The sun is shining, the drinks are on ice, and you’re ready to grab some grub. Barbecuing is a much beloved tradition when summertime rolls around, and for good reason: You get to enjoy some fresh air, flame-cooked foods, and usually an energizing dose of social activity with friends. But between too-high heaps piled on plates and potentially poor food choices, barbecuing can easily veer off into unhealthy territory. Here, we round up some of the most common pitfalls to avoid when you’re gathering around the barbecue pit this summer.Drinking water before eating and between each serving not only helps you stay hydrated—crucial on a hot summer’s day—but will help you take breaks between bites and may help you avoid overeating. Click To Tweet
Top Tips for a Healthier BBQ
Don’t add too much salt. I’ve previously shared some pretty dire stats on Americans’ salt consumption—like the fact that a whopping 90% of us take in too much sodium. But a lot of that comes from processed foods; the CDC reports that only 6% of the salt in the average American diet is comprised of what you add to your food at the table. As I explain in my book The Omni Diet, excess salt can stiffen blood vessels over time, which reduces blood flow; increases oxidative stress, which can lead to a variety of diseases; and, of course, contributes to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Plus, salt obliterates the true tastes of those delicious foods you’re firing up on the grill! Instead, try boosting flavor by adding fresh herbs to your grilled veggies (such as basil, chives, and cilantro), as well as garlic, which offers a host of health benefits. When you must use salt, reach for unbleached sea salt or another salt that hasn’t had its minerals removed—but, no matter which you choose, try to use as little as possible.
Consider the entire meal. Watch out for foods and add-ons that add loads of unwanted calories. If you’re cooking up a hot dog, for example, you can make an unhealthy choice even worse by serving it on a processed white-bread bun, slathering it in ketchup that’s chock-full of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup, and topping with store-bought relish that features a sky-high sodium count. Or, if you’re dousing a salad with ranch or sugary dressings, you negate all of those fresh-veggie benefits.
Also beware of side dishes that are full of saturated fats or based around nutritionally empty starches—think potato salad, coleslaw, and macaroni salad swimming in a mayo bath. These sides can sneakily sabotage an otherwise healthy meal from the grill. Finally, watch out for sugary drinks that can add hundreds of empty calories, like sweetened tea, lemonades, and sodas—try healthier alternatives instead, like unsweetened tea, or sparkling water jazzed up with fruit-flavored stevia.
Avoid animal-based toxins. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), cooking meat at high temperatures is known to produce cancer-causing chemicals. Not only are diets high in red and processed meats associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer, but the AICR notes that cooking any meat (even white meats) at high temperatures “causes compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form. These substances have shown the ability to damage DNA in ways that make cancer more likely.” Therefore, take certain steps before grilling: Marinating meat, poultry, and fish for at least 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HCAs, while pre-cooking meat may reduce PAHs.
You can also combat this issue by piling plenty of fresh veggies and fruits on your plate, as grilling non-animal foods does not produce HCAs. Or, if you’re reaching for a plant-based burger alternative, choose an option that’s less processed and features more whole-food ingredients on the label (i.e., things you can pronounce!).
If you’re grilling seafood, keep in mind that some fish are very high in mercury and should be avoided. Mercury, a known neurotoxin, can damage the brain and nerves. A study published in 2017 found an association between mercury exposure and neurological distress, mood changes, and difficulty regulating emotions, as well as gastrointestinal disruptions. In short, avoid high-mercury fish, including king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish.
Don’t overstuff yourself. When you’re socializing outside during a barbecue, you’re probably being less mindful of what and how much you’re eating. Distracted eaters have been shown to consume up to 50% more calories at a single meal, but their next meal is also affected, potentially increasing that caloric amount, too—by up to 25%.
In addition to practicing more mindful eating, you can try other tactics to avoid gorging on too much food. First, try using a smaller plate. One study of ice cream eaters showed that when given a larger bowl, the participants served themselves 31% more ice cream without being aware of it. Utensil size might matter, too: Their servings increased by 14.5% when they were given a larger serving spoon.
Finally, drinking water before eating and between each serving not only helps you stay hydrated—crucial on a hot summer’s day—but will help you take breaks between bites and may help you avoid overeating. One 12-week study of middle-age and older adults found that consuming 500 milliliters of water prior to a main meal, paired with a lower-calorie diet, led to greater weight loss than following a lower-calorie diet alone. Plus, you’ll be allowing your body a little more time to signal that you’re full, so you don’t unwittingly eat to the point of being overstuffed.
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