Fried food: 5 facts to help you make informed choices

The National Institutes of Health defines frying as “a complex cooking process that modifies the composition of foods and the frying medium through oxidation, polymerization, and hydrogenation.”

Fried foods have an undeniable allure, with their crispy exteriors and satisfying textures. Whether it’s French fries, fried chicken or tempura, these foods are popular across cultures. Though they may be delicious, fried foods come with several important considerations.

The Women’s Health Initiative study, an extensive observational study of over 106,000 postmenopausal women followed for an average of 18 years, found that frequent consumption of fried foods, particularly fried chicken and fried fish/shellfish, was linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular mortality and death from any cause among women in the United States. The study was published in 2019. It’s worth noting, however, that observational studies can’t prove cause and effect, only that an association exists.

But when it comes to fried foods, our minds often jump straight to calories, overlooking other critical factors. We might briefly consider heart disease, but there are other significant concerns. Here are five key issues to be aware of:

1. High calorie content

High calorie content is one of the biggest drawbacks of fried foods. Frying absorbs a lot of oil, which spikes the calorie count. This calorie density can contribute to weight gain if consumed frequently, as the body stores the excess energy as fat.

2. Potential health risks

Fried foods pose a serious health risk, particularly when consumed in large amounts. They’re linked to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Frying, especially with unhealthy oils, creates trans fats and harmful compounds that raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL), leading to arterial plaque buildup and cardiovascular problems.

Restaurant fried foods are especially problematic, often loaded with saturated fats and reused oils that degrade over time, producing harmful byproducts. These factors contribute to weight gain, elevated cholesterol and higher blood pressure — key risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Also, these foods are high in sodium, which exacerbates hypertension.

The hydrogenated oils used in frying are rich in trans fats, promoting inflammation linked to Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues. The high omega-6 fatty acid content in these oils further increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and bowel disease.

Scientific research underscores the health risks associated with frequent consumption of fried foods. We should all limit our intake of deep-fried foods to mitigate these risks.

3. Impact on digestion

Fried foods can wreak havoc on your digestive system. High in fats, they take longer to digest than carbs and proteins, leading to discomfort, bloating and indigestion. They can also trigger acid reflux and worsen conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The heavy, greasy nature of fried foods can overwhelm your digestive tract. To avoid these issues, consume fried foods in moderation and listen to your body’s reactions.

4. Acrylamide formation

A little-known danger of fried foods is acrylamide, a harmful chemical that forms when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures. The chemical is used for industrial applications like cement and grout. It’s also found in tobacco smoke. It’s been shown to cause cancer in animals at high doses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen. While more research is needed, some studies suggest long-term exposure may raise cancer risk. Knowing this risk can encourage healthier cooking methods and choices.

Acrylamides:

  • Form from naturally occurring sugars and the amino acid asparagine in plant-based foods.
  • Are produced when foods are cooked at high temperatures (frying, roasting, grilling, baking).
  • Are mainly present in foods such as potato products (French fries. potato chips); grain products (breakfast cereals, crackers, some cookies, bread crusts and toast). They’re also present in coffee and canned sweet potatoes, pumpkin and black olives, for instance.

5. Nutrient loss

Frying can also promote nutrient loss in foods. High heat and prolonged cooking times can degrade vitamins and minerals in vegetables and proteins, reducing their overall nutritional value. For instance, frying can significantly reduce the levels of vitamin C and B vitamins in foods. While fried foods might satisfy your taste buds, they may not provide the essential nutrients your body needs.

Despite what we know, sometimes we “cheat” more than we should or for longer than we should. For most, it’s generally okay to eat fried foods occasionally, as long as you maintain a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Moderation is key to enjoying fried foods without significantly impacting your health. Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you’re eating fried foods:

  • Limit frequency: Maybe limit the consumption of fried foods to once a week or less.
  • Choose healthier oils: Fry with healthier oils like olive oil or avocado oil, which contain beneficial monounsaturated fats. Avoid oils high in trans fats or saturated fats.
  • Watch portions: Be mindful of portion sizes.
  • Balance your diet: To help offset the occasional indulgence in fried foods, ensure that your overall diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.
  • Healthier cooking methods: Consider using an air fryer, which uses less to no oil while still providing a crispy texture. Opt for baking, grilling, steaming, poaching or even pan frying foods, which can be healthier alternatives to traditional frying.

As discussed in the “Experiment with diet post,” if you don’t typically bake, grill, steam,
poach or even pan fry your food, try it; doing so will give you the chance to experience
food in a different way — maybe even a more pleasing way.

  • Keep it moving: Regular physical activity can help mitigate some of the negative effects of occasional fried food consumption by promoting cardiovascular health and helping to maintain a healthy weight.

Incorporating these practices can allow you to enjoy fried foods as an occasional treat without significantly impacting your long-term health. While fried foods are a beloved culinary indulgence, if you’re overindulging it’s important to be mindful of their potential impacts on health and nutrition and fall back as necessary.


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