By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
The All-American BBQ is a long practiced tradition of sharing great comfort foods with family and friends. Backyard barbecues = summer fun, tasty food, and good times with loved ones! As an avid cook, I enjoy my barbecue outings as much as the next person. However, I have few words of caution – from a health perspective – along with some healthy BBQ tips to help you feel even better about your next BBQ.
Healthy BBQ Tip #1: Don’t Make It a Meat Feast
With grilling utensils in one hand and a plate full of marinated meat in the other, the BBQ chef approaches the red hot coals with one thing in mind: LOTS of juicy and delicious meat for everyone to feast on! While indulging in such carnivorous ways every once in a while won’t kill you, eating a meat-heavy diet significantly raises your risk of both cardiovascular disease and cancer. The risk relates to red meat (beef, lamb, and pork), and is even higher for processed meats (salami, bologna, bacon, ham, and hot dogs). I suspect it has something to do with the pesticides used to grow feed for the animals – which DO make their way into our food – as well as the preservatives (like nitrites) added to processed meats – but over-consumption is also part of the problem.
Solutions: Enjoy your barbecue, but:
- Try to limit your overall red meat intake to no more than one serving two or three times a week. Don’t eat red meat the day before or day after your barbecue.
- Avoid the processed hot dogs, sausage, and low-quality, conventional ground beef burgers. If possible, opt instead for salmon burgers, organic or grass fed beef burgers, buffalo burgers, or turkey burgers. Or, go for a vegetarian BBQ and grill up organic protein-packed bean-based veggie burgers, tofu kebabs, portabella mushrooms, or thick slices of eggplant.
- Add some veggies into the mix! Skewer up some veggie or chicken kabobs loaded with organic onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, summer squash or peppers.
- Serve up some chili – a mix of meat with fiber-rich beans, peppers, onions, and tomatoes – also a healthy and tasty alternative (here’s my healthy chili recipe).
Healthy BBQ Tip #2: Limit HCAs and PAHS – Potential Carcinogens in Cooked Meat
You probably have never heard of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In short, they are chemicals generated when muscle meat, such as beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked via pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. Animal studies, according to the National Cancer Institute, indicate these compounds cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. In humans, the situation is still unclear.
Solutions: Marinate your meats with rosemary, which can help reduce HCA formation. Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source to substantially reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Additionally, start by pre-cooking meat in the oven and use thinner cuts requiring less cooking. In general, avoid prolonged cooking times.
Healthy BBQ Tip #3: Avoid Too Many Carbohydrates
Buns, pasta salad, potato salad, tortilla chips, potato chips, and the list goes on! These typical BBQ accessories add up to lots of carbohydrates that cause blood sugar to spike, and soon after, drop. Fatigue may ensue. Eating foods like this on a regular basis can contribute to weight gain, brain fog, metabolic syndrome and ultimately to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Solution: Cut down on your BBQ carbs. Skip the bun if you want potato or pasta salad, and limit yourself to very small portions of these high-carb sides. Or eat the bun and skip the pasta, potato salad, and chips. It’s best to skip chips altogether, as they are fried in polyunsaturated oils at unhealthy high temperatures. However if you must have some, try to limit it to just a few. Additionally, opt for fiber-packed and filling snacks or healthy BBQ sides like veggies, fruit salad, and nuts, or cheese which has satiating fat. My favorite healthy BBQ side recipe? Guacamole and “chips!”
Healthy BBQ Tip #4: Think Outside of Traditional BBQ Condiments
BBQ sauces and ketchup are full of added sugar that raises blood sugar. A 2-tablespoon serving of BBQ sauce will give you 3 or more teaspoons of sugar. And ketchup – is one-quarter sugar!
Solution: Use these condiments sparingly, very sparingly. And, whenever you’re able, whip up your own dry rub mixture (this includes BBQ rubs which you can even add a pinch of sugar to for sweetness) – this allows you to control ingredients like salt and sugar which are so often used in excess in commercially prepared condiments.
