Summer is a great time to take cooking outdoors to the grill – it keeps your kitchen cool and creates a relaxed atmosphere that makes dining so pleasurable. And somehow, food cooked outdoors always tastes extra delicious!
Grilling can be a healthful way to cook because fat drips away during cooking. But unfortunately, grilling might pose health concerns: cooking “muscle meats” (red meats, poultry, game, and fish) at high temperatures creates cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Also, fat that drips onto hot coals or stones produces other cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). As food cooks on the grill, fire flare-ups and smoke carry the PAHs onto the food. PAHs can also form directly on charred foods. Laboratory studies have shown that HCAs and PAHs can change DNA in a way that may increase cancer risk; studies in humans haven’t established a definite link, but experts urge caution.
If you love the flavor and simplicity of grilled foods, don’t despair! Here are some simple tips and strategies to help you minimize exposure to harmful compounds and keep your grilled dishes healthy.
4 Tips for Healthy Grilling
1. Use Marinades
Marinades are a great way to boost flavor, tenderize, and keep foods moist during grilling. Also, marinating meats before grilling significantly reduces the amount of HCAs. Make your own marinade, or try one of the great variety of flavors at your grocery store. For food safety, always marinate foods in the refrigerator. One study found thatmarinating meat in beer reduces potential cancer-causing substances. You’ll find some great marinade recipes here.
Reducing grill time can reduce exposure to HCAs and PHAs. You can reduce direct grill time by (1) keeping meat portions small, so they need only a brief time on the grill; (2) precooking meats in oven or microwave, then finishing briefly on the grill for flavor; and (3) not grilling frozen meats since they take longer to cook, and the inside remains frozen while the outside chars.
3. Avoid Charring Meat and Flare-Ups
Avoid charring meat and flare-upsby cooking meat over a low flame. You can also limit flare ups (caused by juices dripping into the flames or coals) by not placing meats directly over coals, covering the grill with punctured aluminum foil, and keeping a water spray bottle on hand (to control flare-ups).
4. Vary the Grill Menu
Instead of large portions of grilled meats, fill your plate with colourful vegetables or salads, and eat less meat. Choose lean cuts of meat more often, well-trimmed of fat (less fat means less dripping, and less PAHs), and limit higher fat meats like ribs or sausage. If you predominantly grill meats, make room on the grill for some plant-based options . . .the American Institute for Cancer Research has some great tips for grilling vegetables.
This week, read about how green spaces make kids smarter, lifting heavy or light weights, gluten-free diets, how elite ultra runners fuel their performance, risks of drinking aloe vera, secret to Usain Bolt’s speed, supplement risks for athletes, and more.
Research questions the dogma that heavy weights are necessary for increasing strength and building muscle. This week, Alex Hutchinson reports on a series of studies by Stuart Phillips of McMaster University, which have shown that light weights lifted to failure lead to similar gains as heavy loads, and that this holds true for recreational gym goers and well-trained athletes. In his studies, Phillips compared 3 sets of the standard loads chosen to induce failure between 8 and 12 reps to lighter loads (failure after 20-24 reps). Phillips believes that lighter loads might be a better option for older adults and those who aren’t comfortable with heavy weights because they are easier on joints, and could reduce potential injury. (Alex Hutchinson, Globe and Mail).
This study followed 392 patients complaining of gluten-related symptoms for 2 years. Researchers concluded that self-perceived gluten-related symptoms are rarely indicative of the presence of non celiac gluten sensitivity, finding that 86% of patients who thought they were sentitive to gluten did not have celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensititivy. (Fanaticook.com reporting on Digestion, 30 May 2015).
This study corroborates other evidence showing that the vast majority of people who think they’re sensitive to gluten aren’t. The gluten-free trend is so common, that I’m sure everyone has someone telling them they feel better eating gluten-free. Why would this be?
People who adopt a gluten-free diet often discover a variety of other healthy grains. Also, someone who adopts a gluten or grain-free diet could be eating better than their previous diet if they are replacing grains with more nutritious food choices. Most of these diets recommend limiting processed foods and refined carbohydrates and eating more fruits and vegetables, habits that can improve diet and health tremendously.
