How to make your barbecue healthier this summer – from marinade to salads

Do you find your grill groans under the weight of red and processed meat, while the table is loaded with crisps, dips and mayo-laden side dishes?

Well you could be scoffing little that’s of nutritional benefit and lots of saturated fat, salt and calories.

On average, we consume 3,200 calories at a barbecue, a recent survey found, the equivalent of almost six Big Macs. But a summer spread can still be delicious and nutritious if you know a few tricks of the trade.

Think beyond beef
Eating processed meat and too much red meat is linked to bowel cancer and heart disease.

White meat contains less saturated fat than red, so swap out the usual pork sausages and beef burgers for homemade chicken or turkey burgers made with mince, chopped onion and plenty of herbs formed into patties. Or flatten chicken breasts and marinate in spices before cooking on the grill.

Add a marinade
Cooking meat over a high flame causes a chemical reaction that produces compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

There’s some evidence that, in high concentrations, these compounds could cause cancer.

In research from Kansas State University, US, it was found that adding a marinade to meat reduced HCA levels by 87%. It’s thought the antioxidants in a herby marinade may block their formation.

Try mixing olive oil with antioxidant herbs like rosemary, thyme, basil, mint and sage.

Bun fight
Ever thought of banning the bun at your barbie?

“Processed bread is often loaded with sugar and preservatives,” says Nishtha Patel, clinical nutritionist (

“It can raise blood sugar levels and really doesn’t have much nutritional value.

“Why not use portobello mushrooms to make a sandwich instead? They’re sturdy and retain their shape on the grill – and even look like buns. They’re also a great source of beta-glucans – soluble fibres that may lower the risk of heart disease and boost your immune system.”

Alternatively, use Romaine or iceberg lettuce leaves to sandwich your burger. Both are low in calories and contain beneficial vitamins and minerals like potassium, which can minimise the blood-pressure raising effects of salty foods.

Mind the bap
If you insist on a bap for your burger, then swap white rolls for wholemeal – check that the word “wholegrain” or “wholemeal” is on the label or that wholewheat flour is listed a the first ingredient.

Wholemeal bread contains the whole wheat kernel, so it has more fibre.

Eating a diet high in fibre can help reduce the risk of colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which puts you at greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Wholemeal bread also contains more vital vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium, it fills you up more, and studies have even shown you burn more calories eating wholewheat bread than white.

Veg benefits
For optimum gut health, studies suggest you should try to eat at least 30 different plant foods every week – veg, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds.

The more diverse plant food fibre you feed your gut, the more good bacteria will thrive there.

“It plays a role in everything from our mood to healthy sleep and immunity,” Nishtha explains.

“You can rack up plenty of plant foods in a bean burger – mix together mashed black beans, quinoa, onions, turmeric, garlic, carrots, sweet potato, coriander, parsley, pepper, olive oil and potato.”

Each ingredient will also provide valuable vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which can help prevent cell damage and guard against heart disease and some cancers.

No smoke without fire
When fat from cooking meat drips on to barbecue coals and burns, it releases smoke containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

This smoke then coats the meat above it – and that’s not good news because PAHs have been linked to cancer risk.

Try lining your barbecue grill with tin foil perforated with holes which will allow the fat to drip away but limit smoke contact with the meat.

Colourful kebabs
A study by BMC Medicine journal suggests vegetarians and vegans have a 14% lower cancer risk than people who eat meat more than five times a week, so give veggies pride of place.

“Mushrooms contain an antioxidant called ergothioneine which helps lower inflammation throughout the body, red onions contain quercetin, an antioxidant that may provide protection against cancer, heart disease and allergies, while peppers and courgettes are super sources of immune-boosting vitamin C,” says Nishtha.

Sweet success
“Barbecuing helps intensify the flavour of juicy fruits like peaches and pineapples as the sugars in them caramelise,” says Nishtha.

“Watermelon is delicious grilled too – its vibrant red colour comes from lycopene, an antioxidant which studies show may help curb your risk of cancer and diabetes as part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Something fishy
Serve up seared salmon for sizzling health benefits.

“Oily fish is rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids,” says Nishtha. “These can reduce inflammation in the body and may protect against heart disease and arthritis.”

Save room for salad
Swap mayo-laden coleslaws and potato salad for beans and pulses – lentils, kidney and butter beans are high in protein.

Sprinkle leafy salads with nuts and seeds that provide fibre, polyphenols, and good fats for heart health.

Relish it
Ketchup and barbecue sauces can contain a lot of sugar. Smother food with homemade salsa instead – you’ll boost your antioxidant intake, plus it counts towards your five-a-day.

Mix diced tomatoes, chillies and red onion with fresh coriander and a squeeze of lemon or lime.