9 Guidelines for Healthier Grilling

Updated: May 11, 2021

Research has suggested a link between grilled food and cancer, but you can cut down on that risk with these simple tips for healthier grilling.

mother and son grilling food for barbecue with family
Maskot/Getty Images

Summer wouldn’t be summer without firing up the grill and having friends and family over for a cook-out. And yet grilling outdoors isn’t always good for you, thanks to certain grill-worthy foods and practices. Take, for instance, red meat. That quintessential barbecue fare has been tied to an increased risk of colorectal and other cancers. Making matters worse? The chance exposure to potential cancer-causing compounds inherent in the grilling process.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up the grill.  “A little bit of preparation, creativity and healthy food choices can really make a big difference in making grilling healthier,” says Sheena Patel Swanner RDN, LD, director of nutrition programs at the American Institute for Cancer Research. Read on for best-practices grilling tips. (Here are 10 foods cancer docs try to avoid.)

close up of burger patties on the grill
Tetra Images/Getty Images

Stay clear of burned steer

If well-done burgers or hotdogs are your thing, consider this: Regularly consuming thoroughly cooked or charred meat may increase your risk of developing cancer. Specifically, they produce HCAs (short, for heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), according to the National Cancer Institute. HCAs form in the meat while PAHs are found in the smoke and can stick to the surface of the meat, says Swanner. “Lab studies have shown that [both of these compounds] can alter our DNA and that, in turn, can increase cancer risk.” (Here are 11 things that could happen if you eat too much meat.)

turkey on the grill
Victor Cardoner/Getty Images

Swap steer for lean meats

Choose lean meats, like chicken and fish or, even better, fruits and veggies (more on this later). “Research shows that diets high in red and processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer,” says Swanner. Red meat—meaning beef, veal, pork, lamb, and goat—may also up your chances of developing pancreatic and prostate cancer (although to a lesser degree), according to a study published in 2015 in The Lancet Oncology.  The American Heart Association recommends keeping meat portions to about three ounces. (Make sure you know the best omega-3-rich fish.)

grilling meat and vegetables
Fabian Krause / EyeEm/Getty Images

Practice frequent flipping

Push the coals to the edges of your grill, cook the meat in the center and flip it frequently. “It can prevent smoke from directly hitting the meat,” says Swanner. “Flipping it does the same thing.” This cuts down on PAH formation, which happens when fat and juices from the meat drip onto the fire, producing flames and smoke. In addition to grilling and pan frying, PAHs can also be formed when smoking meat. The compounds are also found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes so yet another reason to stay away from these pollutants. (Here are 23 groundbreaking cancer discoveries that could save your life.)

steak on the grill close up
Instants/Getty Images

Marinate your meat

A marinade acts like a barrier between your meat and carcinogens. “This is a very critical step,” says Swanner. “Studies suggest that marinating meats for about 30 minutes before grilling can decrease the formation of HCAs.” On the other hand, you don’t want sugar-laden marinades or fatty concoctions. These will simply go to your waistline, an added risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health woes. Instead, try a mixture of oil, vinegar, lemon juice with herbs and spices to add flavor, Swanner suggests. (Make sure you know about 14 BBQ foods that are actually good for you.)

man grilling in his backyard with family
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Cut back on grill time

Cooking meat for a long time also leads to the formation of carcinogens, because you are exposing the food for a longer time to smoke and flames. Try fish, which cooks significantly quicker than chicken or beef–especially when cut into smaller portions, says Swanner. You can also cut back on grill time by precooking any meat in the microwave or oven. “This reduces the time meat is exposed to that smoke and [reducing the chance] PAHs could form,” she says. Be sure to place any partially cooked meat immediately on the grill to protect against bacteria and other food pathogens that cause illness. (Here are 6 silent symptoms of colon cancer you might be missing.)

man grilling meat and corn
The Good Brigade/Getty Images

Avoid processed meats

Skip the hot dogs and sausages. They might taste good, but processed meat—which also includes corned beef, bacon, and beef jerky—has been classified as a carcinogen by scientists with the  International Agency for Research on Cancer. They concluded that every additional 50 grams of processed meat (four strips of bacon or one hot dog) raised the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.  “We recommend little if any processed meats,” says Swanner.

grilled vegetables shot from above
istetiana/Getty Images

Grill veggies or fruit

You can still enjoy that grilled flavor you love and reduce your cancer risk by trading meat for veggies, veggie burgers, or fruit, all safer choices because they won’t produce HCAs and PAHs, says Sweener. They also add vitamins, minerals and fiber. “Plan your barbecue around grilled vegetables—onions, portobello mushrooms, asparagus and sweet potatoes,” says Swanner. For dessert, try grilled peaches, bananas, even watermelon. “When you throw fruit on the grill, the natural sugar brings out a sweet, delicious flavor,” she says. (Here are 15 healthy grilling recipes under 400 calories.)

close up of man grilling food
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Mix it up

Try combining food groups—fruits, veggies and lean meats—for a well-rounded, grilled meal. The new plate model from the American Institute for Cancer Research “focuses on making two-thirds or more of your plate come from plant foods, like those fruits and veggies, then beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” says Swanner. “One-third or less should come from animal protein.” Kebabs are an easy way to bring together different food groups. Then you can add non-grilled dishes—green salad, bean salad or a dish with whole grains—to complete the picture. “The essence of your plate is going to be healthy compounds and meat is going to be kind of a side,” says Swanner. (Here are 10 surprising habits that can raise your cancer risk.)

cleaning the outdoor grill
arinahabich/Getty Images

Clean the grill

Scrape down your grill and grill pan when you’re done cooking to get rid of any carcinogenic residue that has build up. And make sure you get rid of any food still stuck to the grill. With a dirty rack, you run the risk of transferring those leftover chemicals to your food the next time you fire up the grill. It may help to use foil to help keep the grill clean and “reduce flare by preventing juices/marinades from dripping or small veggies from falling in,” says Swanner. (Here are 16 ways you’re using your grill wrong.)