Aah, summer. A time for swimming and sunning, relaxing with friends and enjoying good food. In Canada, like many other parts of the world, summer means barbecue. Cooked meat tastes good. If you are like most of our patients, you eat healthy food when you can, and maybe you even choose organic or farm-raised meat. Maybe you avoid meat altogether. No matter what you do in your effort to eat well, it might all go to waste if you don’t cook it right.  

Animal protein has gotten a bad rap for decades. Many studies have suggested that people who eat the most meat, particularly processed meat, are at greater risk of heart disease and several cancers. This was assumed to be caused by saturated fat, but many studies have put holes in this theory. A growing body of research suggests that the risk associated with eating meat has nothing to do with fat. As of this writing, the leading suspects are toxins called AGEs.  

AGEs are advanced glycation endproducts. They are produced when proteins and sugars are cooked at high temperatures. Researchers started paying a lot of attention to AGEs when it became clear just how toxic they are. When they enter the bloodstream, they bind in a lock-and-key fashion to a receptor named RAGE that lives on the surface of blood vessel cells. This binding triggers a cascade of chemical reactions that strongly promote inflammation and oxidative stress. This accelerates aging and increases the risk of many chronic diseases.

While AGEs probably promote dozens of diseases, researchers have paid the most attention to its effect on cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Several studies have shown a direct link between AGE consumption and diabetes. In a mouse study, a high-AGE diet induced type 2 diabetes within six months. In another study, patients with diabetes who were put on a high-AGE diet developed worsening inflammation, while those on a low-AGE diet saw this improve. This looks like just the tip of the iceberg, because inflammation is linked to many health problems.

The way you cook your meat can have a big impact on its AGE content. Different ways of preparing food can lead to vastly different AGE levels, meaning that the same food can be either healthy or toxic depending on how it is prepared. If you are really interested, you can find charts and tables that compare the AGE content of dozens of different foods. For most people, this is too much information. You can make your diet a whole lot healthier in a few simple ways.

Use a slow-cooker. These little magic boxes are a dream for the modern amateur chef.  Throw in some meat, spices and other accessories in the morning, and by late afternoon you have a succulent stew. 

Have a boiled meat dish now and then. Vietnamese Pho, British mutton and several Jewish dishes are just a few examples of how boiled meat has found its way into global cuisine. It may seem bland, but you will be surprised how many succulent dishes can be prepared without scorching your protein.

Poach or boil your eggs. While many of us are used to eating our eggs scrambled or fried, or in an omelet, they are much healthier when boiled.  Research suggests that diabetics should completely avoid eating eggs, but this may make them safer. 

Avoid processed food. Industrial processing usually occurs at high temperatures that create AGEs by the truckload. The highly processed foods that have been the staple of the North American diet may be one of the culprits of the obesity epidemic, and the rest of the world has caught on to this toxic trend. There are no shortcuts in life, and food in a box is no substitute for real fresh ingredients prepared in your kitchen at home.

Don’t use a microwave. Studies have shown that microwaving food generates lots of AGEs. We already know that microwaving food destroys vitamins and enzymes, so this is just one more reason to avoid this shortcut unless absolutely necessary.

Marinade before you barbecue. Vinegar-based marinades are acidic, blocking the chemical reaction that creates AGEs. You should ideally marinade for several hours, but even an hour makes a big difference.

Don’t eat fried food. This is the absolute worst thing you can do for yourself.  Not only does the high-temperature oil create massive amounts of AGEs, but the heat damages the oil itself, creating toxic trans fats. While food manufacturers are not allowed to add trans fats to their products, the deep fryers in restaurants are a loophole that escaped the worldwide trans fat ban. Very bad news. Keep to a bare minimum.

While many different theories about nutrition have come and gone, I am placing my bets on this one. In the years to come, a mountain of AGE research is sure to follow in the years to come. Meanwhile, an anti-AGEing diet does not need to cramp your style. Most of the things that will lower the AGEs in your diet will offer other health and wellness benefits. If you prepare them right, you can still enjoy all your favorite foods; a nice marinade is all you need to ease your mind while you enjoy your next summer barbecue.