Nutritional therapist Amelia Freer explains how to have fun this summer without falling off the wagon
'Tis the season for barbecues, and there’s nothing finer than getting out into the garden (or onto the balcony) for a wonderful cook off. Naturally, I’m a big fan of this as I advocate home cooking as much as possible, it’s the single biggest contribution you can make to your own and your loved ones' health. But, dancing in the flames of the barbecue are a few hidden dangers that could compromise your healthy habits.
My top tips for a healthy barbecue
1. Where possible use an oil that has a high smoking point to marinate foods, such as coconut oil, avocado oil or ghee .
2. Cook foods as little as is safely possible - of course don’t undercook chicken for example, but no need to burn it either; always avoid charring your meat and don't eat the black or brown parts – keep it simple. Good quality rare meat isn’t so bad!
3. Limit the number of grilled foods you eat, and make sure you’re complimenting all barbecued foods with a large plateful of coloured fresh vegetables.
4. When grilling, cook your food with indirect heat, such as on a rack rather than directly in the flame or on the coals.
5. Partially pre-cook foods before they go on the grill, or cook smaller pieces of meat such as kebabs, which is quicker, hence leaving less time for HCAs to form (see below).
6. Acidic marinades containing apple cider vinegar , lemon or lime juice can reduce the amount of AGEs produced (see below).
7. Choose the best quality proteins you can buy – the better the quality, the less time you have to cook them for and certainly avoid the processed varieties (hotdogs, sausages and any meats containing preservatives which have been linked to cancer).
8. Marinating steak in red wine is suggested to cut levels of HCAs by up to 90 per cent. Only use natural ingredients for marinades, and keep the coating thin to minimise charring.
9. A number of plant foods contain polyphenols which have been shown to inhibit the formation of HCAs during cooking. Cherries, dried plums and apples lower HCA production – so add them to your burgers or kebabs.
10. Eating fermented and raw foods along with the barbecued meat neutralizes the HCAs – so add in some sauerkraut or kimchee on the side.
There is so much more to BBQs than sausages and buns so let's upgrade this summer and keep it healthy but tasty. Here are a few ideas...
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For me, bringing flavours to all of my cooking is essential to the enjoyment and to keeping my food choices clean. BBQs lend themselves to getting creative with marinating. The best oils to use are melted coconut oil, avocado oil or ghee. But extra virgin olive oil is occasionally OK, if not using too much heat. Here are a few to try:
- Lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and rosemary.
- Coconut oil, garlic, chilli and lime.
- Mustard, honey and olive oil.
- Coconut oil, lemongrass and ginger.
- Turmeric, cumin, paprika, garlic, lemon and oil.
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Kebabs are the best way to do a healthy BBQ – the protein pieces are small and hence don’t require a long time to cook (or burn) and you can add in lots of healthy vegetables too. I marinate mine first so all of the flavours combine, then put onto skewers and cook gently.
- Peppers, courgettes, onions, halloumi and aubergine.
- Prawn, red onion, ginger and mango.
- Salmon, lemon and fennel (seerecipe from Eat Nourish Glow Summer).
- Lamb, cumin, onion and prune.
- Beef, rosemary, yellow onion and peppers.
- And fruit kebabs for dessert – try grilled peaches or bananas with a dollop of Coyo yoghurt.
Burgers don’t need to be rammed full of breadcrumbs nor poor quality and cheap meat. They can be a deliciously healthy way of eating and they are so simple to make. Here are a few varieties to get you started with summer burgers:
- Turkey burgers.
- Sweet potato, salmon, almond meal and spring onion patties.
- Beef and Harissa burgers.
- Lamb, cumin, carrot and mint burgers.
- Chicken, apple and carrot burgers.
There are no rules for salads – just choose colours and flavours and get the herbs and spices in wherever you can to make them more interesting.
- Mysummer salad from the Eat Nourish Glow Summer eShort.
- Sauerkraut, avocado, shaved fennel, pumpkin seeds, olive oil and lemon juice.
- Carpaccio of courgette with thin strips of manchego (optional), olive oil and a shaving of truffle on top.
- Cherry tomatoes, avocado, broccoli, roasted garlic and chilli, toasted hazelnuts.
- 3 bean salad with spring onion and a tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic dressing.
- Courgetti with a spicy cashew dressing.
- Red cabbage with raw shredded apple and lemon dressing.
- Beetroot, fennel and orange with rocket and walnuts.
The importance of not overcooking your food
We all know the importance of thoroughly cooking our meat to prevent food poisoning – we have been taught to check those sausages and the chicken - but very little is said about the danger of overcooking our meats or any food for that matter. Cooking any foods at high temperatures leads to the creation of some rather dodgy chemicals. There are many studies to show that meat cooked at high temperatures, to the point of burning and charring, may increase our risk of developing some cancers and heart disease. But it’s not only meats cooked by frying, grilling or barbecuing; all foods can be damaged and nutrients lost when overcooked. The problems arise in two ways – the interaction of heat and food and particularly some oils. Plus, the burn products of charcoal or gas.
If it's only a handful of times a year then I’m not trying to be the party pooper and rob you of the joys of summer grilling. But if you regularly overcook and char foods then you need to be aware of the dangers of these guys:
- Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These are formed when food is cooked at high temperatures, and they’re linked to the development of some cancers. The blackened section is the worst part, which is why we should avoid the burn in the first place, or certainly cut those bits off. The higher the temperature and the longer the meat is cooked, the more HCAs are formed. One gram of rare steak may have as little as 2.5 nanograms for HCA. Cook that same steak to well done and it will have 10 times more HCA (30 ng). Chicken is even worse – a blackened grilled chicken breast may have as much as 480 ng of HCA, nearly 100 times as much as a steak, at least in the well done portion of the meat.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): These come from incompletely burned wood or charcoal. They are also present in cigarette smoke and air pollution but the greatest level of exposure is usually from food. They form in the smoke from charcoal and when fat or meat juices drip onto the heat source, causing flames to flare up and excess smoke to form, which transfers PAHs onto the food. Additionally, many charcoals contain additives to help light it and to keep it burning evenly, which also form PAHs when they burn, as does the lighter fluid most of us use to start the barbecue.
- Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): AGEs are also formed when cooking food at high temperatures. AGEs can build up in our body through excess sugar consumption but also from high temperature cooking methods and cause oxidative stress which over time leads to inflammation and is associated with neurological decline, an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure let alone speeding up the ageing process – yes, wrinkles!
Download Amelia Freer's ebook, Eat. Nourish. Glow. Summer for more healthy recipe ideas and expert advice. Find the iBook edition available here and the Kindle edition available here for 99p.