Summertime means lazy lounging days basking in the sun, enjoying friends by the poolside, and having a backyard BBQ! Children play in the backyard, you hear the ice cream truck music in the distance, and humid air creates a relaxed spirit.

Unfortunately, the season can also become an invitation for sunburn, bug bites, and other problems that can derail your health and ruin your week. When it comes to summer safety, prevention is the best medicine.

With that in mind, if you want to do everything possible to create your best summer ever, from how you prepare your meat to avoiding sunburn and mosquito bites, these five hacks can keep you healthy, happy, and enjoying all the wonderful things warm weather brings.

1. Choose Healthier BBQ Food Alternatives

“There are so many reasons why I love the summertime: the green grass and warm sunshine, longer days and warmer evenings, more time to savor all the beauty of the outdoors,” says Mark Hyman, MD. “But the best part by far is the amazing abundance of healthy, fresh, whole foods everywhere you look.”

While ice cream is synonymous with summertime, for many people too much sugar, as well as food sensitivities, can create miserable side effects including weight gain.

While nearly everyone can handle an occasional indulgence, you needn’t abandon your dietary logic in the warmer weather. Here are some healthy barbecue foods the whole family can enjoy:

  • Research shows kids and adults eat what you give them. Increase their vegetable and fruit intake; chances are, they’ll comply. Keep healthy options around including raw cruciferous vegetables with hummus, sliced turkey lettuce wraps with avocado, and kale chips with guacamole.
  • If your neighborhood has them, shop farmers markets for local produce and more. They make a great summer Saturday-morning outing for the whole family.
  • Salads make a simple, easy meal on days when you’re too hot to cook. Throw some free-range organic chicken or cold-water, wild-caught fish (quality matters, especially with animal-based foods) over greens and drizzle with olive oil and red wine vinegar for a satisfying, effortless lunch or dinner.
  • Keep fresh or frozen fruit (especially berries) around for children and adolescents. For a delicious ice cream alternative, stir frozen blueberries into no-sugar-added coconut-based yogurt.
  • Fresh or frozen berries blended in unsweetened coconut milk and ice make a creamy alternative to milkshakes. Toss in some hormone-free grass-fed whey protein powder and maybe cacao nibs or almond butter to bump up nutrient intake.

Grill and BBQ Safety

Unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, a good backyard barbecue usually involves some sort of grilled meat —but overcooking meat can take a serious toll on your health.

“Some processed meats also contain nitrates, which are not carcinogenic, but when those nitrates get grilled, charred, or heated to high temperature (over 266°F), they turn into nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic,” says Hyman in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?.

Studies confirm this: High intake of well-done meat and/or high exposure to certain heterocyclic amines (HCAs) can increase the risk for certain cancers, including colorectum, breast, prostate, pancreas, lung, stomach, and esophagus cancer.

Researchers in one study found that consumption of grilled, barbecued, and smoked meats, specifically those that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), can increase risk for breast cancer and also increase mortality rates after having breast cancer.

That doesn’t mean you need to completely abandon your summer cookout. Here are some ways to cook healthy barbecue meat:

  • Choose quality, unprocessed meats. Those including grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and cold-water, wild-caught fish.
  • Only buy quality processed meats. Nearly everyone loves a good hot dog off the grill, but many commercial brands come loaded with gluten as well as other preservatives and fillers. Look for organic hot dogs, sausage, and other processed meats.
  • Go slow and low.  “Slow, low-temperature cooking is best,” says Hyman. “Heat also creates two other toxic carcinogenic by-products — PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines).”
  • Throw vegetables on the grill too. Antioxidant and fiber-rich heartier vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, and Portobello mushrooms give your meal variety and flavor. A big salad can also provide a nutrient punch that complements your grilled meats.
  • Avoid sugary sauces. Barbecue sauces, ketchup, and even some marinades come loaded with sugar and other problem ingredients like gluten. Our BBQ Chicken Recipe gives you all the flavor with no sugar.
  • Spice up your meat. Using seasonings and spices like garlic and rosemary can lower HCA production. As marinades or rubs, they can inhibit HCA formation as much as 70 percent.  

Drink Plenty of Water

Hot weather demands extra water, and research shows low water intake or mild dehydration can increase the risk for chronic diseases. Researchers aren’t sure exactly how much water we need (numerous factors including age and activity levels determine amounts), but most agree staying hydrated in the heat is crucial.

“There may not be scientific confirmation on exactly how many glasses a day we need, [but] based on the trillions of cells in the body that need water to function, I’m going to continue to go with the assumption that when it comes to water, more is better,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.

