Nutrition Notes

The Downside of Grilling


We finally can sense it. The official start of summer is right around the corner. Stores are stocked with every model color and type of grill on the market each boasting to produce the best tasting foods. Do any of the models boast of preventing the unhealthy advanced glycation end products (AGEs) produced as Americans charbroil their favorite meats? No but this is unlikely to deter most enthusiasts from routinely using their beloved grill. Understanding how these compounds affect health and reviewing some practical approaches to dealing with AGEs can help.

Advanced glycation end products may seem like a long technical term that conjures up visions of a chemist surrounded by steaming flasks and colorful test tubes. Be rest assured AGEs can be explained in simple terms. AGEs are the product of extra sugars in the body being “baked” onto fats and proteins thus disrupting the function of these fats and proteins. This often happens on the surface of cells which have various proteins and fats that communicate important messages from the outside to the inside of the cell. When these surface proteins have sugars “baked” onto them they can no longer carry messages to the cell and the cell’s function is compromised leading to poor health. In pictorial terms think about each cell possessing several mailboxes on their surfaces which collect mail that communicates tasks the cell is to perform. When excess sugar is floating around the body the mailboxes will get filled with sugar and are no longer able to collect mail. These sugar-filled mailboxes are considered AGEs.

AGEs are generated in various ways and while the body can attempt to eliminate some of them it is important to reduce high amounts that will overwhelm the body. AGEs can affect every organ system of the body but have been recognized as being particularly counterproductive in the health of the cardiovascular system the kidneys the brain the reproductive system and in the process of balancing blood sugar. AGEs can be highly reactive and when the cells of these organ systems possess higher levels of AGEs the health and function of these systems suffer.

Food sources of AGEs have been a topic of great concern since these sources have grown significantly in recent years. Foods that have been cooked with high temperatures dry heat or have been irradiated are prominent sources of AGEs. Today most commercial meat has been irradiated to halt bacterial growth so AGEs are present before the meat is even purchased. When this same meat is grilled the amount of AGEs can increase exponentially. Other forms of protein or fats which are cooked with high and dry heat also contribute to the AGE burden in the body. 

This brings us to the natural question of how we can control dietary AGEs. First avoiding irradiated meats by purchasing organic and/or grass fed meats is a good starting point. Next charbroiled meat is among the highest sources of AGEs whereas lightly grilled meats retaining some water content contain significantly fewer AGEs. Acid juices can also help negate AGE generation. Therefore marinating meats in an acidic solution such as lemon juice or vinegar before grilling can be helpful in ameliorating the effects of these molecules. Finally plant foods are naturally low in AGEs due to their high water content and high antioxidant content which combats AGEs. In many cases pairing higher AGE foods with fresh vegetables and fruits is a smart idea. The latter does not necessary cancel out the effects of the former but a diet rich in natural antioxidants will surely work to diminish the health effects of AGEs. So while the traditional charbroiled USDA prime steak and baked potato may not offer much hope against AGEs a summer meal of lightly grilled grass-fed steak marinated in a vinegar brine and paired with a fresh salad can offer both a happy summer around the grill and a little protection from the damaging effects of AGEs.


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