Everything Guide to Burgers

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Barbecue season is upon us, and that means . This week’s Diet Detective investigation is all about how to make your burger healthier and tastier.


Unfortunately, burgers are not exactly diet food, although research has demonstrated that a diet high in protein helps you feel full longer. A 6-ounce burger has more than 400 calories, but when you count the bun and all the toppings (mayo, cheese, bacon, ketchup, etc.), you can hit 700 or even 800 calories.

And all those different types and cuts of meat — they’re quite confusing. There’s ground round, ground chuck, ground sirloin: Which do you choose? The less fat (especially the “bad” saturated fat) in a piece of meat, the healthier it is, and also the fewer calories it contains. For instance, ground sirloin has 300 calories and 15 grams of fat for 6 ounces, while ground round has 360 calories and 26 grams of fat, and ground chuck has 435 calories, almost 35 grams (plus more than a half day’s worth of saturated fat). And keep in mind, your home-barbecued burgers are much bigger — plus many people typically eat more than one. So why not just go with the lowest-calorie meat? The problem is leaner meats tend to dry out more during cooking and have less flavor. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Burger Fixes

How do you make the healthy burger tastier?

  • Use vegetables and other fillers. Give your burger additional texture and flavor by mixing the meat with chopped mushrooms, peppers and onions — you’ll have the same size burger, but it will be lower in calories — and you’ll also be getting the benefits of all those vegetables.
  • Mix the meat with egg whites (two per pound), bread crumbs, water, salt, pepper and onion and garlic powder.
  • Add herbs and spices. To make leaner cuts of meat tastier, try a blend of fresh herbs (such as thyme, marjoram, chives and parsley) or dry ground spices (black pepper, smoked paprika, cumin and cayenne), says John Greely, chef at the famed 21 Club in New York. Herbs and spices add a lot of taste with practically no calories. Whether you use fresh or dried herbs, always crush them first to release their full aroma.
  • Marinate. Use a low-calorie version such as Lawry’s Herb & Garlic, which has only 30 calories for 3 tablespoons, and marinate overnight.
  • Use cooking spray instead of oil. Spray the burger itself (don’t spray on an open flame) so it doesn’t stick. To compensate for the lower fat content of the beef, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of defatted broth, water, juice or wine to the pan.
  • Style matters. According to Paul Gayler, author of The Gourmet Burger, (Gibbs Smith, 2005) “Meat should be coarsely ground. If it’s too finely ground, the burger is more likely to fall apart, and the texture will be less satisfying.” Also, keep the meat loose. Burgers will be less juicy if you over-pack the patties. Good burgers should be about an inch thick and have a slightly thinner center.
  • Once burgers are shaped, chill them again to firm up the meat before cooking, recommends Gayler.
  • Burgers are best cooked over medium-high heat, i.e., when the red-hot coals are covered with a layer of white ash. “And don’t press down on them with a spatula to speed up cooking. It dries out the burger, and precious flavor is lost,” reminds Gayler. Also, make sure you cook them slowly so they don’t dry out.


Choosing other meats, poultry or vegetables rather than beef for your burgers could reduce the calorie and saturated fat content. But be wary — you still have to make smart choices.

