Summer grilling: Can it be tasty AND healthy?

By Michael Dubin, MD  |  6/22/2017

During the summer months, we spend time outdoors enjoying the company of our families, friends and tasty, grilled food. How tasty it is depends on the talents of the cook. How healthy it is depends on our habits and knowledge of wholesome foods. Most of us know that foods rich in saturated fats are not good for our health. But it is the fat that makes the food tasty. This taste preference goes back in time to when the consumption of fatty foods was essential for survival, when food was not easy to find and required energy, as in calories, to procure it. Fat has more calories per weight unit when compared to proteins and carbohydrates. So how can we reconcile the fatty taste with healthy eating?

For starters, we don't have to completely abandon food with fat in it. Instead, choose meat with less fat content or poultry. For example, grilled chicken thighs on a skewer with rosemary, is a tasty and healthy choice. Grilling on a skewer prevents the chicken from drying out, allowing it to stay juicy with a pleasant, fatty touch to them.

Grilled shrimp is another good choice. Try barbecued, spicy shrimp with chili powder, smoked paprika and cumin. Fish is a healthy source of unsaturated fat. Grilling fish in parchment paper will keep it firm and flavorful. Wrap a piece of halibut in parchment paper with an assortment of vegetables and grill it for a filling and delicious meal.

Speaking of produce, grilling fresh fruits and vegetables should be a staple in every summer diet. Fruits and vegetables are abundant in the summer and they are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. Fruits and vegetables are beneficial for cardiovascular health and cancer prevention. It is best to select a variety of produce from red, yellow, orange to green, as the different colors correspond to different antioxidants. Make an effort to supplement your cooked and grilled meats with fruits and vegetables, not just corn.

What about grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages? Fatty and processed meats are simply not considered a healthy choice. Hot dogs and sausages are cured with nitrites that when cooked at high temperatures produce nitrosamines, a compound that has the potential to cause cancer. I don't want to place a wet blanket over the joy of grilling, so consuming these meats should be done in moderation or sparingly and with a mix of vegetables.

Moderation is also the key to drinking wine and other forms of alcohol. Wine and alcohol has been used since the birth of civilization. With all the controversy surrounding alcohol consumption, if used by a healthy person in moderation and with food, it contributes to enjoyment, social interaction and stress reduction. These elements may potentially boost the immune system. In terms of cardiovascular benefits, there may be a link between drinking red wine and fewer heart attacks although those links are not completely understood. Antioxidants, called polyphenols, specifically resveratrol, in red wine may protect the lining of the vessels of the heart and boost good cholesterol – HDL. However, there is no clear evidence that red wine is better than other forms of alcohol for possible heart benefits. Studies do show that social support, happy social interactions and family ties are the most important factors for less heart attacks and increased longevity.

Lastly, is it healthier to cook using a propane or charcoal grill? It is best to use a gas grill as there are some downsides to heating meats with charcoal. When fat from the meat drips onto the hot coal, it produces the cancer-causing compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The rising smoke and flame that contains those PAHs then coats the food. Charcoal also heats much hotter than gas does charring the meat and creating heterocyclic amines (HCAs), another carcinogen. Cooking with propane does produce some PAHs and HCAs so consider these techniques when cooking on any grill. Use lean meats as they create less drippings and smoke, thereby reducing PAHs. Flip and marinate meats to reduce the level of HCAs.  Also of note, PAHs and HCAs do not form on grilled fruits and vegetables.

By following these tips, I hope you and your families take advantage of the summer's bounty in a nutritious and enjoyable manner.

Bon Appetit!