Fried Food: Still Bad for You

Don't believe the headlines to the contrary.

Hey, if science says it's OK... (Photo by David de Lossy.)

Imagine a world in which you can eat fried food to your heart’s content and not have to worry about heart disease. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, bad news: it is too good to be true, even despite some recent headlines to the contrary.

The headlines are citing a recent study in the British Medical Journal. In it, nearly 41,000 adults were asked about their fried food consumption, placed in one of four different categories based on how much they said they ate, and watched for the next 11 years. Researchers found that over the study period, there was very little difference in the number of heart disease events — such as heart attacks — between those who ate the least fried food and those who ate the most. From this, the researchers concluded that fried food doesn’t increase your risk of developing heart disease. Makes sense, right?

Not so fast: the researchers also reported a host of limitations that could contribute to the study results. For one thing, the study took place in Spain – a Mediterranean country with a Mediterranean diet that just happens to be long associated with a lower risk of heart disease — so you can’t generalize the study results to other populations, especially not to the typical American diet. Another limitation is that diet was only measured once over the whole of 11 years, so what might have been true at the start of the study isn’t necessarily so at the end of the study.

Finally, let’s not overlook the average amount of fried food the subjects said they ate per day – 138 grams and 14 grams of oil. That is approximately one cup of fried food and one tablespoon of oil. Hardly what most people consider fried food! In fact, the researchers reported that fried food made up all of seven percent of the total diet of the participants. Not only is all of this highly unlike the typical American diet, but we Americans by and large don’t even use the same fats the subjects used to the same extent: most of the study participants (62 percent) were frying their foods in olive oil, while the rest used sunflower oil or vegetable oil. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average American gets 19 percent of calories from solid fats, i.e. trans fats or saturated fats. These types of fats are detrimental to heart health.

What does all this mean for you? It means that fried foods should still be limited. They’re higher in calories and often high in sodium. Eating too much of them will lead to obesity and the high sodium intake is a risk factor for high blood pressure, both conditions can increase your risk of developing heart disease. The bottom line: Avoid foods fried in saturated or trans fat. Opt for foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like those found in olive oil, sunflower oil, nuts and seeds. By all means, fry some of your food in those oils, but do it in moderation. And remember, over-consumption of even the healthy fats can easily lead to over-consumption of calories.

Guallar-Castillón P, Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Lopez-Garcia E, León-Muñoz LM, Amiano P, Ardanaz E. Consumption of fried foods and risk of coronary heart disease: Spanish cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. BMJ, 2012; 344.