The foods we eat play a significant role on our health in ways that may not be immediately apparent to us. It takes years for the effects of an unhealthy diet to manifest as a chronic condition like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. In that time, the compounds found in foods like refined sugar, processed carbs, and trans fats work at the level of our DNA to cause disease. The way in which nutrition influences our genetic health to cause disease is called nutritional genomics. It’s also the basis of my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan.

So how does the American diet cause disease? It promotes proinflammatory molecules that destroy healthy tissues in the body. Understanding how diet can cause persistent inflammation in the body is essential in the prevention and treatment of many chronic conditions.

To stave off disease and promote wellness and longevity, it’s essential that we adopt a diet that includes healthful foods like fruits and vegetables. A plant-based diet is crucial for cancer prevention and treatment because fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and blueberries contain powerful compounds like phytonutrients and antioxidants.  When we include foods like nuts, fruits, vegetables, as well as fish (a good source of omega-3 fatty acids) in our diet, the bioactive compounds help to activate health-promoting genes and prevent chronic inflammation.

Eating a healthful diet that includes organic produce, lean, hormone-free meat, fish, herbs and spices should be a routine practice. But there are times, especially during the holiday, when it’s tempting to deviate from your health goals. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be celebrating Independence Day. During the holiday weekend, many families across the U.S. choose to spend this time together relaxing and enjoying grilled meats.

So if you’ve been known to indulge in a grilled burger or two, you may not have been concerned with the molecular changes going on in your body as you chewed mouthfuls of a juicy charred burger. Studies show that grilled meats contain heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are compounds formed when food products are burned. As fat drips from meat onto the grill’s coals, the reaction causes a flare. The smoke carries carcinogenic compounds up, and it deposits onto the meat. These hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines also form because of the charring effect of the meat caused by the fire. Exposing red meat, poultry, and fish to high temperatures result in blackened areas that become a hub for carcinogenic chemicals.

These chemicals in turn damage DNA resulting in mutations that cause cancer. People who consume high amounts of foods cooked in this way increase their risk for developing cancers of the gut such as colon cancer. In human studies, however, the data does not show a definitive link between HCAs and PAHs and cancer. But researchers show that those who consume high amounts of barbequed, fried meats are at a greater risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

You can still enjoy the Fourth and summer backyard barbeques. The American Cancer Society offers tips on healthier grilling, so hang on to your “Grill Master” apron (and BBQ bragging rights). Because there are wonderful ways in which you can add some variety and vibrancy to your backyard meals. One is to grill your veggies.

You’d be surprised to find out that these plant-based food options are healthier for you, and grilling them doesn’t produce the same cancer-causing compounds found when high heat is used to cook meat, poultry, and fish. Plant-based foods also contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that prevent DNA damage and cancer-causing mutations. So include plenty of diverse veggies in your meals each day. For more information about a healthy diet and lifestyle tips, sign up for my newsletter and watch my YouTube video series.

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Cross AJ, Peters U, Kirsh VA, et al. A prospective study of meat and meat mutagens and prostate cancer risk. Cancer Research 2005; 65(24):11779–11784. [PubMed Abstract]
Sinha R, Park Y, Graubard BI, et al. Meat and meat-related compounds and risk of prostate cancer in a large prospective cohort study in the United States. American Journal of Epidemiology 2009; 170(9):1165–1177. [PubMed Abstract]