Who doesn’t love biting into a thick, juicy burger? This American classic can be found at many restaurants and drive-thrus — but making one at home can be just as satisfying, especially since you can tweak the ingredients for a customized burger that’s actually healthy.
We asked dietitians about ways to beef up the nutrition at any BBQ. Try these suggestions at your next cookout for a healthier burger:
1. Opt for the Lowest-Fat Ground Beef
One of the biggest questions when buying ground beef for burgers or any other dish is how much fat you should choose, says Shena Jaramillo, RD, a dietitian in Ellensburg, Washington.
That’s because fat causes the meat to hold more water during cooking, she adds, and that means more juiciness. But on the other hand, the type of fat in ground beef is mostly saturated fat, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, Jaramillo says. According to the American Heart Association, higher levels of LDL cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fat is okay in smaller amounts, but you’ll want to limit how much you eat in general.
Choosing less fat also means fewer calories, according to Aderet Dana Hoch, RD, a dietitian in New York City. For example, some burgers from popular food chains like Applebee’s and TGI Fridays have upwards of 1,000 calories or more — which is more than half a day’s worth for most people in just one meal. (And that’s without the side of fries!) This is because the ground meat in the burger is usually 80 percent lean or less, Hoch says.
“The fattier beef will add more calories to your burger,” she explains. There could also be binders in the ground beef patty, such as egg or breadcrumbs, and with the addition of toppings (hello, cheese and bacon) and a refined-grain bun, this all adds up to a high-calorie meal in one sandwich, Hoch says.
Making your own burger at home, where you can choose lean beef and control what goes into it, can cut down on both saturated fat and calories and result in a healthier burger, Hoch adds. She suggests aiming for 90 to 95 percent lean.
2. Choose a Whole-Grain Bun
When it comes to the bread sandwiching your burger, highly processed white-bread buns with enriched flour are a popular choice — just not the best one, says Jaramillo. These buns contain a lot of calories and carbs and could contribute to a quick rise in blood sugar without offering the same benefits as a whole-grain option. Plus, many of these breads contain high-fructose corn syrup.
At home, you can make a healthier choice for your burger by opting for a whole-wheat bun, notes Jaramillo. Whole grains that are minimally processed can give you fiber and other nutrients, she says. That’s particularly important given that on average only about 5 percent of the U.S. population meets recommendations for adequate fiber, according to research.
There’s also the option of ditching the bun altogether and wrapping the burger in an iceberg or romaine lettuce leaf instead. That can give you another serving or two of vegetables.
3. Consider an Alternate Meat
Want to cut your fat even more? Hoch says lean turkey meat has about half the saturated fat of beef. That does mean you’ll have to be more strategic with cooking, though, so it doesn’t end up too dry.
She suggests that you can increase the moisture by adding water-rich veggies like shredded zucchini and onions, which also increase the fiber content of your burger.
Plant-based meats are another pivot, like burgers from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Boca, and others. Keep in mind, though, that these choices still have significant amounts of saturated fat — 5 grams (g) in the Beyond Burger and 6 g in the Impossible Burger per 4-ounce (oz) patty. But if you’re looking for a vegetarian or vegan option, they can be handy for emulating the burger experience without the animal-based protein. There are also a number of recipes for meat-free burgers that feature legumes and/or mushrooms.
4. Add a Healthy Binding Agent
Bread crumbs are the most popular ingredient for binding ground meat, but you can swap them for fiber-rich oats for a healthier burger, says Hoch. Use ¼ cup of oats for 1 pound (lb) of ground beef.
Another option, according to Hoch: chia seeds, which are a great binder that adds valuable fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Mix the chia seeds with water to turn them into a binder. Use 1 tablespoon (tbsp) of chia seeds to 2½ tbsp of water. It’s important to let the chia seeds sit in the water for about five minutes before using them. (They take a little time to gelatinize in the water.)
A third option, notes Hoch, is a flax “egg,” which also adds fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Use 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed to 3 tbsp of lukewarm water. Like the chia binder, the flax egg needs to sit for a few minutes to gelatinize before it can be used as a binder.
5. Load Up on the Right Toppings
For many, a burger isn’t complete without plenty of toppings. But the ones commonly ordered at restaurants are high in sugar, fat, and calories, Jaramillo says. The most popular condiment, ketchup, is filled with high-fructose corn syrup, while a single slice of cheese can add up to 200 calories and 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium (not to mention, it can be highly processed with preservatives and artificial colors and flavors).
That doesn’t mean you have to opt for a naked burger, though. Consider adding fruits and veggies like lettuce, tomatoes, avocado slices, onions, bell pepper slices, and sautéed mushrooms for a healthier burger. You can also get creative with choices like mango, grilled pineapple, chili peppers, and pesto.
Boost the flavor of your patty with calorie-free flavorings, too. These include hot sauce, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, and paprika.
Another tip: Reduce the size of the burger and lean into the side dishes for a more balanced plate, Hoch suggests — for example, baked potato fries or coleslaw in a vinegar-based dressing.
Playing around with healthy ingredients and adding more veggies in general can give your next burger the healthy balance you crave.
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