Low-Fat BBQ: Cooking as Delicious as It Looks

This is the season for outdoor cooking. Many foods can be grilled, including vegetables and fruit. And, nutrition experts say, barbecuing uses healthy cooking techniques for a low-fat, healthy lifestyle--especially when compared with frying.

That's not to say that a barbecue can't deteriorate into an artery-clogging, calorie-laden meal. To avoid that, choose the right foods and follow some simple guidelines.

What to grill?

For traditional red meat, nutrition experts suggest moderate portion sizes: 4 ounces raw or 3 ounces cooked. Choose lean cuts that have the word loin or round in their names. Trim any outside fat before cooking, and trim away any inside fat before eating.

Check out the "numbers" for ground meat. Look for the packages that have the greatest percent lean to percent fat ratio. Occasional hamburgers are also okay if you use a lean cut such as ground round, which is the leanest, followed by sirloin ground chuck. Look for ground beef that is 90 to 96 percent fat-free and, again, limit patties to a quarter pound raw, which is 3 ounces cooked.

Chicken's leanness makes it popular for grilling--and you don't need to take the skin off until after you cook it. Removing the skin before eating eliminates excess fat, but there's no significant difference in fat content whether you leave the skin on during cooking or take it off. Leaving the skin on will add significantly to the moisture content, so the chicken won't be tough or dry.

Marinated and grilled fish "steaks," such as halibut or salmon also are a healthy menu idea. You can even grill fish kebobs if you use firm-fleshed fish.

Don't overdo it

Some grilled foods may raise your risk for certain cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. The high heat used for grilling produces substances called heterocyclic amines in red meat, poultry, and fish. Another class of cancer-causing substances, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, form when fat from meat, poultry, or fish drips onto hot coals or stones. These substances are deposited back onto food by the smoke and flame-ups that blacken grilled meat.

You can take steps to reduce your exposure to these substances. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use lean cuts of meat so little fat will drip onto the coals.

  • Use tongs or a spatula to turn foods on the grill. Piercing the meat with a fork allows juices and fat to drip down and cause flame-ups.

  • Boil, steam, or use a microwave to partially cook poultry and ribs before putting them briefly on the grill. Be sure you transfer foods immediately from the microwave to the grill.

  • If charred matter does form on the meat, remove it before eating.

  • Place aluminum foil between the coals and cooking foods to keep the smoke away from the grill.

  • Cut the meat into small portions so they don't take as long to cook. Kebabs work well.

Healthy marinades

Fat isn't an essential ingredient in a marinade or barbecue sauce. It's the acid in lemon, lime, pineapple, or vinegar in a marinade that tenderizes meat. Look for low-calorie or low-fat salad dressings or marinades, or make your own, using a 3-to-1 ratio of vinegar to oil.

Don't forget the veggies and fruit

Meat, poultry, and fish aren't the only foods that can end up on a grill. Put vegetables on the grill after marinating them and placing them on skewers or a grilling tray. You can also wrap vegetables in foil with a little sauce, broth, or vinegar.

You can even grill fruit. The heat of the grill caramelizes the sugar in the fruit, intensifying the flavor. Grilled fruits can make wonderful additions to entrees, or serve as tasty, antioxidant-rich desserts.