At least once a week I come across articles offering “healthy” recipes, like this one from the Savannah Morning News, which bears the headline, “Barbecue Dinner Doesn’t Have To Weigh on Your Waist.” The underlying premise of such pieces is that traditional barbecue is bad for you but with a few modifications it can be transformed into something healthful. Generally, that means debasing it in any number of ways that take it far from its wood-fired roots, like using lean turkey breast instead of pork, cooking it in a crockpot, and—my favorite—cutting ribs in half lengthwise to make “more manageable portions.” (Why not just keep the ribs whole and eat half as many of them?)
I take issue with the notion that barbecue is an inherently unhealthy food that will inevitably “weigh on your waist”. For starters, when barbecue is properly cooked the old fashioned way for twelve hours over glowing coals, an awful lot of fat is rendered away, leaving tender but relatively lean meat. There’s also a good bit of anecdotal evidence (including my own experience) that a barbecue-rich diet does not necessarily lead to weight gain.
When I go on my “barbecue tours” for Southern Living, I’ll eat at as many barbecue joints in a day as I can—four at a minimum, often as many as nine. One might think that such an endeavor would wreak havoc on the waistline, but I’ve found that not to be the case. I consistently return from a two or three day tour weighing no more than when I left, and often I shed a pound or two.
And I’m not alone in this. “I actually lost 15 pounds during the six months I did field work on this book,” Jim Early wrote in the preface to The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy (2002). He hit the road two or three days a week for six months, eating barbecue at five or six restaurants each day.
When researching The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America, Johnny Fugitt traveled to 48 states and ate at 365 restaurants over the course of a year. “I actually lost weight doing this,” he told Bon Appetit.
Both Early and Fugitt attribute their shrinking waistlines to their dietary habits when not eating barbecue. Early notes that he ate “healthy and heartwise” four days a week, and Fugitt took a juicer with him on his travels and stuck to fruits and veggies for his non-barbecue meals. I suspect there’s another factor at work, as well: the fact that barbecue, in and of itself, is not the caloric gut-bomb that health-minded writers often make it out to be.
Fast food chains have recently ventured into serving barbecue alongside their burgers and chicken sandwiches, and this otherwise regrettable trend does have one upside: it gives an easy nutritional comparison. The new Pulled Pork Sandwich at Wendy’s, for instance, clocks in at 430 total calories, 130 of which are from fat. Compare that to the 1/4-pound single cheeseburger (550 total calories, 300 of them from fat), the Asiago Ranch Chicken Club (650 calories), and the gruesome Baconator with its two beef patties and six strips of bacon (930 calories). The barbecue sandwich comes off as downright monastic.
So, no, a barbecue dinner doesn’t have to weigh on our waists, but we do have to be sensible about it. In a recent post I fretted over the trend of ever-increasing barbecue portion sizes. I’ll add to that my concern over the escalating arms race in extreme side dishes, for one thing you learn when executing a multi-restaurant barbecue tour is that you’ve got to lay off the sides.
The traditional accompaniments of collard greens or vinegar-dressed coleslaw in the Carolinas or the onions and pickles down in Texas won’t weigh you down much. But load up on French fries, gooey mac n’ cheese, and deep fried hushpuppies and you’ll have a groaning belly before you make it past the first stop.
Old school joints have no notion of an ”appetizer,” but that’s not the case in many of our newer upscale barbecue restaurants. They’re not exactly offering modest bites to whet your appetite, either. Take this representative selection of stunt-food starters from a nouveau ‘cue joint in the Carolinas: pimento cheese fries with chopped pork on top; smoked jalapenos stuffed with Monterrey Jack cheese, wrapped in bacon, and deep fried; and “BBQ Queso”—a big bowl of creamy cheese dip topped with shredded brisket. Being seen with such company may be giving barbecue a bad reputation.
No, I’m not going to try to argue that barbecue is health food. Though I’m sure a book entitled The Barbecue Diet would rocket up the charts, I’m not prepared to recommend a constant regimen of slow-smoked meats for anyone serious about losing weight.
But that doesn’t mean we need to demonize barbecue as unhealthy, either. And we certainly don’t need to be eating sauce-drenched turkey slow-cooked in a crockpot.