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Celebrate the Summer with Healthier Grilling

June 25, 2013

Now that the Fourth of July holidays are almost here and warmer weather is upon us, nearly everyone is looking forward to spending more time out of doors. At this time of year, one of America's favorite outdoor activities is barbequing.

"We all want to improve our health, and being more active outside certainly helps," said Kimberlee Alvari, a registered dietitian and director of Food and Nutrition Services at Washington Hospital in Fremont. "But you also need to consider if the foods you eat and the way you prepare them are contributing to good health. This includes grilling meats, fish and poultry."

One important consideration is the amount of meat in your diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that there is 50 percent more meat in the overall food supply of Americans than is considered healthy.

For healthier barbequing, you may need to cut back on the amount of beef, pork, poultry and fish you put on the grill. You should also select leaner cuts to help reduce the amount of fat you consume.

The role of antibiotics

Another important health consideration is how the meat, fish or poultry you select is produced.

"Much of our meat supply comes from healthy animals that have been fed antibiotics to promote weight gain," reported Alvari. "Antibiotics are also used to help prevent disease in animals commonly raised in very small areas, where disease is more likely to occur."

According to Alvari, the FDA estimates that 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used for farm animals.

"Using antibiotics for weight promotion and disease prevention in healthy animals is implicated in creating antibiotic resistance among bacteria that cause human infections," she pointed out.

Antibiotic resistance is a major concern in health care today. Bacteria tend to increase resistance as antibiotics are used more frequently. This can make it harder to treat infections in humans.

Alvari recommended looking for meats, fish and poultry that are certified and organic, with "no antibiotics used." Packaging should be marked with the USDA Process Verified Shield.

"Antibiotic-free meats are more expensive, but if you consider that we should be cutting back on the amount we eat, that will help balance the cost to the consumer," said Alvari.

To support a healthy diet for its patients and the patrons of its Cafe, Washington Hospital is working on a Balanced Menu Program, which includes more vegetarian options. The Food and Nutrition Services Department is working with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to find sources of antibiotic-free meat and poultry.

Preparation and grilling

How you prepare food and grill it is another important factor. To help prevent foodborne illness due to cross-contamination, be sure to keep juice from raw meats away from other foods. Wash your hands properly after handling raw meat, and clean and sanitize equipment and preparation areas that have come in contact with raw meat.

The right grilling techniques can also help keep food from contributing to an increased risk of cancer.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) states, "when any kind of meat, poultry or fish is cooked at high temperatures, especially when well-done or charred, cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) form."

"PAHs come from smoke, which is formed when fat drips from meat onto the grill," explained Alvari. "Anything that spends time around smoke will contain some level of PAHs."

Lowering cancer risk

Alvari recommended several strategies to help lower the potential for cancer causing compounds to form during grilling:
* Partially cook meats, fish or poultry in the microwave.
* Use leaner cuts of meat or cut off any visible fat to reduce flare-ups while on the grill.
* Turn meats often and spread aluminum foil on the grill to minimize flare-ups.
* Use low-fat marinades.

"Leaner meats tend to be tougher, and a healthy marinade can really make a difference. This can also lower cancer risk because marinating meats helps to avoid the formation of hydrocarbons during grilling," she said.

It's fun and easy to make low-fat marinades for barbequing. You need three basic ingredients:
* Acid, such as vinegar or fruit juice
* Fat, such as olive or canola oil
* Flavorings, such as condiments, herbs, spices or vegetables like onions or garlic
Within each of these categories, there is a wide array of other choices. Mix the marinade in a large, re-sealable plastic bag and add the meat, making sure it is entirely covered by the marinade. Keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook. After grilling, be sure to discard any leftover marinade.

While planning your healthy barbeque menu, don't forget to include more fruits and vegetables. Many make easy and delicious grilling options.

See Washington Hospital at Concert in the Park

This summer, watch for Washington Hospital at Concert in the Park in Fremont. The Food and Nutrition Services Department will be there on Aug. 8 handing out more information on healthy barbequing.