Summer grilling: Seven cool ways to cut the cancer risk

By Miles Hassell, M.D., internist and co-medical director, Providence Integrative Medicine Program, and co-author, Good Food, Great Medicine

Nobody wants to be reminded that grilling – one of the most savored of all summer rituals – can increase the risk of cancer. Talk about a sure-fire way to spoil a barbecue.

While it's true that studies of people who eat a lot of grilled meat, especially well-done red meat, do show a moderate increase in the risk of certain cancers, I'm here to argue that grilling has gotten a bit of a bad rap. There are several ways to minimize or even eliminate the unhealthy aspects of grilling so you can continue to enjoy your summer gatherings around the barbecue. Here are seven risk-reducing tips you can put into practice so you can have your steak and eat it, too.

  1. Load up on vegetables. Enjoying lots of vegetables has been shown to reduce the cancer risks of grilling tremendously. In one study of breast cancer risk, women who ate the most grilled meat had a 74 percent higher risk than those who ate the least. In the high-grilling group, however, women who ate more vegetables saw this number drop to 47 percent. They achieved this huge benefit from only two servings of vegetables a day. You can reduce your risk much further by making a hefty chunk of every meal – I'm talking about half to two-thirds of your plate – vegetables.
  2. Be a cool cook. Exposing meat to high-temperature cooking, such as grilling, causes several unhealthy chemicals to form. Two of them – heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs – are known to cause cancer in animals, and are suspected to increase the risk in humans, as well. The hotter and longer meat is cooked, the more HCAs and PAHs are formed. Cooler cooking cuts the formation of these chemicals dramatically. So how can you be a cooler griller? First, flip your meat more often – say, every 30 to 60 seconds for your burger or steak. Cook's Illustrated magazine recommends this anyway for the best flavor. Second, don't overcook. A multitude of studies has linked increased cancer risk with well-done meat. To minimize HCAs and PAHs, cook no further than medium rare, or to no greater internal temperature than it takes to kill the bacteria – generally around 150°F.
  3. Marinate your meat. Studies have shown that marinades have a profound, minimizing effect on the production of HCAs and PAHs. To make a simple marinade, start with any kind of vinegar and olive oil and add whatever you like – fresh herbs, garlic, mustard, citrus juice, pineapple – you name it. Here's a versatile vinaigrette recipe that you can use as a marinade base. Let your meat soak up the marinade in the fridge for an hour or so before you grill it.
  4. Nuke before you grill. One well-studied trick is to precook meat in the microwave for two minutes before grilling it. You'll reduce the necessary grilling time – and all those nasty, cancer-promoting compounds – significantly, while still getting great grilled flavor. This may be most useful for those who like their grilled meat well done.
  5. Grill less often. Grilling every day does appear to increase the risk of specific types of cancer, so don't rely on your grill as your only cooking method. Save it for a couple of times a week to minimize the cancer risk.
  6. Trim your protein portions. It's not just the grill that's the problem; it's also the meat – and the amount of it – that we put on our plate. Studies of people who eat a lot of red meat – as in a couple of times a day – have shown a definite and significant increase in cancer, as well as other health problems. But a little red meat, such as a pound or two (raw weight) over the course of a week, appears to be perfectly safe for most people. Just keep your servings small, avoid processed meats (hotdogs, sausages, lunchmeats, ham and bacon have a much stronger association with increased risk), and pile the rest of your plate with fresh, delicious summer salads and vegetables.
  7. Choose surf over turf. Fish proteins are less inclined to produce HCAs and PAHs, so swap your meat for fish and seafood more often. Salmon, trout, shrimp and scallops all are fabulous on the grill.

And did I mention vegetables? This is without a doubt the most important advice I can give for a healthy, cancer-fighting diet, so it bears repeating: Eat more vegetables. Lots more. Their cancer-fighting power is well documented. Here are four delicious ways to balance your meals with more vegetables:

  • Instead of chips, put out a colorful platter of fresh, steamed or grilled vegetables with homemade vinaigrette or dip (homemade is almost always the healthiest). If veggies don't have to compete with chips, even teenagers will happily gobble them up if you serve them with some good goop.
  • Eat a huge, colorful salad every day with healthy homemade vinaigrette.
  • Need a break from salads? Toss your favorite vegetables in a blender for a cool, refreshing gazpacho.
  • For a heartier side dish to round out your plate, try this black bean, corn and jicama salad.

As an added bonus, foods that reduce cancer risk generally reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other diseases as well. So when you're grilling this summer, dish up a sensible serving of lightly grilled meat, poultry or fish and fill the rest of your plate with fresh, colorful vegetables to celebrate summer, life and the great outdoors – in good health.