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).
If you must have a steak at your cookout, opt for a small portion of a lean cut such as round or sirloin. And before cooking the meat, trim as much visible fat as possible. 5. Ensure food safety
: Although you don’t want to overcook the meat, be sure to bring it to 165 degrees for chicken, 145 degrees to 160 degrees for steaks and at least 160 degrees for burgers to kill bacteria responsible for food poisoning. 6. Alternative entrees
: Wang recommends that instead of red meat, you may want to grill skinless chicken breasts or fish. They are less fatty so they don’t tend to cause as many carcinogen-creating flare-ups. Salmon with its healthy dose of omega 3 fatty acids is a favorite of Mubad. And grilled vegetables are an easy and delicious alternative that doesn’t carry the risks.
Letting meat sit for at least 30 minutes in a mixture that contains vinegar or lemon juice will help stop the formation of HCAs. It’s unclear why marinades are protective but it could have something to do with their acidity, Bender says.Marvels of Marinating Where there’s smoke:
If you must add wood chips to flavor the smoke from your fire, use a hardwood such as oak or hickory that burns cleanly. Mesquite generates larger quantities of PAHs in its smoke, according to studies from the ACIR. Not hot for hot dogs
: Avoid processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages that are preserved with nitrates and N-nitroso compounds. These have been linked to colon, pancreatic and gastrointestinal cancers, Wang says. Better burgers:
Begin by using lean ground beef for your patties. Opt for wholegrain buns that contain vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and phytochemicals such as phenols that can help reduce your risk of colon and other cancers. Add a slice of tomato to your burger and you’ll increase your intake of lycopene, an antioxidant that may lower your risk of lung, stomach and prostate cancers. Savvy sides:
Instead of fatty mayonnaise-based dressings on your potato and pasta salads, as well as coleslaw, use nonfat mayonnaise, yogurt or Greek yogurt for creamy dressings. On your green salads, skip the thousand island dressing or blue cheese and opt instead for simple olive oil and vinegar dressings flavored with fresh herbs and a touch of mustard. You’ll help keep your weight in check and that can reduce your cancer risk.
Also, Mubad suggests that when making potato salad, leave the skins on the boiled red potatoes to add fiber. Consider corn on the co b:
Don’t hesitate to enjoy corn on the cob that’s also heavy on fiber. But spray it with olive oil instead of melting a slab of butter on it, Mubad suggests. And don’t salt your corn or any food before you’ve tasted it, he adds. Do dessert:
When it comes to dessert, go for fruit. Whether it’s eaten fresh out of hand, chopped in a bowl or grilled and offered warm with a piece of angel food cake, it’s a healthy choice. A way with water:
When you are in the sun cooking over hot coals, be sure to stay hydrated. But opt for plenty of water instead of sugary sodas and fruit drinks that contain calories without much else. If you must drink juice, Mubad recommends diluting it with water or, better yet, eat a piece of juicy fruit.
He also suggests making a pitcher of lemonade but instead of lemon juice with lots of sugar, he adds lemons slices to filtered water along with a no-calorie sweetener such as Splenda (sucralose).
And don’t forget that picnic tradition: watermelon. It not only quenches your thirst but also adds fiber and lycopene to your diet. Alcohol issues:
Although having a drink at a barbecue isn’t going to make a big difference, Wang warns women who have three or more drinks a week to beware.
“The more you drink, the more you put yourself at risk of breast cancer,” Wang says.
And for obese postmenopausal women with breast cancer, drinking alcohol can increase their risk of cancer recurrence and decrease their rate of survival, she adds.
It’s easy: You’ll reduce your risk of cancer if you practice moderation.
“In everyday life, we need to make better decisions about food and be smarter consumers when it comes to what we choose to eat,” Wang says.