A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated
to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
There’s no doubt that grilling is a fun, quick, and easy way to cook food. It’s been enjoyed for millennia by cultures around the world for a reason, after all. It’s infinitely versatile and can be flavored a ton of different ways, cooking almost any kind of food.
But for the health conscious, it might be worth asking yourself what the health benefits of grilling is over other types of cooking. After all, just because something TASTES good it doesn’t mean it’s healthy; look at the legacy of fried foods.
The answer to that is a bit complicated, but does mostly lean toward “yes” for the most part, thankfully, though that depends a bit on what you consider to be healthy.
Different kinds of foods are healthy and unhealthy for different reasons, after all, and it mostly has to do with portion sizes and your own dietary needs (what you’re missing in your diet and what you’re overloaded on, that sort of thing). Even seemingly unhealthy foods can be healthy in certain circumstances (foods high in sugar after you’ve donated blood, for instance), so perhaps a better question might be: “what advantages does grilling have over other methods of cooking”?
Primarily, what makes grilling healthier than some methods of cooking is lowered fat and grease content. Since grilled foods are cooked on a grate, much of their fat has the chance to drip and run off into the grease trap, making grilled foods very low in fat content. This is great for keeping your cholesterol down (in theory, which we’ll get to), and is essentially the entire theory behind why the George Foreman line of electric indoor grills is billed as being a health promoting product.
On the flip side, while a grill can be used to cook almost anything, the most popular things that people grill are not exactly the best foods for the health conscious, even though there are already healthy grilling options for vegans. Grilled chicken breast is one of the healthiest meats you can eat, alongside white meat fish. Pork’s not too bad either, especially as the natural fattiness of pork is downplayed when grilling.
However, the most popular things involve a lot of red meat; your hamburgers, steaks, and whatnot. While grilling is a fairly healthy way to cook in terms of reducing fat, it doesn’t offset the natural health detriments of consuming too much red meat; particularly the increased risks of heart disease and cancer. Combined with the increased risk of bacterial infection from ground meat: you need to cook ground meats thoroughly to properly disinfect them, since bacteria often take root in the exterior of meats (which is churned toward the interior by the grinding process).
There are also a few other drawbacks that can come up when grilling, though the research seems a bit inconclusive here. The primary one is that grilling may increase risk of cancer under certain conditions, as the process of grilling and smoking releases carcinogens (or perhaps more accurately, black carbon is thought to be a carcinogen, and smoke is a type of black carbon, among other things).
This doesn’t mean that grilling in general is unsafe, but grilling in such a way that increases your exposure to these carcinogens is going to raise your risk of cancer considerably.
There are a few things to keep in mind when grilling, the first is to keep char to a minimum. You ensure your grill is clean before and after every use, so the blackened crust isn’t allowed to stick to your food, as it’s not good to ingest. Likewise, you shouldn’t burn any food beyond what’s needed to cook it, so cooking too close to an open flame, or allowing your food to sit in one place for too long and blacken is a mistake as well.
However, those things aside, grilling has no more and no fewer inherent health benefits than other cooking styles. The reduced fat is a very simple side effect of how grills are constructed, so steps can be taken in other methods of cooking to do the same (like draining off fat periodically while cooking meat in a skillet).
Likewise, the risks when it comes to grilling are present in most other methods of cooking as well; burning your food on the stove or in the oven is likewise going to introduce carcinogenic elements into your diet, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
That said, there is an interesting indirect factor that I think increases the health benefits of grilling: it’s done outdoors, for the most part.
This means you’re encouraged to go outside, get some fresh air and sunshine, and enjoy a nice day, or what’s left of it after a long day at work.
This may not seem like much, but with everything else being roughly equal to most other methods of cooking, it’s worth mentioning.
Grilling also often turns into a social affair as well, with a lot of association with physical activity; games of backyard football while waiting and the like.
It is perhaps fair to say that grilling isn’t necessarily more healthy than other methods, despite its advantages, but it does promote (though not guarantee) other healthy habits in addition to its own advantages.
Whatever the case, grilling shouldn’t be something you feel guilty about, if that was your worry. Unlike deep fried foods, grilling does not have a plethora of easy, clear reasons to cut it to a minimum, so you can safely use it as a common, or even primary method of cooking without worrying. Just don’t expect grilling most of your meals to be some magic cure-all that will increase the level of your health; it is like all things with nutrition a factor that may CONTRIBUTE to increased health, but not ensure it on its own.
Read more: Grilling ideas for spring.
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