The Best Tips for Healthy Grilling


Do you love grilling? Then you will LOVE these simple tips and tricks to make your summer grilling sessions healthier for you and your family! 

Nothing says summer like firing up the grill and throwing on some burgers and dogs, but if you are committed to making healthier choices this summer you may want to rethink what goes on your grill, and how you grill! While grilling may seem like a healthy choice, there are a few things to consider before you fire up that bad boy and get grilling!


I don’t like to think of food in such punitive terms as “good and bad”, but this is a frequent question I receive in my nutrition practice. Let’s first look at the potential negative impact of eating grilled food.

High-heat grilling can convert proteins in red meat, pork, poultry, and fish into heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), these are chemicals that have been linked to a number of cancers including breast, stomach, colon, and prostate.

HCA’s are also found in cigarette smoke.

PAH’s are created when fat and juices from meat products drip down to the heated surface of a grill and create smoke, or a flare-up. This smoke contains PAH’s that is then deposited on your food.

Here is the good news, there are a few simple things you can do to reduce your exposure to these harmful carcinogens.


1. When in doubt go VEG!

Opt for vegetarian fare. When you grill veggies rather than meat, you can say sayonara to HCA’s and PAH’s. Woop! Woop! Vegetables don’t contain the same combination of creatine and sugar found in meats and therefore will not produce these harmful chemicals.

But don’t get stuck in a boring veggie rut try these Cedar Planked Stuffed Mushrooms, trust me you won’t miss the meat in these babies. This recipe has all the components of a delicious burger, meaty portobello mushrooms, bread, and cheese. Get veggie creativity, my friends!

A few of my favorite vegetarian grilled recipes:

Rainbow Veggie Skewers from The Forked Spoon

Grilled Veggie Skewers with Chimichurri Sauce from The Minimalist Baker

Portobello and Peach Burgers from Green Kitchen Stories

Grilled Cabbage Wedges with Cilantro Lime Dressing

Perfectly charred corn and jalapeno tossed with cilantro, lime juice, red onion, and cheese. This healthy Mexican street corn salad recipe is easy to prepare with only 6 ingredients and is the perfect summer side dish or, with the addition of protein, is the perfect healthy lunch.   

2. Reduce grilling time!

Do you know what’s the worst protein to cook on the grill? Boneless, skinless chicken breast. Bleh. Why? Well, it typically takes the longest to cook. In a 2010 report from The Cancer Project a grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast topped the charts at 14,000 nanograms of HCA’s per 3.5 oz serving. Only 10-20 nanograms of a common type of HCA called PhlP will practically double your risk of breast cancer!

Ditch that boring chicken breast, or if you must have it, bake it in the oven first and finish it on the grill. Typically choosing meats with less fat will reduce your risk of exposure (or being sure to trim visible fat from meat before grilling) but in the instance of chicken, it seems that the amount of time on the grill supersedes the reduced fat. Reducing grilling time for all meats will make a difference, so begin the cooking inside and finish on the grill.

Choose items that need less cooking time like wild fish, or medium-rare burgers. Listen up well-done burger lovers, I am talking to you, well-done meat has 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat

Shawarma spiced grass-fed beef burger grilled to perfection and layered on toasted naan bread with a yogurt feta cheese sauce, and a ton of veggie toppings. Epic is the most accurate word to describe this burger experience

3. Marinate your meat before cooking!

Allowing meat to marinate in an antioxidant-rich concoction for at least 30 minutes before grilling can reduce HCAs by 57-88%! According to a study 2008 study published in The Journal of Food and Science. Rosemary, citrus, wine, and beer specifically have been shown to reduce HCAs. There is nothing simpler than a marinade of chopped fresh rosemary, olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice for your steaks and chops. A later study published in the same journal found rosemary alone reduced HCAs by 90%!.


4. Create a barrier between the heat and the meat. 

Grilled Cheesy Kale Stuffed Mushrooms, using a cedar plank this is your new favorite summer vegetarian grill recipe!

Grilling on a Cedar Plank (like I did for the stuffed mushrooms above) reduces your exposure to these cancer-causing compounds and also reduces the fat flare-ups from meat juices dripping on the heat source. I personally love a cedar plank, it imparts a truly unique flavor and I find it very simple to work with.

5. Put your meat down, flip it and reverse it. 

Flip your meat often and remove any charred bits. Also, be sure to keep your grill clean and free of carcinogenic residue.

Just please don’t use a wire grill brush to clean your grill. Recent reports have shown that using a wire grill brush can be hazardous to your health. The brush’s wire bristles can break off remain on the grill and end up in your food!

Options: You can use a wire free grill brush like this one or a nylon grill brush like this one. Alternatively, you can use my method, cut an onion in half, and carefully using tongs or a grill fork make the onion work! Rub the onion all over the hot grill grates. Here is a tutorial on the onion method.

6. Upgrade Your Sides!

Studies have shown that eating antioxidant-rich side dishes with your grilled foods is a great idea! Try these Abra approved side dishes:

Pretty simple eh? A few tweaks to your grilling habits and you can dramatically reduce your exposure to some pretty yucky chemicals.

My Favorite BBQ Side Dishes!

Green Bean Pesto Potato Salad

Healthy Mexican Street Corn Salad

Chilled Beet Soup

Beet Pickled Deviled Eggs

Mediterranean Farro Salad

Mediterranean Roasted Shrimp and Vegetable Orzo Salad

Festive Summer Fruit and Dessert Board

Healthy Watermelon Gazpacho

Watermelon Gazpacho - A light and refreshing chilled summer soup, savory with a touch of sweetness from the watermelon. Watermelon, tomatoes, cucumber, jalapeno, scallions, and fresh herbs are the stars of this healthy soup!

One last question that I have been asked 4 billion times in the last few weeks:

Hey Abra, How Bad Are Hot Dogs?

I know summer isn’t summer without hot dogs on the grill. I have even been known to indulge in a few during the summer months.

The truth is that hot dogs rank higher on the carcinogenic scale than cigarettes. Eating 50 grams of processed meat per day (ahem. ONE hot dog) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 21%. Pop that dog on the grill and the risk is even higher. A good note for all of my parents out there, I know kids love their hot dogs but that’s a pretty high risk.

It’s helpful to switch over to an organic unprocessed dog, nitrate free and maybe just reduce consumption overall.

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