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M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas
Published: 01 July 2009

Summer is in full swing, and barbeques are a perfect way to relax, spend time with family and friends, and celebrate the July 4 holiday. To help you better prepare for this popular activity, nutrition experts at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center offer advice on how to barbeque the healthy way.


Dietitians M. D. Anderson , and Vicki Piper, R.D., L.D., encourage cookout fans to grill plenty of fruits and vegetables, and less meat. Diets high in plant foods can lower your chances of developing several cancers, including breast and colon cancers.


"You can still have a barbeque without letting your health go up in flames," Piper said. "Aim for a meal made up of two-thirds vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans, and one-third animal protein."


Grill plant-based foods
Eating mostly plant-based foods provides a range of nutrients that protects the body from cancer. And it is a great way to manage weight, which is important because there is evidence that excessive body fat increases cancer risks.


"Try a new vegetable every week, one that you have not tried in many years," Piper said. "My family favorites are grilled onions, zucchini, asparagus and pineapple."


Use a light brushing of canola or olive oil on vegetables and fruits to help prevent sticking to the grill. Sprinkle vegetables with pepper, a small amount of salt and vinegar to bring out their taste. Using non-stick grates, foil packets or a grilling basket lightly coated with oil also can be helpful when grilling plant-based foods. As a general rule, don't peel vegetables before grilling. You'll get more nutrients and enjoy a smokier flavor if they aren't peeled.


Where's the beef?
Diets high in red meat (beef, pork and lamb), and especially processed meats (such as hot dogs), have been reported to be a cause of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Fatty red meat is high in saturated fat, which is the most damaging type of fat.


"You do not need to give up red meat to be healthy, but the evidence suggests you would be wise to limit how much you eat," Piper said. "Experiment with other healthier sources of protein, such as fish, chicken, beans, edamame or tofu. My red meat-loving husband has grown to enjoy more grilled salmon, marinated chicken and even hummus!"


Grill fish and skinless chicken breasts are much leaner than most red meat. If you are going to grill red meat, look for those with "loin" in the name, such as beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin and lamb loin chops. For beef, also look for round steaks and roasts, and choose ground beef labeled at least 95 percent lean. Finally, beef labeled "prime" is the top grade but also is the highest in fat. For the leanest red meat, look for a "select" grade at your supermarket.


Keep meat portions small by cutting them in chunks and removing excess fat. Combine them with vegetables and make kabobs. Serve any kind of meat as an accent to a meal rather than the main dish.


Where there's smoke, there's cancer risk
Grilling any type of meat, even chicken or fish, until it's charred or burned can increase your chances of getting cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Grilling vegetables and fruits does not create carcinogens (sources that cause cancer) so there is no cancer risk, which is just one more reason to add them to your shopping list.


If you do choose to barbeque meat, stay clear of burning it, and follow these tips:


  • Grill fish instead. Fish contains less fat than meat and poultry do, making it less likely to create carcinogens and cause flare-ups caused by dripping fat. Fish also requires less time on the grill, reducing its exposure to carcinogens.


  • Precook your foods. The higher the temperature at which food cooks and the longer it stays on the grill, the more carcinogens develop. Partially cooking meat or poultry indoors for two to five minutes draws out most of the potentially harmful chemicals without sacrificing moistness. Heat your meat up in the microwave or oven, and then finish it on the grill.


  • Lightly oil your grill. A little oil keeps charred material from sticking to the food. It also helps keep fish and chicken in one piece.


  • Lower the heat. On charcoal grills, increase the distance between the food and the hot coals by spreading the coals thin or by propping the grill rack on bricks. On gas grills, just lower the settings.


  • Stick to charcoal and hardwood. Barbecue briquettes and hardwood products, such as hickory and maple burn at lower temperatures than softwood (pine) chips.


  • Clean your grill. Scrub your grill thoroughly after every use to avoid a buildup of carcinogens that can be transferred to your food the next time you grill.


  • Spread aluminum foil on the grill. This will reduce flare-ups. Just make sure to make small holes in the foil to allow fat to drain.


  • Flip meat frequently. This reduces the amount of carcinogens that arise.


  • Marinate your food. Marinating not only makes grilled foods taste better, but makes them safer because marinades draw out chemical precursors of carcinogens. 


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