My personal favorite condiments for grilled burgers are my Vervana Rosemary, Garlic and Jalapeño Garlic crushed flavored olive oils. Depending on which flavor I’m in the mood for, I drizzle one atop my burger then add a few fresh grinds of natural salt and pepper blends. Why cover your meat with sugary condiments when you can add heart-healthy olive oil?
Healthy BBQ Tip # 5: DIY Salad Dressings with Olive Oil
Commercial salad dressings typically have various kinds of sugar (include high-fructose corn syrup), not to mention are generally made with cheap canola and soybean oils which are loaded with omega-6 fats – bad news because an overabundance of omega-6 fats in the diet has an inflammatory effect in the body.
Solution: Read labels. Look for sugar or sweeteners such as malt syrup, maltose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates. If you see those ingredients, avoid the salad dressing. Opt for a tasty, healthy, and simple alternative such as cold pressed or extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, or a homemade oil and vinegar dressing.
Healthy BBQ Tip #6: Don’t Commit Sodacide!
Sodas are worthless, liquid junk food, regardless of whether regular or diet. They contain phosphoric acid, which can deplete calcium from bones, and an abundance of sweeteners that can spike blood sugar and insulin levels, and even your blood pressure. Drinking sodas routinely can contribute to diabetes and obesity as well as heart disease and other illnesses. Even just a moderate amount of soda − the equivalent of about a single can a day – sweetened with either sugar or its popular replacement, high-fructose corn syrup, can significantly increase the risk of heart disease.
Solution: A soda to wash down your food once in a while isn’t going to ruin your health. If you must have a soda, please limit it to one – consuming just a single 12oz serving will dump upwards of 40g of sugar to your bloodstream in a very short amount of time! If you drink a 20oz serving you will be consuming upwards of 65g of sugar. A much better idea is to opt for a club soda spritzer with lime, lemon or a splash of fruit juice if you need a carbonated fix. Or, just have water instead!
Healthy BBQ Tip #7: Go Easy on the Alcohol
There is nothing wrong with an alcoholic beverage or two. After all, a BBQ is also a time of fun. But too much not only means lack of sobriety (and all that may come with it), it also can contribute to numerous health issues.
Solution: Keep a lid on your intake. After a drink or two, switch to a healthier alternative.
Healthy BBQ Tip #8: Don’t Add Insult to Injury with Sugar-Laden Desserts
Sugar is the big enemy of heart health, not cholesterol, as I have always told my patients over the years, and as I wrote in this article. Desserts are to diet like sand traps are to golf: it’s hard to go around them. Typical desserts like cakes, cupcakes, candy, cookies, and ice cream all come with your usual lineup of avoid-if-you-can ingredients topped by sugar and other sweeteners. They’re also generally made with processed and hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors, etc. Nothing your body needs or benefits from. For your own sake, just try not to overindulge.
Solution: Fresh, healthy desserts are generally easier than pie to whip up, so whenever possible, ditch the store-bought goodies and instead opt for simple homemade fare such as: fresh organic fruit topped with your own whipped cream (it only takes about 10 minutes!), fruit pops, chocolate pudding made with organic milk topped with whipped cream, or beautiful slices of watermelon (any melon!) packed with vitamins and minerals.
The Bottom Line:
Having fun with family and friends is what summer is all about. BBQs are an American tradition and they can be a time for sharing healthy, fresh, nutritionally packed fare. I hope these healthy BBQ ideas inspire you when next you fire up the grill!
*Note: this page contains links to products sold by Vervana, a fine food company I founded and co-own.
- National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk.
- Puangsombat K, Smith JS. Inhibition of heterocyclic amine formation in beef patties by ethanolic extracts of rosemary. J Food Sci. 2010 Mar;75(2):T40-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2009.01491.x. PMID: 20492265.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.