If a person notices health benefits after eliminating gluten or wheat, they will attribute the benefit to going gluten/grain/wheat free. But it’s almost impossible to attribute any benefits to the absence of a specific grain or gluten, since so many other dietary variables change with this elimination (overall calories, ratio of fat/carbohydrates/protein, fiber intake, dietary glycemic index, and intake of many other nutrients not related to a specific food).
Also, when people pay more attention to food labels and to what they are eating, they are more likely to eat better and may lose weight; weight loss can lead to a host of benefits unrelated to gluten/grains/wheat (although most people attribute all benefits to eliminating a food). If you feel better after eliminating gluten, your new healthy habits likely don’t need to be at the expense of limiting a wide array of foods with known health-promoting properties. Read more about gluten-free diets here
“Food and supplement companies often promote the view that nutrients are supreme. This reductionist view misses out on the health benefits of foods beyond the isolated vitamins and minerals they contain. “
A diet focused on whole, unprocessed foods will provide nutrients important for health, along with a a host of other protective compounds. (American Institute for Cancer Research)
How do elite ultra-marathon runners fuel their performance?Although some long-distance athletes believe that low-carbohydrate eating is helpful because it might teach your body to “burn fat as fuel,” this study led by Trent Stellingwerff shows that the best ultramarathoners rely on a high carbohydrate diet to fuel their performance. This in line with current evidence-based research showing that high carbohydrate diets fuel fast performances in athletes. (International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, May 2015).
The risks of eating and drinking aloe vera. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean that it is safe. Although aloe vera is sold as a juice and added to foods, studies show that there is “clear” evidence that aloe vera extracts caused intestinal cancers in some animals when consumed. (Center for Science in the Public Interest).
Running on Empty. Overtraining syndrome is becoming more common in ultrarunners. (Outside Magazine).
Many people are deficient in important minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium because they aren’t getting enough of these minerals in the foods they eat. Focusing your diet on whole, unprocessed foods is a good way to get more of these minerals. When it comes to fats, obtaining fats from whole plant foods rather than refined oils is considerably more nutritious.
Oils are generally a healthier choice than butter or margarine because they contain healthier fats, but the extraction and refining process to produce oils eliminates fiber, protein, and minerals. For example, many health-conscious cooks are now using coconut oil (the “healthy” oil du jour), because they think it’s a nutritious choice (read more about coconut oil here). In reality, coconut oil adds plenty of calories with questionable health benefits, and no vitamins, protein, fiber, or minerals. It makes sense if coconut oil benefits the flavour or texture of your baked good, but you can do better if you’re trying to improve the nutrition!
When it makes sense, substitute nut and seed butters for oils in your cooking, and you’ll benefit from more nutrients. Find out how. . .
Here’s a recipe that athletes can use instead of commercial energy bars. The small portion size is just right, as it lets me doll out energy as I need for long bike rides, roller skis, or runs. These bites have a double sesame punch with sesame seeds and tahini (sesame butter): these little seeds are very nutritious and most often used as a garnish, so here’s a good way to take advantage of their superior nutrition. Go to recipe
The Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites worked out so well, I was inspired to figure out another simple “bite” recipe that athletes can use instead of commercial energy bars. I found the small portion size is just right, allowing me to doll out energy as I need for long bike rides, roller skis, or runs. These bites have a double sesame punch with sesame seeds and tahini (sesame butter): these little seeds are very nutritious and most often used as a garnish, so here’s a good way to take advantage of their superior nutrition.
This is a delicious “whole food” way to fuel your workout. I know, a refined cereal like Rice Krispies seems out of place with the rest of the wholesome ingredients, but the added crunch is worth it. And if you’re going to eat refined carbs and sweet dates, during activity is the best time to do it, when your body processes the sugars to use as fuel and help sustain long workouts.
1 cup dates, chopped
1/4 cup tahini (sesame butter)
1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1-1/2 cups Rice Krispies cereal
1/3 cup sesame seeds
Place dates in food processor and process for about 30 seconds (until dates resemble a paste) – if your dates are very dry, add a bit of water – enough for dates to form a paste.
