A sunny weekend in the UK is rare and a great opportunity to get the barbecue out, catch up with friends and family and tuck in to some tasty food. And this year there’s even more reason to get your grill on, as we’re asking people to BBQ to Beat Cancer this summer by hosting an event in support of our life-saving research.

But rather than the typical carnival of burgers, bangers and booze that might first come to mind, we urge people to take this opportunity to serve up healthier options. And there’s good reason to do so.

Meat, grilling and cancer

Solid scientific research has shown that eating too much red and processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer. We’ve previously blogged about this several times – including looking at exactly how red meat increases risk – and it’s covered in detail on the NHS Choices website and by the World Cancer Research Fund.

Processed meat – including ham, bacon, salami and sausages – is more strongly linked to cancer risk than red meat. It’s thought that this is partly due to the chemicals used to preserve these products, as well as the meat itself.

There’s no need to cut red meat out of your diet altogether – it’s a good source of some nutrients, such as protein, iron and zinc. But if you regularly eat a lot of red and processed meat, cutting down is a good idea. Try eating smaller and fewer portions or having chicken or fish instead, as there’s no strong evidence linking these alternatives to an increased cancer risk.

There’s also evidence to show that cooking meat at high temperatures, such as grilling, can create chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer, although the evidence linking actually eating these meats isn’t 100 per cent clear yet.

Obviously, a barbecue cooks by grilling so it’s hard to avoid it completely, but there are things that can help. For example, consider part-cooking larger items such as chicken pieces in the microwave or oven to give them a head start, meaning less time on the grill before they’re cooked through. Also keep a close eye on the barbie and try not to char your meat. Nobody likes a burnt burger, after all.

We’ve got more detailed information about diet and cancer, as well as the evidence behind our advice, on our website.

Healthy options

A BBQ doesn’t have to be all about the meat – there’s a whole world of other foods to be served up and enjoyed outdoors.

From corn on the cob to vegetable skewers, tofu and Quorn to grilled halloumi and more – there are plenty of non-meat options to pop on the grill. And don’t forget to include a range of healthy salads to accompany your dishes. Make your salads the star by beefing them up with lots of veg, fruit, beans and herbs – the BBC has a bunch of great ideas to start with, and there are hundreds more out there on the web.

For dessert, barbecued fruits make a tasty treat. When’s the last time you tried a grilled pineapple with a dash of honey, lime juice and cinnamon? Simply delicious!

Finally, it’s important to remember that we don’t have barbecues every day – the British weather usually puts paid to that – and the occasional sausage is unlikely to have a major impact as part of wider healthy, balanced diet.

It’s our regular, long-term eating habits that have the biggest effect, so enjoy your BBQ this summer, try out some of our healthier BBQ tips, and try to make healthy food choices part of your usual routine.

Top tips for a healthier BBQ

  • Barbecuing isn’t all about burgers and sausages. For a healthier and more varied spread, try popping some marinated chicken, fish or veg on your grill, and include plenty of salads and veggie side dishes too. And any vegetarian guests will also thank you for it.
  • Cook meat thoroughly but try not to burn it. Consider starting off larger pieces of meat in the oven or microwave first.
  • Think about your drinks. Drinking excessive alcohol increases the risk of cancer, so make sure you have plenty of non-alcoholic options on offer, like refreshing, summery mocktails and cordials. Making simple swaps is a great way to cut down on alcohol and reduce the risk.
  • Make sure you and your guests don’t grill themselves! Excessive sun exposure and sunburn is a major risk factor for skin cancer, so take care to enjoy the sun safely. When the sun’s rays are strong pop on a t-shirt and wide-brimmed hat, and spend some time chilling out in the shade – think about providing a parasol or gazebo for the grownups, and a sun tent for kids. And for areas you can’t cover up, use sunscreen with at least a SPF 15 and a high UVA star rating.

We’d love to hear your ideas, tips and recipes for a healthy BBQ, so please share them in the comments below.