Healthy Eating: The pitfalls of barbecues

Are barbecues bad for you? From chips and dips, to meats and other BBQ treats find out the truth about Yom Ha'atzmaut grilling.

barbeque 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
barbeque 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is a day celebrated across Israel and in many Jewish communities and households around the world. Every community may have their own unique way to celebrate, however, in Israel (and in many parts of the world) one tradition remains constant – barbecues!
Most barbecue foods are sadly loaded with salt, sugar, fat and even carcinogenic substances from the grilling process. So as summer quickly approaches and before the grill season truly gets underway, here a few “bad” barbecue habits and a few easy ways to break them.
RELATED:How are you celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut?
Go lean
In North America the word barbecue is synonymous with juicy hamburgers, hotdogs and giant steaks, while in Israel you’re more likely to find kebabs or chicken skewers sizzling on the grill. However, whatever the entrée of preference, there is no disputing it – barbecue meats are definitely not the most thinning. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone grills fatty cuts, or that it is impossible to find something on the menu that won’t wreak havoc on your waistline. But between the combination of ground meat for hamburgers, the t-bone or rib eye steaks, the beef ribs, and even the lamb kebabs, will probably fill your recommended daily fat content for the next few days.
A 20 ounce t-bone steak, for instance, can have over to 1,500 calories as well as 124 grams of fat, while one lamb kebab can have up to 10 percent of one’s daily fat requirement. Unfortunately, not only is there an excess amount of fat in most barbecued meats, but most of it is the wrong kind – saturated fat. Unlike unsaturated fats (poly and monounsaturated), saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and clog arteries, thus increasing risk for cardiovascular diseases. So while red meat may be packed with protein and iron, the high saturated fat content is a definite health no-no. However, this doesn’t mean you have to scratch red meat completely off the BBQ grill. Instead, opt for leaner cuts and make sure to trim off any visible signs of fat. If you can, opt for grass-fed beef as it is generally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher in the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And always stay away from cuts with visible marbling (white streaks of fat). Skinless chicken breasts are another healthy alternative. Also don’t forget about the dreaded salt content. While a typical hot dog may have less than 300 calories (without the bun), it contains between 10 to 15 grams of fat as well as over 500 grams of sodium – that’s just over 20% of one’s daily recommended sodium intake!
Cooked just right
However, the high fat content is not the only thing one needs to worry about when it comes to barbecuing. The hot flame of the grill can leave your meat saturated with cancerous causing carcinogenic compounds. Whether it is red meat (for hamburgers or steaks), chicken or seafood, cooking at very high temperatures causes the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), a carcinogenic compound linked with the formation of cancers. Some experts recommend grilling (broiling or frying) at lower temperatures to prevent charring the meat. However, at the same time, how long the meat is cooked is also a factor in the HCAs formation. Undercooked ground meats and poultry can contain harmful bacteria such as e-coli and salmonella. Therefore, the best way to limit the formation of carcinogenic compounds as well as these bacteria is to use smaller pieces, as they will cook quicker at lower temperatures as well as flip the meat every minute or so. Some studies have also shown that precooking the meat in a microwave for two minutes may decrease the HCAs by up to 90%. Moreover, grilling leaner cuts of meat will not only reduce your intake of artery clogging saturated fats, but will also help to reduce the amounts of carcinogenic compounds. Leaner cuts will drip less fat, thereby causing fewer flare-ups that will char the meat as well as less smoke. This is not only beneficial for the environment, but also for you as another type of carcinogen called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) form in the smoke and are deposited on the outside of the meat.
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So while consuming barbecued meats, once in a while, is nothing to a fear, regular consumption is a definite health no-no. However, if a weekly barbecue is on the cards for this summer, than try and sprinkle your meat, chicken or fish with some rosemary, basil, mint, oregano, sage or thyme as these herbs have been shown to reduce the formation of the carcinogens when cooked at high temperatures. 
