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Are Fried Foods Bad for You?

"Don't eat fried foods. They're not good for you." You've heard that advice many times over the years. However, researchers in Spain recently completed an 11-year study of over 40,000 people and found no association between consumption of fried foods and risk of coronary heart disease or all-cause mortality.

Does this mean eating French fries is a healthy practice? No. Let's look at the details. This study was done on foods prepared in homes where healthy fats, primarily olive oil and sunflower oil, were used. Both of these fats fry well without any major breakdown occurring. Most of the frying was simple pan-frying and the fat was not used over and over as is done in commercial deep-fat frying where the fat tends to degrade over time.

During the 11-year study, there were 606 coronary heart disease events and 1,135 deaths from all causes. Even when the researchers adjusted for other risk factors such as age, gender, BMI, education level, physical activity, alcohol, smoking, blood pressure, and more, eating fried foods did not cause an increase in heart disease or death from any cause.

Important points to keep in mind about this study:

  • The study was done in a country where most people follow the Mediterranean diet. This eating plan is based on a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, and poultry. This way of eating has been found to be health-promoting compared to the typical Western diet.

  • The fats used by most people in Spain include olive oil and sunflower oil, not solid fats or deep-fat frying oils that are high in trans fatty acids (the kind used in Western societies and fast-food restaurants).

  • Olive oil is less prone to oxidation than other plant oils and is free of trans fats. It is considered a "healthy fat" as is sunflower oil.

If you want to fry foods, keeps these cooking tips in mind:

  • Use olive or sunflower oil to fry foods.

  • When frying, use moderate amounts of a healthy oil to keep calorie levels moderate.

  • Avoid reusing fats for frying.

  • Be sure to keep the temperature of the frying moderate, below the smoke point of the fat. When the skillet gets hot enough to smoke, the quality of the cooking oil or fat begins to breakdown.

If you follow these guidelines, frying and sautéing vegetables in a little olive oil in a skillet does not appear to be harmful. On the other hand, frying with solid fats, eating foods fried in deep fat, or reusing fat multiple times to fry foods are well-established hazards to your health. This kind of frying is done at most fast-food places and is not good for your heart or longevity.

Pilar Guallar Castillon, et al. Consumption of fried foods and risk of coronary heart disease, British Medical Journal 2012, 344:e363, Jan. 24, 2012

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