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Healthy BBQ Ideas & Tips: What You Should Avoid

Erdim Özdemir

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It’s that time of year again – BBQ season! A total of 75 percent of the US population own a grill or smoker, and summer brings along with it the most popular days of the year for grilling, with national holidays like July Fourth, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day![1] Since it’s such a popular activity, we thought we’d share with you some BBQ ideas and tips on how to make the grilling season as healthy as possible.

Spring and summer bring friends and family together for barbecues. The crackling of the charcoal, the smell of juicy steak or vegetarian sausages, and the sight of zesty, vibrant salads make our mouths water. As enjoyable as barbecuing may be, there are a few things you should keep in mind to ensure that it remains healthy. Did you know that carcinogens can be produced if your meat and fish are prepared incorrectly and heated too much?

In this article, you will receive unique and practical BBQ ideas from us – learn how best to prepare meat, fish, and vegetables on the grill, and discover why marinades not only add flavor but can also reduce the risk of cancer. Your guide to enjoying a healthy BBQ starts here!

Is Grilling Unhealthy?

With the arrival of sunny days and warmer temperatures, our BBQs find their way back into our backyards and parks – along with the mouth-watering smell of fish, meat, and vegetables sizzling on the grill. These foods are heated at high temperatures and come into contact with a lot of smoke – so is grilling unhealthy?

Do Smoked Foods Cause Cancer?

When animal proteins are heated at temperatures above 266 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat converts them into carcinogenic substances called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs). As soon as fat drips onto a hot surface and evaporates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also formed in the meat. PAHs impair cell function and can be carcinogenic.[2, 3]

Several studies show that the risk of colon, lung, and breast cancer can increase if you frequently eat well-done meat – that is, if the meat is cooked for a very long time at a high heat.[4, 5]

Cooking Stages for Meat



Meat is raw inside


Meat is slightly bloody inside

Medium rare

Meat is pink inside

Medium well

Meat is only a little pink inside

Well done

Meat is cooked through

In addition to cooking and steaming food, grilling can also help you lose weight. You don’t need any extra fat, as you do when frying with oil in a pan. So, you can save some calories when grilling – unless you have marinated the grilled food in oil.

What Are Nitrosamines And Are Nitrosamines Dangerous?

Fish and cured meat products contain nitrogen compounds that are converted to nitrosamines when exposed to heat. In animal experiments, researchers have observed that nitrosamines may have a carcinogenic effect. Whether nitrosamines also lead to cancer in humans has not yet been scientifically clarified.[6, 7]

BBQ Ideas: How Can I BBQ Healthily?

To reduce the presence of carcinogenic substances in your barbecued foods, you should grill your food at a maximum of 266 degrees. The best way to determine the temperature is with a barbecue thermometer! Grill poultry instead of red meat, as red meat (pork, beef, veal, sheep, lamb, goat) contains more fat, from which carcinogens can form when exposed to heat. Our further BBQ ideas and tips include:[3]

  • Cut off burned parts, as many carcinogens are found there.
  • Do not let your food char.
  • The flame must not touch the food.
  • Use a grill tray, so that the fat does not drip onto the coals.

If you have a craving for beef, buy loins or fillets. These two cuts of beef contain little fat.[8]

Healthy BBQ: Are Marinades Healthy?

Marinades can reduce the formation of carcinogenic HCAs in meat and fish. And they are quick and easy to make. For example, mix a little oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and water together and add herbs such as rosemary, sage, or thyme. Olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs contain antioxidants that can reduce the formation of HCAs by up to 60 percent![9]

However, the longer a food is marinated, the fewer antioxidants remain, as they are very sensitive to oxygen. Therefore, you should not marinate your grilled food for longer than six hours – despite what you may have been told, marinating your food does not give it a more intense flavor. Otherwise, coat the food with the marinade again shortly before grilling to provide an extra load of antioxidants.[9] Vitamin C from citrus fruits can minimize the build-up of nitrosamines. Drink a refreshing glass of orange juice or water with lemon juice with your savory barbecue dish.[7]

Use cold-pressed oil and virgin oil for barbecue marinades. These oils are not highly processed, meaning that most of the important nutrients are still present.[10]

A study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry was able to determine in one study that a red wine marinade can actually reduce the formation of carcinogens by up to 88 percent.[11]

Healthy BBQ marinade on a table

Is It Healthy to Use Aluminum Foil on a BBQs?

Aluminum foil has long been a popular tool in the kitchen and also for barbecuing. In the meantime, however, there has been a debate about whether aluminium particles are transmitted to our food during barbecuing and about whether this could harm our health. Aluminum is said to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, among other things. However, researchers have not yet been able to establish a definite connection between aluminum and health problems.

Aluminum can withstand quite a lot of heat – so grilling alone is not enough to ensure that meat, fish, and vegetables later contain large amounts of aluminum. However, acid and spices can dissolve particles from the aluminium foil. On the other hand, using aluminum foil on the grill can also have health benefits: It prevents fat from dripping into the embers, burning there, and causing carcinogens to be released into the environment.

