Steaks, corn on the cob, burgers and hot dogs. Cooking over the coals may seem like a fun, family-oriented way to get dinner on the table. But this summer when you grill dinner, you may unwittingly be increasing your family’s risk of developing cancer.
“I do believe that what we eat is very important as far as risk factors for a lot of health problems, including cancer,” says Grace Wang, a medical oncologist with Advanced Medical Specialties at Baptist Health Systems Hospitals.
When you are planning your next al fresco meal, it may be worth considering everything from the foods you grill and the beverages you drink to the side dishes and desserts you serve. They can all affect your risks of developing a variety of cancers. To help protect you during summer grilling season, here are some tips from the experts:
1. Sun protection: Before you even step outdoors to light the fire, protect yourself from perhaps the biggest cause of cancer, the sun.
“Skin cancer is the most common cancer in humans today and you need to be aware of it,” says Dr. Raja Mubad, associate medical director of the Memorial Cancer Institute in Hollywood.
Children who are exposed to sun increase their risk of developing melanomas, the most lethal form of skin cancer. And adults, through age and lifetime exposure, often develop squamous and basal cell cancers.
“They are not as lethal as melanomas but need to be addressed by a dermatologist,” Mubad says
For protection, wear a hat and cover exposed skin with an SPF 50, water-resistant sunscreen that you reapply regularly.
2. Heat and meat: If you are a grill chef, you know that fat dripping on the coals can cause flare-ups that char the meat. But you probably didn’t know that they can increase your risk of cancer. That’s because cooking any animal product (including beef, chicken or fish) at temperatures high enough to blacken them can cause the protein in the meat to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). And flare-ups from dripping fat can deposit polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on the foods they singe.
These two substances can damage DNA in cells, increasing the risk of them becoming cancerous.
“As far as grilling goes, chances are no one is going to die from cancer if they go to a party on a weekend and eat overcooked meat,” Wang says. “But if you do a lot of grilling, there are safer ways to do it.”
3. Careful about carcinogens: To prevent PAHs and HCAs, avoid charring and burning meat by keeping the coals or gas grill at a low temperature and turning the food often. Also, use indirect heat so that the meat isn’t over the coals. Precook the meat in the microwave, oven or on the stove so that it only needs a few minutes on the grill to get smoky flavor and much of its fat is already rendered. And finally, cut off any charred bits before serving.
4. Steak lovers, listen up: “The more marbled, juicy and delicious the meat, the more fat it contains. But you need to limit the animal fats you eat,” Mubad says.
Registered dietitian Alice Bender recommends that you don’t eat more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week because it is linked to colorectal cancer.
“That’s why I recommend you avoid red meat or eat it only on special occasions,” says Bender, the nutrition communications manager for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).