Put tahini and chocolate chips in a small glass measuring cup or microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on HIGH for 30 seconds, add to dates in food processor, and pulse until well incorporated.
Add Rice Krispies to food processor and pulse a few times to mix them in (you don’t want to crush them into a puree).
Using a wet tablespoon, scoop the mixture out of food processor and roll into balls in the palm of your hand (you should get about 12, but vary the size to suit your needs). You might find this easier if you wet your hands to roll the balls.
Put sesame seeds in a shallow bowl, and roll balls in sesame seeds until coated, pressing lightly so seeds will stick.
Store in the fridge until hardened, about an hour. You can keep these in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 weeks, or freeze.
Sesame seeds may be small, but they are nutrient powerhouses! These little seeds are good sources of iron, calcium, and potassium (if you can find sesame seeds with hulls intact – they have more of these minerals, especially calcium). Like other seeds, sesame seeds contain healthful polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, fiber, and a moderate amount of protein. Sesame seeds contain sesamin, a type of fiber with potential antihypertensive, cholesterol-lowering, lipid-lowering, and anticancer activities. Sesame seeds are also the richest nut and seed source of phytosterols, compounds that are being studied for their disease-fighting properties including reducing blood levels of cholesterol, enhancing immune response, and decreasing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Sesame butter (tahini) has similar nutrients to sesame seeds, and has long been a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. It is widely available, and is a main ingredient in hummus, a popular dip featuring garbanzo beans. You can use tahini in many dips and sauces. Often the oil rises to the top of a jar of tahini—be sure to mix in before using. If the tahini is too thick to spread, mix in a little hot water and lemon juice. For a sweet treat, spread tahini on whole grain toast and drizzle with a little honey. You’ll find some other great ideas for cooking with tahini here.
Increase the iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, & fiber in your diet. . .
Many people are deficient in important minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium because they aren’t getting enough of these minerals in the foods they eat. Focusing your diet on whole, unprocessed foods is a good way to get more of these minerals, as food processing tends to remove fiber and important vitamins and minerals. For example, in terms of carbohydrates, whole grains contain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than their refined counterparts.
When it comes to fats, obtaining fats from whole plant foods rather than solid fats (butter, margarine) or refined oils is considerably more nutritious. I’ve illustrated this in the table below. Oils are generally a healthier choice than butter or margarine because they contain healthier fats. But the extraction and refining process to produce oils eliminates fiber, protein, and minerals. When it makes sense, substitute nut and seed butters for oils in your cooking, and you’ll benefit from more nutrients.
Smart Baking Swaps
Some types of fat are obvious ingredients for certain foods, like oils in salad dressings (but a good whole-food substitution here is to try an avocado-based dressing, that will provide fat with more nutrients; mayonnaise is another place where avocados sub wonderfully). Bake goods provide more opportunities to substitute all or part of the fat with nut or seed butters. Here are a few examples.
GREAT GRANOLA. I used this trick in my 3-ingredient granola recipe. Most granola’s contain quite a bit of oil, which adds plenty of calories with few nutrients: swapping the oil for a nut or seed butter increases the nutrition substantially (and improves the flavour!).
BARS AND COOKIES. You can also try this out in bar and cookie recipes. Many health-conscious cooks are now using coconut oil (the “healthy” oil du jour), because they think it’s a nutritious choice (read more about coconut oil here). In reality, coconut oil adds plenty of calories with questionable health benefits, and no vitamins, protein, fiber, or minerals. It makes sense if coconut oil benefits the flavour or texture of your baked good, but you can do better if you’re trying to improve the nutrition! The recipes below use a nut butter, which gives great flavour, while adding protein, fiber, and minerals.
PIE CRUSTS. Another place you can use nuts for fat instead of oils, butter, or lard is in a pie crust. The recipe pictured below, healthful walnuts provide the fat for the simple crust.
So you see, it’s possible to improve the flavour and nutrition of baked goods by substituting nuts for oils or other fats. Give it a try!