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Health Hack #37 - Holiday Hack: Helpful Grilling Tips

Things in Moderation

Captain Killjoy here, eager to soil your holiday cookout plans with some awful news. Kidding! But before laying out some helpful cookout tips (which may come too late to employ today), a few caveats must come first, to make fully certain that you’re not left thinking we’re here to ruin your holiday feast.

Last week (The Power Of Heat) we learned about the notion of hormesis. That is, a threshold that often lives within the world of health where benefits are gleaned when things are kept beneath it, whereas dangers lie when the line is crossed. The principle shares a lot with the idea of things in moderation, but it’s important to differentiate between the two. Does a donut in the AM once every couple of weeks permanently dent your insulin sensitivity? Likely not. A donut every morning? Likely so. The difference between hormesis and things in moderation is that, as intuitively noted by the donut example, a donut every few weeks isn’t exactly helping you any. For something to hold a hormetic benefit, the small dose is actually beneficial. Sun exposure is a beautiful example of hormetic effects. Bathe in summer sunlight with no UV protection for 15-20 minutes in the AM and your daily Vitamin D intake is satisfied, your circadian rhythm is unfazed, and your immune system is made more resilient as a result. Unwittingly fall asleep in a beach chair and roast in the sun for an hour or two unprotected, and there begins a landslide of negative consequences.

Why the hormesis refresher and an intro to moderation? Well, the intent here is not for the reader to envision your humble author waving his finger in an unapproving manner while your mouth envelops a third of a hot dog in a single bite this afternoon. Because chances are, I’ll be doing the same thing! Know that virtually all food decisions are safe when approached in moderation, holidays are meant to be enjoyable, and joy can often be found in breaking from monotonous habits (if only momentarily). At the very least, these takeaways can be stored and put to future use. At most, maybe there’s a chance for you to employ some this weekend, without worrying whether or not you’re able to...

How to Mitigate Against the Potential Harms of Grilling

Grilling at high temperatures can (unfortunately) produce carcinogens. HCA’s (heterocyclic amines) and PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) can be formed when grilling meat at very high temperatures, i.e. temperatures capable of inducing tall flames.

Meats aren’t the only susceptible food. Even vegetables, when grilled at super high temperatures, can form benzopyrene, a primary carcinogen in cigarette smoke.

Does eating a flame-grilled burger enhance your chances of getting cancer? Absolutely not. Does eating them for lunch and dinner, on a daily basis? Likely so. Huge difference here, which is important to keep in mind.

In an effort to mitigate against potential ill-effects, the following hacks can be employed:

If you’re the Grillmaster:

1. Keep your grilling area clean

Charred remnants from prior grilling endeavors are not particularly appetizing, and are likely quite nefarious. It should go without saying, but remain diligent about scrubbing and cleaning your grill surface with each new cook, to eradicate any char from a bygone feast.

2. Cook at lower heat and/or avoid flame flare-ups

This may induce an eye roll, since us omnivores all know how decadent a charred slab of meat can be when fresh off of an open fire. For those high heat seekers, Hack #5 and #6 will be your salvation. But if grilling in open air for a longer duration at a lower heat is available, it might be a wise bet.

3. Don’t overcook meats or vegetables

Interestingly, the trained grillmaster is able to exert control over any potential risks via cooking things perfectly. Time under heat tension increases the creation of carcinogens, as does the intense blackening that forms when meat or veggies are overcooked. Those sought after grill marks are totally safe. A sheet of blackness that must be carved off before consumption - not so much. Cook until done properly, but no longer. And discard meats and vegetables that have been blatantly overcooked over a fire.

4. Marinate

Marinating your meats and veggies, if only with salt/pepper, helps to provide a protective seal against the creation of compounds like HCA’s, PAH’s, and benzopyrene. When foresight is available, season your foods 30 minutes or more before cooking, and you’ll be way ahead of the health curve by doing so.

5. Add Rosemary and Thyme as Seasoning

Not only do the two herbs go together in perfect taste harmony, but they’re natural HCA blockers. As an omnivore myself, I cannot resist the occasion to grill a grass-fed ribeye steak on high heat, flames blazing. To best mitigate against the dangers of doing so, I begin by marinating the meat in rosemary and thyme. Three lines of defense here: marinating in advance, adding the two herbs, and refraining from treating myself more than a few times a month.

If you’re the Guest, with no control over how things are prepared:

6. Pair with fruits, vegetables, and legumes

Harkening back to a food philosophy we’ve advocated hard for (The Tie That Binds All Modern Diets & Eat (Real) Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants), aim to fill your plate (or bowl) with plant foods. Not only are grilled meats devoid of the antioxidants needed to combat some of the potentially deleterious effects of grilling, they’re completely devoid of fiber. Fiber, as we now know (Soluble Fiber: A Vital Component Of A Balanced Diet), is a vital part of a balanced diet. Meats, particularly when grilled, pose strain on our digestive system, and require a huge enzyme expenditure in order to break things down. Fiber assists in this process while also adding a slew of other benefits in the process. Some backyard staples that you should reach for: beans (any form), raw vegetables (which you’ll often find paired with a dip or in a greens-based salad), and berries.

7. Employ restraint

As our co-owner John recently recited to me (in a different context), borrowing from one of his food mentors, “there’s a difference between a mouth and a vacuum cleaner”. When a buffet-style presentation is at our disposal, sometimes it’s easy to mix up the two. Just remember to eat slowly and mindfully, and you’ll learn to eat in accordance with your body’s stomach, and not so much the desires of your eyes and nose.