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SUMMER HEALTH | The Healthy Man

Fire Up That Grill, but Watch Saturated Fats

July 05, 1999|TIMOTHY GOWER

There are no state or federal laws prohibiting women from operating gas or charcoal grills. But if you attended a holiday barbecue over the weekend, I'll bet some guy insisted on playing grill master. These men assume that it's their divine right to start the fire, broil the food and, all too often, scorch the hair off their forearms by getting sloppy with the lighter fluid.

I used to laugh at these guys. Then I became one of them.

Come summer, I grill everything: meat, fish, root vegetables, toast, you name it. I'm pleased to report, however, that the hair is growing back on my forearms ever since I dumped my rusty hibachi for a sleek gas grill. All you charcoal purists will call me a sellout, but my days of waiting 45 minutes for those black lumps of coal to heat up are over. Now I simply turn on the gas, push the "start" button and say a silent prayer that my dog hasn't nibbled a hole in one of the propane lines.

But if you're going to make a fuss over what kind of grill you use, by all means give some thought to what you cook on it too. Burgers and hot dogs may be budget-friendly and traditional, but regard them as rare pleasures nonetheless. Both are sky-high in saturated fat, which is the kind that clogs arteries. A medium-sized, reasonably active guy who eats a normal diet should consume less than 28 grams of saturated fat a day. Wolf down two cheeseburgers and you wipe out three-quarters of your daily ration.

(By the way, turkey hot dogs have half the saturated fat of all-beef franks. But don't be fooled into thinking "extra-lean" ground beef is diet food; a 3 1/2-ounce patty has more saturated fat than a creme-filled doughnut.)

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Obviously, one way to avoid a lot of fat when you grill is to cook fish or chicken (with the skin removed). But if you must feed a craving for red meat, choose a lean steak, such as top round or sirloin, which has a fraction of the saturated fat in ground beef. The good news: A recent study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore suggests that lean cuts of beef are no more likely than fish or chicken to boost blood levels of "bad" cholesterol. Even more good news: Leaner cuts are less expensive than fattier rib eye or porterhouse steaks.

The not-so-good news: A cheap steak tastes like a cheap steak. That is, unless you plan ahead by marinating it, which not only tenderizes and adds flavor, but probably makes grilled meat healthier.

Here's why: You may have heard that eating grilled food causes cancer but dismissed the warning as yet another example of silly science. Well, listen up, Sparky--it's no joke. Heating any type of meat at very high temperature produces compounds known as HCAs, which cause cancer in monkeys and other animals, according to James Felton, a molecular biologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif.

However, Felton and his colleagues figured out that marinating meat creates a kind of protective barrier against HCAs. In one experiment, chicken breast grilled after sitting in a simple marinade for four hours produced 87% fewer HCAs than plain chicken. "The craziest part is that we tried to find out what ingredient provides the protection, but we can't say," Felton said in a phone interview.

As a rule, the longer meat stays on the grill, the more HCAs it develops, so in most cases, avoid well-done beef. The exception: ground beef, which must be cooked through to kill harmful bacteria. Don't worry about producing grill marks on your steaks, but if you cook chicken or any other meat so long that the skin chars, you're cranking up the HCA content. (By the way, remove chicken skin after cooking; it'll taste better and, according to Felton, the skin may guard against HCAs.)

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Fat dripping on hot coals or gas burners produces leaping flames and smoke. The pyrotechnics may bring a little thrill to the grill, but the smoke may as well come from a Marlboro; it smothers the meat and contains carcinogens.

So, if possible, don't cook over direct heat. When using a gas grill, don't place meat over the burners. With charcoal, Felton suggests forming the coals into a donut shape and placing the meat in the center. Microwaving meat for a minute or two before grilling will draw off fat; it will drip less and taste just as good, Felton insists.

For more tips, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Barbecue Food Safety" page at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/cibarbecue.htm. Remember, a Healthy Man grills wisely; otherwise, you're just playing with fire.

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Timothy Gower is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and the author of "Staying at the Top of Your Game" (Avon Books, 1999). He can be reached by e-mail at tgower@capecod.net

* The Healthy Man column runs monthly in Health.

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