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9 Tips for Healthier BBQ’d Meat

With 4th of July around the corner, you’re probably planning on a delicious feast of BBQ’d delights.

But, the food police may have told you that eating grilled meat gives you cancer.

Party poopers.

There’s some truth to this, but like anything else ridiculously delicious and traditional, you’re probably going to eat it anyways. I’m right there with you.

Luckily, there are things you can do to enjoy your BBQ and still avoid the C word. And most of them make for an even more delicious feast.

When meat is grilled or broiled at high temperatures, some amino acids (the smallest building blocks of proteins) are damaged, creating new compounds that have been linked to cancer.

These compounds are called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which in chemistry terms means “different circles of amino acids”.  Proteins are fragile compounds and when they are damaged, your body has a much more difficult time dealing with them. The damage is the worst when meat is blackened over open flames.

Ironically, this is a practice traditional to many cultures. Humans didn’t always have ovens, or even pots and pans, and somehow we’re not extinct. Plus, I don’t think we’ll stop cooking food over flames anytime soon, so we’d better find a safe way to grill.

Here’s what you can do to enjoy your meat while minimizing the not-so-good carcinogens.

9 Tips for Healthier BBQ’d Meat

  1. Clean your grill to avoid flare ups. Less flare ups means less burnt meat.
  2. Oil the grill and preheat before cooking. This keeps blackened bits from sticking to your food.
  3. Don’t blacken your meat. Watch the temp and flames. Cut off any rogue black edges before eating.
  4. Marinate meats in something acidic or rich in vitamin C. Turns out this simple and flavor-giving step can prevent HCAs from forming. For example, use a marinade containing: lemon, lime, grapefruit, or orange juice, vinegar, tomato juice, yogurt… even BEER! (And no, sweet BBQ sauce is not acidic enough. Put that on after you cook your meat). Aim to marinate for a few hours in the refrigerator or overnight before cooking, but even 30 minutes will help.
  5. Season with fresh or dried herbs. These are not only super tasty, but packed full of antioxidants. Think rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, cilantro… Maybe add a pesto after cooking or chimichuri.
  6. Include fresh fruits and veggies with your meal. The antioxidants can “deactivate” the HCAs in cooked meat. The more colorful the better. Choose organic and locally grown if possible. Maybe a spinach salad? Side of blueberries and raspberries? Fresh salsa? Don’t like veggies? Then you should really grab my ebook that teaches you how to make vegetables taste good. What are you waiting for? It’s FREE!
  7. Use pasture-raised or grass-fed/finished meats. They contain healthier fats and more antioxidants that naturally may prevent HCAs from forming during cooking. Plus, you don’t want to support cruel factory farms anyways. Before you balk at the higher price tag, I’ve compiled the top 7 reasons grass-fed beef is worth the money.
  8. Skip the soda and drink unsweetened iced tea. The antioxidants in tea help your body metabolize and eliminate the HCAs you’ve consumed. Save the sugar rush for a piece of dessert. If you didn’t already know, I’m pretty obsessed with tea.
  9. Last, but not least, go easy on the booze. Detoxification enzymes produced by your liver are key to getting rid of HCAs. If your liver is overloaded from binge drinking all day, it may not have the mojo to deal with HCAs. Instead, indulge in a few glasses of red wine (high in antioxidants like resveratrol) or some really good dark beer (the darker the beer, the higher the antioxidants).

Now go forth and grill with confidence!

But before you leave, I’d like to hear from you.

  • How do you grill your food to ensure it’s healthier?
  • Which of the 9 tips did you find most surprising?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

Until next week,


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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.


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  1. This is so great–thank you! And thank you for your weekly updates. They are fun and funny and very informative. I always learn something new.

    As far as the BBQ tips…just another reason to do what I’ve heard all my life: eat lots of veggies! Surprising to learn that herbs have antioxidants.

    • Glad you found it useful 🙂

  2. Curious whether pregnant women should only be eating well done steak?

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