So, what should you do? Some experts recommend, for example, using aluminum foil, but pat marinated meat well before putting it in the tray and salt and season it only after grilling.[12–14]

Which Type of Grill is Best Suited for a Healthy BBQ?

To reduce calories, a contact grill is recommended, which allows you to fry your food without using oil. Since a contact grill does not produce smoke, it also does not produce carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). If you don’t want to give up using a classic charcoal grill, you should use charcoal to start up your barbecue and not paper. When paper burns, PAHs are also produced.[15]

Did you know that if meat and fish are roasted in direct contact with a wood fire – for example, over an open fire – 200 times more carcinogenic PAHs are produced than when grilling?[16]

Should I Always Clean the Grill?

After grilling, be sure to clean the grate and remove all food residue – a grill brush is best for this. When you grill again and the charred remains on the grate are reheated, glycation products are formed, which are linked to inflammation and heart disease.[17, 18]

Grilling Ideas and Tips: How Can I Make My BBQ Healthy?

You don’t have to make a big effort to grill healthily – you just need an overview of which foods are good! Here are our grilling ideas for the season ahead.

Meat skewers on a BBQ

What Can I Cook on My BBQ?

For a healthy BBQ, your grill plate should be loaded with plenty of vegetables. When vegetables cook on the grill, fewer carcinogens are produced than with meat. Vegetables also contain dietary fibers – these nutrients fill us up and have a positive effect on our gut health by promoting a healthy gut microbiome in all digestive processes. Fiber can also help with high blood pressure.

If you don’t want to completely give up meat, you can alternatively roast meat-and-vegetable skewers. The following vegetables are excellent for grilling:[19]

  • Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli
  • Fennel
  • Zucchini
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Green asparagus

    Embrace a Healthy BBQ with Colorful Carbs

    The classic pasta salad is a must for a cozy and healthy BBQ. Why not opt for whole-grain pasta? It’s richer in fiber and causes blood sugar to rise only slowly. White-flour products and sweet foods, on the other hand, raise your blood sugar levels quickly and significantly. The body reacts to this by producing large amounts of the hormone insulin to lower blood sugar, meaning we feel ravenous and we crave sugar.[10]

    While we’re on the topic of healthy nutrition and blood sugar: discover more about normal blood sugar levels in our Health Portal article on hba1c – that is, long-term blood sugar.

    Those who suffer from gluten intolerance (celiac disease) can find gluten-free pasta made from lentil, peas, or chickpeas in almost every grocery store. These pasta varieties are bursting with protein and fiber due to the legumes they contain – a nutrient combination that can keep you full for a long time. Glass noodles made from mung beans add an interesting Asian twist to a fresh and vibrant summer pasta salad![7]

    Which Is Better: Fish or Meat?

    fish with lemon and herbs on the grill


    The World Health Organization classifies red meat and processed-meat products as foods that can cause cancer: Scientists have observed a link between a high consumption of red meat and colon cancer. Since then, recommendations call on us to reduce our consumption of red and processed meat. According to an article by Harvard University, amounts of 50 to 100 grams a day are considered safe – that is, 350 to 700 grams a week. That corresponds to just under two steaks a week.[20-23]

    Is Red Meat Really Unhealthy?

    Red meat is an important source of vitamin B12, which strengthens the protection of our nerve cells and is involved in blood formation. Minerals such as zinc and selenium are also abundant in red meat. However, it also contains high amounts of saturated fatty acids, which can play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease and even cancer. So far, however, researchers have not been able to establish a direct link between meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.[24, 25]

    Did you know that 100 grams of beef contain up to 18 times more saturated fat than chicken?[26]

    Does a Healthy BBQ Mean Less Meat, More Fish?

    You don’t have to give up red meat completely for a healthy diet. Instead, reduce the amount of red meat you consume. Incorporate more fish into your diet, especially cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring. Cold-water fish are optimal sources of iodine and omega fatty acids. Iodine ensures optimal thyroid function, on which our entire metabolism depends. Omega-3 fatty acids promote blood circulation, protect our cells from inflammation, and strengthen cell membranes.[7]

    Of course, fish is not everyone’s favorite. You can try adding flavor to it with a tasty and healthy BBQ marinade. For example, mix lemon juice and some rosemary together, and let the fish cook on a grill rack!

    To find out more about the benefits of omega 3 and 6 – and which sources of omega are best – head over to our dedicated Health Portal article.

    BBQ Ideas for the Season – at a Glance

    Is Grilling Unhealthy?

    In terms of grilling meat, several studies show that the risk of colon, lung, and breast cancer can increase if you frequently eat well-done meat – that is, if the meat is cooked for a very long time at a high heat. To enjoy a healthy BBQ season we suggest cutting off burned parts of meat, making sure your food doesn’t touch the flame from the BBQ, and using a grill tray, so that fat doesn’t drip onto the charcoal.

    How Can I Make My BBQ Healthy?

