cancer-causing agents if they’re cooked improperly.

Luckily, you don’t have to cancel your grilling plans altogether. Make these changes at your next barbecue to keep your health from going up in flames.

1. Avoid processed meats.

Skip processed meats like bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, sausage, hot dogs and pepperoni.

Cancer-causing substances form when these meats are preserved, says the American Institute for Cancer Research. And, eating these meats can damage your DNA, upping your colorectal cancer risk.

meat and cancer2. Limit red meat.

Eating too much red meat like pork, lamb and beef (including hamburgers) can raise a person’s cancer risk. Do your health a favor by grilling skinless chicken breasts and fish instead.

Insist on red meat? Curb your risk by limiting yourself to three, six-ounce (cooked) servings per week. One serving is the size of two decks of cards.

3. Don't char or burn meat, poultry or fish.

The color black isn't chic at a barbecue. That's because meat, poultry or fish that's charred or burned is covered with heterocyclic amines (HCAs). And, HCAs can damage your genes, raising your risk for stomach and colorectal cancers.

To keep HCAs off your guest list:

  • Stick with fish. Fish contains less fat and cooks faster than meat and poultry.
  • Lightly oil the grill. This keeps charred materials from sticking to your food.
  • Pre-cook food. Cook meat, poultry or fish in the microwave or oven for two to five minutes, then finish them on the grill. Less grill time means less exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Lower the temperature. For a charcoal grill, spread the coals thin or prop the grill rack on bricks. This reduces the heat by increasing the distance between your food and the coals. And, use barbecue briquettes and hardwood products, such as hickory and maple. These burn at lower temperatures than softwood (pine) chips.
  • Scrub the grill. Cleaning the grill after each use prevents harmful chemicals from building up and transferring to your food at your next barbecue.

meat and cancer4. Use a marinade.

Meat, poultry and fish taste better when marinated in vinegar, lemon juice, seasonings and herbs such as mint, rosemary, tarragon or sage. But that’s not the only reason marinade is a must.

Marinating meat also can reduce HCA formation. Just 30 minutes can help.

5. Trim the fat.

Cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form in the smoke when fat from meat, poultry or fish drips onto the heat source, then the smoke coats your food.

Curb exposure to PAHs by trimming fat from meat before grilling. Or, choose cuts labeled “lean.” 

6. Showcase fruits and veggies.

meat and cancerDon’t make your barbecue a meat-only affair. Grilling your favorite fruits and veggies is a great way to load up on vitamins and nutrients that help your body fight off diseases like cancer.

To maximize your fruits’ and veggies’ flavor and nutrients:

  • Add a dash of pepper, salt and vinegar.
  • Don’t peel veggies — not even corn-on-the-cob. The peels provide more nutrients and a smokier flavor — and keep veggies from drying out.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon or honey over fruit before grilling.

For some grilling fans, these changes might be a lot to stomach. But remember, giving your barbecue a healthy makeover may help ensure you continue to enjoy grilling for many summers to come.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center