Don’t double dip
A staple item at North American barbecues, chips are less commonly found at Israeli style BBQs. However, chips and dips (or Pita and dips in Israel) are one of the main barbecue health culprits. To begin with, no matter how you slice it, potato chips are just bad for you. Loaded with salt, covered in oil, potato chips have 155 calories as well as a greasy 10 grams of fat (16% of one’s daily required intake) per serving, which is only 14 chips! So instead of chips, try bringing cut up raw veggies to your Yom Ha'atmaut barbecue. Bell peppers (green, red yellow and orange) are packed solid with Vitamin C, Vitamin A and pyroxidine (Vitamin B6). Carrots, as well as raw cauliflower, are also great alternatives to salty greasy chips. Now, while potato chips typically rank high up on people’s “worst” food lists, rarely do we take into consideration the dip – or more importantly how MUCH dip. Take for instance, a ranch dip: Two tablespoons contain 60 calories as well as 5 grams of fat (half of which is saturated) – and how many of us really stop at just 2 tablespoons? For those of us who love to dip, this will barely get us through 10 chips! Instead, try replacing this artery clogging dip with the Mediterranean staple food – hummus.  Loaded with fiber and rich in protein, this Israeli staple item is a perfect dip substitute. Also, don’t forget to watch out for the guacamole. Avocadoes are loaded with Vitamin E, potassium, folate, fiber as well as are rich in the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, a healthy fat that helps to lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol and raises one’s “good” HDL cholesterol. Unfortunately, most pre-packaged versions of the dip are made up of mostly unhealthy oils and sour cream – doubling the calorie count and skyrocketing the saturated fat content.
Health Tip: If you are ready to make your own guacamole, add in some tomatoes. Not only are tomatoes rich in Vitamins, but they are also loaded with lycopene – a powerful anti-oxidant that reduces the risk of cancers as well as cardiovascular diseases. Both tomatoes and avocados are healthy on their own, however, when eaten together the “good” fat from the avocados allows the body to absorb more than seven times the amount of lycopene than it would normally.
Be on sauce watch:
Who doesn’t love to pour on the barbecue sauce and cover their burger in ketchup? Now while these sauces may provide that special missing tasty component – giving your meat or chicken that wow factor - they are unfortunately loaded with sugar and salt.  In fact, most store bought BBQ sauces, as well as ketchup, are filled with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a man made sugar. Over the past decade, studies have linked HFCS with today’s obesity epidemic and have shown that consumption of this sugar leads to an increased appetite, as well as raises triglyceride levels in the blood and increased fat in the abdominal areas (visceral fat). Now while the debate rages on as to whether HFCS is in fact worse than regular sugar, the fact remains is that sugar is sugar – and no added amount does any good for you.
So instead of drowning your favorite meats in the artificial flavours of BBQ sauce or ketchup, experiment with you own marinades and accompanying sauces. Try olive oil rich in the heart healthy monounsaturated fat mixed with garlic, a powerful anti-oxidant as well as a natural anti-biotic. Or try lemon and lime juice (filled with Vitamin C), or if you want that extra spice (and health) kick try out a marinade made from chili pepper. Chili peppers have low cholesterol, prevent and clear sinus congestion, as well as help to reduce blood clot formation and even raise one’s metabolic rate – something that is ideal at barbecues!
Not for buns of steel
Unless steak is being served, most of us need to put our hamburgers, hotdogs and other barbecue favorites in a bun (or pita). Unfortunately, most hamburger and hotdog buns typically used at barbecues are generally white! Unlike whole grain breads, which contain all the parts of the grain kernel (the bran, the endosperm and the germ) white breads are made from highly-refined white flour, which has had the fiber-dense bran and the nutrient-rich germ processed out. As a result, most to all of the essential fats, vitamins and minerals have been eliminated and all that is left is the starchy endosperm. However, the refinement process does more than just strip away these essential micro-nutrients; it also eliminates the bread’s entire fiber content. Fiber is not only extremely healthy for us, but it also helps to slow the rate of absorption of the food, thus keeping us full longer as well as helping to prevent sharp rises followed by quick drops in blood sugar levels. A good alternative for traditional hamburger and hotdog buns is whole wheat pita. A typical pita has around 170 calories, slightly more than 2 slices of bread. However, a whole wheat pita contains 5 grams of fiber. That’s five times the amount of a regular pita or hamburger and hot dog bun. Whole wheat hotdog and hamburger buns are also a nice option, however, watch out as many still contain enriched flour and high fructose corn syrup – so read the ingredients carefully before dumping a few packages into your shopping cart.
For most of us, summertime means barbecue time – but it also means shorts, tank tops and even bathing suits. So while an occasional barbecue to celebrate important events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut probably won’t affect your health or waistline, if you are planning regular BBQs for this summer, try swapping traditional chips, dips and fatty meats for healthier grill time treats.
We are interested to know how you plan on celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut.
Please send us pictures of any barbecues, street parties or concerts that you will be attending to