    For a healthy BBQ, make sure your BBQ meal is packed with plenty of vegetables. When vegetables cook on the grill, fewer carcinogens are produced than with meat. Vegetables are also great for making sure you reach your dietary fiber requirement. Ensuring you receive plenty of fiber through your diet means you are doing the best for your gut and digestion – as well as your blood pressure levels.

    Which Is Better: Fish or Meat?

    Experts have identified that red meat and processed-meat products can cause cancer. This is why we recommend you incorporate more fish into your healthy BBQ, especially cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring. This way, you are receiving optimal amounts of iodine and omega fatty acids.


    [1]        Olmsted, L. The United States of Barbecue - America's Love Affair With Backyard Cooking, April 28, 2016, available at, accessed on June 23, 2021.

    [2]        Rohrmann, S., Hermann, S., Linseisen, J. Heterocyclic aromatic amine intake increases colorectal adenoma risk: findings from a prospective European cohort study, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 89(5), pp. 1418–1424, May 2009, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26658.

    [3]       PAK, Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit, available at, accessed on April 3, 2019.

    [4]        Muscat, J. E., Wynder, E. L. The consumption of well-done red meat and the risk of colorectal cancer, Am J Public Health, vol. 84(5), pp. 856–858, May 1994.

    [5]       Well-done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk, available at, accessed on April 3, 2019.

    [6]        Dr. Albrecht, M. Bedeutung und Gefährlichkeit von Nitrosaminen,” Bayerisches Landesamt für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit, available at, accessed on April 3, 2019.

    [7]        Elmadfa, I. Ernährungslehre, 3rd Edition, Verlag Eugen Ulmer Stuttgart, 2015.

    [8]        Rimbach, G., Nagursky, J., Erbersdobler, H. F., Lebensmittel-Warenkunde für Einsteiger. Springer-Verlag.

    [9]        Smith, J. S., Ameri, F., Gadgil, P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks, J. Food Sci., vol. 73(6), pp. T100–105, August 2008.

    [10]      Kasper, H. Ernährungsmedizin und Diätetik, 12th Edition. Urban & Fischer Verlag/Elsevier GmbH, 2014.

    [11]      Busquets, R., Puignou, L., Galceran, M. T., Skog, K. Effect of red wine marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in fried chicken breast, J. Agric. Food Chem., vol. 54(21), pp. 8376–8384, October 2006, doi: 10.1021/jf0616311.

    [12]      WillhiteC. C. Systematic review of potential health risks posed by pharmaceutical, occupational and consumer exposures to metallic and nanoscale aluminum, aluminum oxides, aluminum hydroxide and its soluble salts, Crit. Rev. Toxicol., vol. 44 Suppl 4, pp. 1–80, October 2014, doi: 10.3109/10408444.2014.934439.

    [13]      Bassioni, G., Mohammed, F., Al Zubaidi, I., Kobrsi, I. Risk Assessment of Using Aluminum Foil in Food Preparation, International journal of electrochemical science, May 2012.

    [14]     ATSDR - Public Health Statement: Aluminum, available at, accessed on May 6, 2019.

    [15]      Fretheim, K. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Grilled Meat Products—A Review, Food Chemistry – FOOD CHEM, vol. 10, pp. 129–139, February 1983, doi: 10.1016/0308-8146(83)90029-8.

    [16]      Lee, J.-G., Kim, S.-Y., Moon, J.-S., Kim, S.-H., Kang, D.-H., Yoon, H.-J. Effects of grilling procedures on levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in grilled meats, Food Chem, vol. 199, pp. 632–638, May 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.12.017.

    [17]      Tagg, V. UTHealth shares smoking hot, and healthy, grilling tips, available at, accessed on April 23, 2019.

    [18]      Uribarri, J. et al. Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet, J Am Diet Assoc, vol. 110(6), pp. 911–16.e12, June 2010, doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018.

    [19]      Aljuraiban, G. S. et al.Total, insoluble and soluble dietary fibre intake in relation to blood pressure: the INTERMAP Study, British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 114(9), pp. 1480–1486, November 2015, doi: 10.1017/S0007114515003098.

    [20]     WHO | Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, WHO, available at, accessed on April 23, 2019.

    [21]      Sinha, R., Cross, A. J., Graubard, B. I., Leitzmann, M. F., Schatzkin, A. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people, Arch Intern Med, Bd. 169, Nr. 6, S. 562–571, March 2009, doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.6.

    [22]      H. H. Publishing, How much meat can you eat, Harvard Health, available at, accessed on April 23, 2019.

    [23]     Wie viel Fleisch ist das richtige Maß?,, available at, accessed on May 6, 2019.

    [24]      Micha, R., Wallace, S. K., Mozaffarian, D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Circulation, vol. 121(21), pp. 2271–2283, June 2010, doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.924977.

    [25]      Rohrmann, S. et al., Meat consumption and mortality--results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, BMC Med, vol. 11, pp. 63, March 2013, doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-63.

    [26]     Cholesterol Content of Foods, UCSF Medical Center, available at, accessed on April 23, 2019.

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