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Ask the Diet Doctor: What to Eat at Summer BBQs

Barbecue Foods Face-Off!

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Now that summer's in full swing, there are plenty of opportunities for backyard BBQs—and for wearing a bikini. Conventional wisdom says these two things don't mix, but you can enjoy your favorite BBQ foods without feeling guilty (or like you never want to ditch your cover up). It's all about making smart choices.

So, what should be on your plate? Check out these nutritional face offs to enjoy the party and the food at your next BBQ.

Potato Salad vs. Coleslaw

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The winner: Coleslaw

The shining nutritional star in coleslaw is cabbage, or if you're lucky, the host is serving broccoli slaw, which means you'll get broccoli and cabbage. These two foods are low in carbohydrates, low in calories, high in fiber (to keep you full), and contain cancer-fighting nutrients. The only potential downside is dressing (There's just too much of it!). To make coleslaw a totally guilt-free side dish, minimize the dressing as much as possible.

Why it's better than potato salad: I've written about my nutritional disdain for the combo of fast-acting carbohydrates (potatoes) and saturated fat (potato salad dressing) in the past, but it's worth repeating. Nutritionally speaking, this combination impacts multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease—and not in a good way! The one saving grace for potato salad is that boiling potatoes and then letting them cool lowers their glycemic index and reduces the negative impact on your blood sugar (due to the gelling of certain types of starches in potatoes). So if potato salad is your only option, you do have that one food science fact working in your favor.

Hamburger vs. Veggie Burger

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The winner: Hamburger (>93-percent lean beef/turkey required)

Including high-quality, lean protein (like in hamburgers made with lean beef or turkey) in your diet comes with a slew of health benefits: helps lower blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, decreases feelings of hunger, and helps you lose weight.

Why it's better than a veggie burger: While your lean hamburger will contain just three ingredients (lean beef, salt, pepper), most commercially prepared veggie burgers can have more than 20 ingredients, including things like caramel coloring, which you’d expect to find in the junk food aisle, not in your veggie burger.

If you do choose to go the veggie burger route, I recommend skipping processed versions and making your own out of lentils or chickpeas. And whichever you choose, skip the bun entirely or eat your burger open faced to save calories and carbohydrates without sacrificing any flavor.

Beer vs. Cocktails

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The winner: Beer

One of the most common misconceptions about alcohol is that it will make you fat. But what truly causes problems is the combination of alcohol and sugars, as in most mixed drinks. And new research says the negative effects are even worse than we thought. A study published in the July 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the direct effects of sugar and alcohol on blood sugar and found that the combo increased blood sugar levels 20 percent higher than expected.

Why it's better than cocktails: In addition to the abovementioned, the 2012 study only looked at alcohol + sugar, but it's likely that the effect would be compounded when traditional BBQ foods (potato salad, chips, white bread buns, etc.) enter the equation. Instead of sipping sugar-loaded cocktails, opt for carb- and alcohol-controlled light beers such as Budweiser Select (3.1g carbs per 12oz), Michelob Ultra (2.6g carbs per 12oz), or Miller Lite (3.2g carbs per 12oz).

Potato Chips vs. Anything

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The winner: Anything

I'll keep this one simple: Don't eat the potato chips! They do nothing for you. You might have noticed a trend of avoiding high-fat, high fast-acting carbohydrates—potato chips are another perfect example. A 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the dietary habits of more than 100,000 people to find out which foods were associated with the biggest changes in weight. Potato chips were at the top of the list with respect to weight gain.

Why anything is better than potatoes chips: The worse part about potato chips is that despite being calorically dense, they don't leave you feeling satisfied. In fact, the opposite is true. The high salt content in potato chips makes you want to eat and drink more!

Making healthy eating choices doesn't mean becoming a social pariah. You can enjoy both the party and the food at your next BBQ by following these simple tips.