Drinking extreme amounts of water — these amounts would vary from person to person — could lead to hyponatremia (excessive sodium loss or dilution) or water intoxication. However, Bowden says these are rare conditions and most of us would benefit from drinking more water:

  • Once you feel thirsty, your body has likely already become dehydrated. Keep a canteen of fresh, filtered water nearby to prevent that.
  • While other beverages including green tea and iced coffee contain mostly water, aim to get most of your intake from pure, filtered water.
  • Zing up your water with fresh lemon, lime, or orange.
  • Zero-calorie sparkling and mineral waters make great cocktails if you want to avoid alcohol or lower your alcohol intake.
  • Alcohol can dehydrate you, especially when you’re basking in the sun or grilling on the barbecue all afternoon. For every alcoholic beverage you consume, have at least two glasses of filtered water.

Be Smart in the Sun

Like many fundamental things in life, sunshine is a double-edged sword. Many people claim getting sufficient sun improves their mood. Sunlight also helps your body produce vitamin D, a hormone that can strengthen bones, support your immune system, and may reduce the risk for certain cancers. About 25 percent of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and eight percent have very low levels.

Too much sun can create sunburn or sun poisoning. Sun poisoning is your skin’s allergic reaction to excessive amounts of UV rays that usually manifests in more serious symptoms including blisters and rashes.

Overexposure to the sun can also contribute to skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute says new cases of melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) among American adults have tripled since the 1970s. Other factors including genetics play a role here, but so does excessive sun exposure including ultraviolet radiation and severe sunburns.

Researchers debate how much sunscreens prevent cancer, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes people might over-rely on these products. You can enjoy the sun without worry with these strategies:

  • Avoid sunburn, not the sun. Staying in the sun too long can burn your skin, increasing your risk for melanoma and other skin cancers.  
  • Higher doesn’t mean better. The EWG says some people use high-sun protection factor (SPF) products improperly, which might expose them to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values. “When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer adequate sunburn protection, even for people most sensitive to sunburn,” they say.
  • Choose the right protection. Lab studies find that some active ingredients in sunscreens (including chemical filters) can mimic hormones. Those ingredients can also create skin allergies and other problems. The EWG provides a complete list of these ingredients and their potential hazards here.  
  • Don’t rely on sunscreen alone. A high-SPF sunscreen isn’t a hall pass to bask for hours in the sun. Seek shade, wear protective clothing (including sunglasses and hats), and be mindful that you might be getting more sun than you realize.  
  • Be consistent. Research shows regular sun exposure might not be as harmful as intermittent and high-intensity sunlight.  Oscillate short periods in sunlight with shaded areas such as a beach umbrella.
  • Use the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens. This might be the most comprehensive guide to buying safe sunscreen, including specific brands.

Repel Bugs Naturally

Your July barbecue is going splendidly when you feel the bite and the subsequent itching. Flying insects and other bugs can quickly become unwelcome party guests, but many commercial insect repellents contain harmful ingredients that can irritate your skin and damage your health.

“Many people are understandably concerned about the possible drawbacks of common insect repellents such as DEET,” says the EWG, which spent 18 months determining the safest, most effective way to prevent bug bites for their 2013 report. “We concluded that there is no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons.”

Determining your best option to repel mosquitoes and bugs depends on where you visit. A backcountry trip, for instance, creates a far different set of bug-bite problems compared with a backyard barbecue or beach outing. Remember too that no insect repellent works every place against every bug.

If you must use insect repellents, your best bets are products made with active ingredients registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some insect repellents contain the aforementioned DEET, the most effective, widely used insect repellent to repel mosquitos and ticks (which can carry Lyme disease). Yet researchers report seizures among children and other adverse toxics effects from using this chemical.

Note: If you plan to visit any place that carries a threat for the Zika virus or other infectious diseases, please confer with a physician to ensure you are appropriately protected.

Fortunately, you might not need anything so drastic for your backyard barbecue. Repel bugs naturally with these tips.

  • Consider alternatives and homemade bug sprays. There are many natural bug repellents including citronella candles for mosquitoes. While they might be hit-or-miss, peppermint and coconut oil are options for natural mosquito repellent. They are non-toxic alternatives to bug spray — only use commercial bug repellents as a last resort.
  • Limit time outdoors during dusk and dawn. These seem to be favorite times for mosquitoes and other bugs.
  • Cover up. Wear light-colored clothing and keep as little skin as possible exposed in bug-prone areas.
  • Go green. Numerous plants including lavender, rosemary, and basil provide your environment with a lovely smell while naturally repelling bugs like mosquitos. This comprehensive list reveals which plants repel specific bugs.

Summertime creates a certain carefree and whimsical environment, yet even something like a mosquito bite or sunburn can ruin your day. Other situations like overcooking meat and over consuming sugar can create long-term health problems.

With the right perspective and these strategies, you can minimize your risk for bug bites, sunburn, and other problems that can make your vacation, or a beautiful late-June day, absolutely miserable. Likewise, you’ll minimize or eliminate the health risks associated with eating too much sugar or over-grilling meat.

Have a safe, happy summer!