Grill Smart: 7 Healthy Grill Tips

Tips for Healthy GrillingEveryone loves to grill it up. Grilling is incredibly easy, quick, fun and can be one of the healthiest ways to get a meal on your plate —if done correctly. The good news is that no matter what food you are putting on the grill, simple changes in what you do before, during and after it hits the grill, as well as the side dishes, can make a very significant difference in the health of your meal. Fire it up!

What Makes Grilling Unhealthy?

Caution, carnivores! Yes, science can be a killjoy at times. But, meat eaters simply need to use a bit more caution than vegetarians when getting their grill or BBQ on. This is not an opinion. It’s basic chemistry. Cook meat at a high temperature and carcinogenic compounds will form. Grill it, and they will come. In fact, the higher the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the more of these compounds will form in the food. The result when you eat these foods? Damaged DNA and increased risk of cancer and many other chronic diseases.

The Toxic Trio. Who are these backyard dinner downers?

  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These known carcinogens include a subgroup called heterocycline aromatic amines (HAA). They are found in cigarette smoke and animal protein cooked at high temperatures. HCA formation requires amino acids as well creatine or creatinine. So, they don’t form in any significant way in vegetables or other foods (1,2).
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Heterocyclic Amines (PAHs): These toxic compounds are similar to HCAs, but form when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. The PAHs in the smoke then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during smoking of meats (1,2).
  • Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): AGEs are high in any cooked sugary foods and highly processed and prepackaged foods, they are particularly high in animal products cooked over high heat.


1. Grilling Prep: Trim the Fat Before Grilling 

Fat increases the potential for flare-ups and charring. Drip, drip, drip…boom! So, trim off visible fat before cooking. Also, look for lean cuts (think “loin” or “round”).

2. Grilling Prep: Marinate 

Marinades add flavor, but may reduce your toxic exposure from grilled meat products by up to 99% of the toxic compounds (3)! Almost any marinade will help the cause. Marinades add moisture and alter the pH of the food, inhibiting HCA formation.

Here are some guidelines for selecting a marinade, but your homemade salad dressing will work in a pinch. Plan for about a half a cup of marinade for every pound of food.  

* Sugar – Limit sugar as it promotes HAC formation.

* Acid – Use an acid, such as vinegar, lemon or wine. These change the pH of the meat, which enhances the meat texture while adding protection.

* Oil – Avoid oils with a low smoke point, such as extra virgin olive oil. Good choices include avocado oil, high-oleic safflower oil or organic canola oil.

* High-Antioxidant Ingredients for Flavor – Include antioxidant ingredients, such as garlic or onion and spices, such as basil, ginger, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme or turmeric.

3. Grilling Prep: Give Your Marinade Time

Marinades need a little time to work their magic. But, even marinating for ten minutes will help develop better flavor, texture and protection. Marinate grill items refrigerated according to the guidelines below. Thirty minutes before cooking, remove items from the refrigerator, drain off excess marinade and allow them to reach room temperature.

How Long Should I Marinate grill food?

4. Pre-Cook Larger Cuts Before Grilling 

Time at high heat is the enemy in the quest to avoid the toxic trio . So, when grilling larger cuts, reduce the time the meat is exposed to high heat  by partially cooking it in the oven or on the stove. Then, be sure to place the partially cooked food on a preheated grill immediately for food safety reasons. This technique is also very useful if you have a large amount of food to grill and limited grill real estate.

5. Grill Small

Cut large pieces into smaller pieces, or even cut them small enough for skewers. Smaller pieces require less exposure to heat, which means less toxic compound formation.

6. Grill it Right: Time, Temperature and Location

Don’t overcook it. Ideally, only cook to medium doneness (135-145° F). The more time on the grill, the drier the meat becomes. Animal proteins, dryness and high temperature create a perfect storm for HCA and AGE creation. And, don’t get distracted. Be a Grill Jedi. Focus. Or, at least don’t get distracted in conversation, as I’m known to do.

This is a grill, not an incinerator. Start on a medium-high heat temperature. However, if you’re in the ‘it’s not grilled without the marks’ camp, get your marks, then do one of the following to avoid charring. One option, move the grill-marked meat to a higher rack to continue cooking. Or, if you have multiple burners, turn off the burner directly under the meat, close the grill lid and use the heat from the other burners to finish the cooking. In both cases, you’re cooking with indirect heat, like an oven, which is much less likely to create the toxic compounds.

Hold the sauce! Just for a while. Save the barbecue or other high-sugar sauces for the very end of the cooking to reduce formation of the toxic trio.

7. After Grilling: Damage Control

No control over the grill (or the grill-master)? there’s still plenty of things you can do to reduce your exposure to the toxic compounds.

First, scrape or cut off any charred parts on your food. These are rich in carcinogenic compounds. Besides, they just taste like charcoal. You won’t lose flavor.

Second, round out your meal with cruciferous vegetables (healthy coleslaw, anyone?), plenty of leafy greens and other antioxidant rich foods (berries, pomegranates, cherries, nuts, beans, herbs and spices). Psst —I know a great food blog for this type of thing…..


Yield: approximately 2 1/4 cups, Natural Gourmet Institute


p style=”padding-left: 60px;”>1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup olive oil*
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
5 bay leaves, crushed
5 tablespoons chopped cilantro, parsley or rosemary

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Allow flavors to blend for 30 minutes before using.


  1. Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 2004; 44(1):44–55. 
  2. Puangsombat K, Gadgil P, Houser TA, Hunt, MC, Smith, JS. Occurrence of heterocyclic amines in cooked meat products Meat Science 2012, Mar; 90(3): 739-746.
  3. Salmon CP1, Knize MGFelton JS. Effects of marinating on heterocyclic amine carcinogen formation in grilled chicken. Food and Chemical Toxicology 1997; 35 (5), 4:33-44.1.

Image Credit: By Brian Chu – Own work
Originally posted 9.5.16

Have you tried any of these techniques -or do you have more healthy grilling tips? Please share in the COMMENTS below!