  • Turkey and chicken burgers. If they’re not made from ground white meat, you might be better off with beef. A 6-ounce white-meat turkey burger has about 195 calories and almost 1 gram of fat (0 grams saturated). But when your turkey burger contains other fatty parts of the turkey, a 6-ounce burger can run as high as 400 calories and 22 grams of fat. The same goes for chicken burgers — ground chicken breast is a better bet.
  • Pork burgers. Try to find lean ground loin pork (10 percent or less fat), which has 300 calories and 16 grams of fat (5 grams saturated) for 6 ounces. However, if you get regular ground pork (20 percent or more fat), watch out: You’re looking at 450 calories and 36 grams fat (9 grams saturated fat).
  • Salmon burgers. These are pretty low in both calories and fat, plus you get the heart-healthy benefits of omega 3s. A 6-ounce patty has 240 calories and 10 grams of fat (1.5 grams saturated). According to Greely, “Asian flavors such as soy, teriyaki, lime, wasabi, sesame seeds work well with salmon burgers. Fresh herbs such as cilantro, scallion and dill add good flavors. Also you can brush your burger with a tamarind paste or barbecue sauce with a squeeze of lemon. Serve medium rare to medium with sliced avocado and pickled cucumber.”
  • Veggie burgers. They’re lower in calories and fat than any other choice. For example, a Boca Burger has only 80 calories and 1 gram of fat. Chef Michel Nischan, host of Pure & Simple on Lime TV suggests trying different meat substitutes, above and beyond even the veggie burger. “Try soy burgers, seitan patties and other protein substitutes.”
  • Chef Greely says veggie burgers are the most difficult to make at home because without the correct blend of moisture and binder, they tend to crumble or fall apart. He uses ground smoked tofu, blending it with ground cooked mushrooms, tahini and hummus and binding it with a little wheat flour. “Form into balls and coat with a light dusting of the wheat flour, then form into patties,” suggests Greely. “Flavors such as minced onion, garlic, black pepper, cumin and tomato powder are fantastic. Almost any soft fresh herb will work, including basil, oregano, chervil, tarragon and chive. Brush the patties with olive oil and cook under a broiler, or lightly grill just enough to sear the outside and get the inside hot.” Also, chef Cary Neff’s recipe for Black-Bean Griddle Patties from Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002) is a delicious low-calorie treat. The recipe is available at http://www.dietdetective.com/food/recipe-light.html
  • Bison burgers. They offer some savings in terms of calories and fat compared with traditional beef burgers. A 4-ounce TenderBison Bison Burger (frozen) has 220 calories and 11 grams of fat (5 saturated).
  • More exotic alternatives. According to Gayler, “Other game meats make excellent burgers. Pheasant and ostrich are well flavored and nutritious. Because they are so lean, add a little fat to the mixture in the form of pork.”

The Bun

Buns can add anywhere from 110 to 180 calories. A regular 1.5-ounce white hamburger bun has about 110 calories, but Kaiser rolls are normally higher at 180 calories. For more fiber, try to get 100 percent whole-grain buns — but just because the package says wheat doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent whole grain. Make sure “whole grains” are the first ingredient. Your best bet is a whole-wheat English muffin (120 calories) or a light multigrain English muffin (only 100 calories). Also, try no-sugar-added, low-calorie, 100 percent whole-wheat toast.

Burger Company

Watch out for the obvious: fries, potato chips (150 calories per handful), coleslaw (more than 250 calories per cup), pasta salad (depending on ingredients, you’re looking at 400 to 500 calories per cup), etc. All these “sides” are typically very high in calories and can turn your barbecue into a diet disaster. Instead of chips or fries, make your own grilled potatoes.

Toppings and Condiments

Instead of cheese (70 to 120 calories a deli slice — plus cheese is high in saturated fat), add lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles or even celery to your burgers. Or try “lite” or reduced-fat cheese (e.g., Cracker Barrel 1/3 Less Fat, Jarlsberg Lite, Cabot Light, Kraft Fat-Free Singles or Borden Low-Fat). Fat-free single-serving slices have about 30 calories each. Also look for cheeses that are not reduced fat, but are thinly sliced (they’re typically less than an ounce with only about 40 to 60 calories).

For great flavor and virtually no extra calories, top your burger with tomatoes marinated in red wine vinegar, fresh basil, a drop of olive oil, salt and cracked black pepper. And add some pickled red onions or pickled peppers, says Greely.

Avoid mayo (100 calories per tablespoon) and stick to ketchup, mustard or even steak sauce. At 30 calories per tablespoon, barbecue sauce has double the calories in ketchup or steak sauce (15 calories), which can add up fast if you’re not paying attention — if you dump 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce on your burger and fries, well, you’ve just eaten 240 extra calories.

Mad Cow and E. Coli

Most food-safety experts agree that mad cow disease poses a minuscule risk to U.S. consumers. However, food poisoning is another story. You can get food poisoning if you don’t handle your meats carefully. Here are a few tips:

  • Prevent cross-contamination — that is, don’t let raw meat, fish or poultry touch foods that won’t be cooked, such as lettuce. Never use the same knife or cutting board without washing it first.
  • Cook foods to the proper internal temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats and pork; 170 for poultry breasts; 165 for leftovers, casseroles and ground poultry).
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
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