Are Grilled Vegetables Healthy? Dieticians Explain

Vegetables are good for you - mom was spot on. But can how you cook them affect how beneficial they actually are?

By Monique Lebrun |

South Africans need no reason light a fire and braai, but meat isn’t the only thing you can cook over the coals. Particularly if you are riding lots, you’ll need other healthy food options to help you recover. Grilling veggies is one way to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need post-ride, like iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamins C, E, and K (to name a few of the plethora of nutrients produce provides!).

But recently experts have cautioned against grilling, particularly when it comes to charring meats, because it can cause harmful chemicals to form in the air and your food. When grilling, the proteins and fats found in meats can form chemical compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are carcinogenic compounds, meaning they can cause cancer, says dietician Kelly Jones. Though veggies contain some protein, these compounds aren’t a concern with produce, she says.

But are grilled vegetables healthy or should you prepare them in other ways to maintain their nutritional value? Here, Jones and Sandra Arevalo, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explain the pros and cons of grilling vegetables, and how to cook them to retain the flavour you love and nutrients you need.

Are grilled vegetables healthy?

“Vegetables, no matter how you prepare them, are always healthy,” says Arevalo. “But they could be less healthy, or more healthy depending on how you prepare them and what ingredients you match them with.” For example, spinach is low in calories, high in calcium and iron, but can be less healthy if added to a cheese dip, she says.

Grilling vegetables is a super easy process, and offers more flavour, which also might make you eat more of them. That’s a definite benefit, considering the research shows only one in every 10 of us eats the recommended amount of vegetables each day, which is about three cups.

Whether vegetables are boiled, roasted, baked, sautéed, or grilled, you’ll likely get the nutrients you need—but grilling vegetables can actually serve up more nutrients than other preparations.

A study published in Food Science and Biotechnology found that most vegetables actually increase in vitamin E and K when you grill them, which can improve lung function and bone health. Just be mindful of how long you grill your vegetables, because charring can create benzopyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) which research suggests may be linked to increased risk for cancer. However, research is mixed on veggies and PAHs, specifically, with more science focusing on animal products.

What’s more, grilling can cause advanced glycemic end products (AGEs) to form in meats and in some veggies in small amounts when cooked, which research shows can increase inflammation and oxidative stress, says Jones. But luckily, vegetables are rich in many nutrients including antioxidants that can counterbalance this occurrence, she adds.

The bottom line: Avoiding charring your veggies is best, but the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to grilling veggies, which most of us need to eat more. Read on for more tips to help you grill up some tasty veggies.

How to Grill Vegetables

To make the most of your grilling, here are some starter tips for making veggies extra good, from Jones and Arevalo:

1. Pay Attention to Cook Times

Cooking times will vary depending on what kind of vegetable you’re preparing, and personal preference. If you like crunchy vegetables, Arevalo suggests cooking them for five minutes. But if you like softer vegetables or preparing broccoli or carrots, then grill them for closer to ten minutes.

One way of knowing when vegetables are at their peak point is when they get extra bright in colour on the grill. This is the point when you’ll have the most crunchy, flavourful, and nutritious vegetable, Arevalo explains.

Lastly, cook water-rich vegetables like zucchini, asparagus, and eggplant at a low heat because they can char easily, Jones notes.

2. Choose a Wide Variety of Vegetables

Hopefully your summer will be filled with post-ride braais, picnics, and more. Whether you’re attending an event or grilling up yourself, try to eat a variety of different colours and opt for the brightest ones like a blend of spicy or sweet peppers, Jones says.

“If you’re a post-ride, especially a long one, which is going to be more stressful [on the body] due to the heat, then having a wider variety of colours means that you’re going to be taking in a wider variety of antioxidants, which can help with post-ride inflammation and potentially help your recovery,” she explains.

3. Enhance the Flavour by Adding Other Elements

Add vinegar, herbs, or citrus from a lemon or orange, with a bit of a high-heat oil, like avocado, to enhance the flavour of your vegetable. Adding oil will also help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins, like A and E, especially if you’re cooking up veggies like carrots and tomatoes, which are high in these vitamins, Jones says.

Adding sauces, like pesto, post-grilling can also help enhance the flavour, Jones recommends. So will a dash of sea salt and pepper or Italian seasoning—thyme, rosemary, and basil, says Arevalo.

The Best Vegetables to Add to the Grill

According to Arevalo and Jones, here are the veggies you want to grill:

  • Sweet peppers
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Bell Peppers

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