by | May 26, 2020 | 0 comments

Does grilling meat cause cancer

If Memorial Day stirred up an itch to grill, this post is for you!  Not only can grilling be super fun, encourage us to spend more time outside, and feel like a treat, but it’s also possible to make healthy and delicious meals with a lot less effort (and a lot fewer dishes!) than we sometimes make inside.  I’m excited to share some of my favorite healthy grilling recipes with you today!

Does grilling meat cause cancer?

Before we get started, let’s address a question that tends to pop up frequently with my clients: does grilling meat cause cancer?  The answer to that, in the simplest terms, is no.  Cancer is not caused by any one thing, but the more and more we know about it, it seems to result from a complex array of factors that allow cancer cells (which are living in almost all of us) to proliferate in an out of control fashion without our immune systems being able to stop the proliferation.

That said, one component of this “complex array of factors” is a buildup of carcinogens in our bodies, and charred food from the grill can form carcinogens.  In fact, grilling meat can form two types of carcinogens: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when  animal muscle meat is cooked at high temperatures, on a grill or otherwise, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when animal fat drips onto a flame, and the chemicals formed rise back up through steam and soak into the meat.

Sounds scary, but there are many things we can do to prevent this, including:

  • Add herbs to your meat prior to grilling. Research shows that marinating meat with an herb-based rub can reduce HCA formation by 87%.  This research showed particular benefits from rosemary and / or thyme, but also showed significant benefits with basil, mint, sage, oregano, savory, and marjoram.
  • Marinate meat in vinegar- or lemon juice-based marinade prior to grilling. Marinating in almost anything has been shown to reduce carcinogenic formations, but marinades containing lemon juice or vinegar have been shown to be particularly effective.
  • Skip the char. I HATE this one (really!), because those charred bits are super tasty. But they are also the most carcinogenic, so it would be wise to limit the char. In fact, even without char, well-done meat shows far higher carcinogen content than rare meat, so serve your meat as rare as you enjoy it.
  • Save anything with sugar until the very end (or avoid it all together). Sugar in a marinade can cause meat to char more, so it is recommended to save any sauce containing sugar until the last 2 minutes of grilling.
  • Don’t place meat directly above flame, so the drippings can’t mix directly with the flame and cause PAHs. Or, grill on a cedar plank, for the same reason.
  • Remember that processed meats come with higher cancer risk, regardless of the cooking method. See #5 in this post  for more, and try to limit grilling things like sausages and hot dogs for this reason.

While I love providing you with the science behind all of this, I also don’t want you to panic if you love charred meat every once in a while, or don’t use a marinade.  To be honest, even though I know all of this, I don’t follow the guidelines every time.  As I said, I know cancer is a buildup of a complex array of factors, and I am highly confident that I’m treating my body as well as I can.  My personal decision is to do what I can, and not stress about the rest, but I hope you make your own personal decision after being equipped with the knowledge!

One bit of good news, so you don’t worry about my beloved veggies … vegetables don’t contain the combination of creatine and amino acids necessary to create HCAs, and don’t have fat drippings to cause PAHs, so enjoy them freely!

15 Healthy Grilling Recipes

OK, let’s get to the good stuff!  Here are some of my favorite healthy grilling recipes:

  1. Grilled vegetables. Plain and simple, yet SO delicious!  Grilled asparagus, broccoli, strips of zucchini, or halved bell peppers, straight on the grill, are some of my favorites, but almost any vegetable is great grilled!  Almost every Saturday, Kevin chops up a combination of onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and asparagus.  He drizzles the bowl with avocado oil and adds in some seasoning (Everything But the Bagel is one of our favorites!), then dumps it in a grill basket on low heat for about 40 minutes, rotating / stirring it regularly.  If he adds potatoes into the mix, he microwaves them for about 3 minutes prior to pre-cook them.
  2. Grilled scallops, tuna, salmon, chicken, steak. No need to overcomplicate it!  Kevin grills one of these for us almost every Saturday, along with the veggies.  Super simple, with or without a marinade.  Here’s a grilling chart to help you with timing.
  3. Ahi Tuna Tacos. We had these a few weeks ago and I’m still dreaming about them. Simple grilled ahi tuna (we prefer it almost rare, so it was just a sear), placed in tortillas (I love Siete tortillas!) and topped with mango avocado salsa (we used this recipe, but added a diced bell pepper and removed the diced chilies.)
  4. Grilled Cilantro Lime Chicken. This simple marinade is super simple (I leave out the sugar), yet super delicious!

    Grilled Cilantro Lime Chicken – Slender Kitchen

  5. Grilled Chicken Skewers with Creamy Garlic Dipping Sauce. I had you at the creamy garlic dipping sauce, right?
  6. Hawaiian Turkey Burgers. If you can’t travel to a tropical place, at least do yourself the favor of enjoying these tasty burgers!
  7. Chimichurri Grilled Shrimp. Herby and flavorful without being complicated!
  8. Coconut Lime Grilled Scallops. I LOVE scallops on the grill even without the coconut lime flavor, but this is a nice twist
  9. Grilled Chipotle Lime Cauliflower Steaks. Not a meat fan?  If you’ve never had cauliflower steaks, you’re missing out!

    Grilled Chipotle Lime Cauliflower Steaks – The Kitchn

  10. Grilled Veggie Salad with Lime Sauce. Allll the colors and veggies look like perfection!
  11. Grilled Chicken Bruschetta on Zucchini “toast”. What a fun way to wow your guests with this creative and healthy appetizer!
  12. Grilled Spice-Rubbed Cajun Salmon. I’m a sucker for any kind of salmon, and this spice rub adds tons of flavor!
  13. Citrus Marinated Carne Asada. Delicious in lettuce wraps or with a side of veggies!
  14. Grilled Steak, Zucchini, and Pesto Salad. Doesn’t pesto make everything better?

    Grilled Steak, Zucchini, and Pesto Salad – Do You Even Paleo

  15. Grilled Lemon Garlic Pork Tenderloin. Again, so simple, yet so delicious!

Now it’s your turn … What’s your favorite healthy grilling recipe?  Which of the above are you most excited to try?

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Megan Lyons Headshot

Hi! I'm Megan Lyons,

the voice behind The Lyons’ Share. I love all things health, wellness, and fitness-related, and I hope to share some of my passion with you. Thanks for stopping by!
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