How to Build a Healthy Burger

Eating healthfully during the backyard barbecue months doesn’t have to mean trading your favorite hamburger for side salads and grilled veggies. With a few smart tweaks, you can build a healthy burger. Take these five steps for a more nutritious—but just as delicious—meal when you fire up the grill this summer.

1. Upgrade your bun —and then pare it down. Starting with a whole-grain, seeded burger bun adds filling fiber and other nutrients to your meal. But do keep in mind that even better-for-you carb choices can still be oversized. A 3-oz. whole-wheat roll from Great Harvest Bread Co, for instance, can run you 250 calories and 37 grams of carbs. “Slice rolls crosswise into three pieces rather than two to make them carb- and calorie-friendlier, if that’s a goal of yours,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, healthy cooking instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and author of the “All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” Save the middle piece for toast the next morning, she suggests.

2. Blend your beef. You’ve probably gotten the memo that lean meat is your best bet, nutrition-wise. But lean beef leads to dry burgers. Add moisture—as well as an extra helping of produce—to your burger by replacing a third of the ground beef with roughly chopped, cooked (roasted, grilled or broiled) mushrooms, says Todd Seyfarth, MS, RD, director of the department of culinary nutrition at Johnson & Wales University. “This way you can eat a burger that is 30 percent bigger, that is still lower in calories than a traditional burger would be,” he says. Keeping your burger completely vegetarian is another option for minimizing saturated fat and calories. A grilled portabella mushroom cap has a meaty flavor. It’s low in satisfying protein, however, so be sure to serve with a heartier protein-rich side, like a bean salad or baked beans, says Newgent.

3. Add some herbs. If you do opt for a meat-based burger (including beef, poultry, pork, or fish), be aware that grilling—or any high-temperature cooking technique—results in the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), compounds that can cause changes in DNA that might increase the risk of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. HCAs form when amino acids from the meat react with sugars and creatine (a substance found in muscle) at high temperatures; PAHs attach to the surface of the meat when dripping fat and juices send PAH-containing flames upward. There are several ways to cut back on the harmful compounds, say researchers. Adding rosemary extract to beef patties before cooking cut back on HCA formation by more than 90 percent, according to one study from Kansas State University. Other research has found thyme, black pepper, ginger, and garlic to also inhibit their formation. Other strategies: Keep flame low to avoid contact with the meat and flip your burgers frequently as they cook to prevent charring, which keeps PAH levels down.

4. Cook it completely. Foodborne illness peaks in the summer, according to the USDA; using caution when you barbecue can help cut your chances of getting sick. The safest strategy is to use a meat thermometer: make sure your burgers are cooked to at least 160° F, the minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. “If you don’t have one, cook the burger until there’s no pink and the juices run clear,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., the director of food safety and research at Consumer Reports. “But be aware that these aren’t always reliable indicators of doneness.” And be sure to use a fresh plate for cooked burgers—the tray you brought the raw patties out on could be contaminated.

5. Pile on plant power. Often, toppings are where a burger’s nutrition really goes off the rails—bacon-chili-cheeseburger, anyone? Instead, use the space between your burger and bun to add in a full serving of produce. Swap limp iceberg lettuce and a pale tomato piece for microgreens and a thick slice of heirloom tomato; the trade will add nutrients and culinary intrigue, Newgent says. “Go for quality,” Seyfarth says. “That combo of ingredients is tradition for a reason.” For the more adventurous, a slice of grilled pineapple adds flavor; a heaping spoonful of kimchi or sauerkraut provides healthy probiotic bacteria and a burst of flavor. Instead of cheese, try avocado. “Its buttery mouthfeel is why it works so well,” says Newgent. And if you’ve just got to have cheese, go for the good stuff. “If you get a quality aged cheddar, you can easily get away with using half, or even less, than the more mild cheese that some people typically use,” Seyfarth says.

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