Healthier options, such as baking, can offer similar taste without the health drawbacks.
Fried foods are crunchy, crispy, and tasty, but as tempting as they are, eating them too often might shave years off your life.
A study published online January 23 by The BMJ found that women who ate one or more servings of fried chicken daily were 13% more likely to die prematurely from any cause and 12% more likely to die from heart-related causes than women who didn’t eat any fried food.
The study also had bad news for fried seafood lovers. Women who ate fried fish or shellfish daily were 7% more likely to die early from any cause and 13% more likely to die from heart-related causes during the study period than women who didn’t eat fried food.
Studying the effects of fried foods
The study’s authors came to these conclusions after looking at diet questionnaires and mortality among more than 100,000 women ages 50 to 79 who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative. Researchers followed the women from the time they enrolled in the study in the mid-1990s for roughly 20 years.
The elevated risk of early death among heavy eaters of fried foods remained even after researchers adjusted for other factors, such as lifestyle, overall diet, education, and income level.
“It’s not a perfect study, but the researchers have controlled for many of the things that could have affected the results,” says Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The overall message is also not very surprising, she says. Less is more when it comes to fried foods.
“Although not encouraged, eating fried food less than twice a month is probably okay, if someone is eating an otherwise healthy diet,” says Kelley Bradshaw, outpatient clinical manager and senior dietitian for nutrition and wellness services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Reducing consumption and risk
It makes sense that fried foods might trigger health problems. Not only are they high in calories, but most people aren’t cooking them at home, because frying is difficult and messy, says Fung. Common restaurant practices, such as reusing cooking oils and going heavy on the salt, may make fried foods even worse than they could be if you were to make them at home, she says.
For this reason, if you do eat fried foods, making your own could be a slightly better option, she says.
Other strategies to reduce your fried food intake include the following:
Swap cooking methods. Breading foods and then baking them in the oven is one way to get some of the texture of fried foods, but with fewer health hazards, says Bradshaw.
For example, dip chicken in egg or buttermilk and then coat with bread crumbs. Cook in the oven at 400 degrees for a crispy, yet healthier version of “fried chicken.”
Some people recommend trying an air fryer, which is essentially a mini-oven that circulates hot air around the food. These devices “fry” the food with little or no oil.
Learn to spot fried foods. Most people conjure up images of fried chicken and French fries when they hear the words fried food, but they often don’t think of others, such as tortilla chips, donuts, and crunchy salad toppings. Look for words such as “fritter,” “crispy,” or “golden,” on the menu. They are often a tip-off that a food is fried.
Focus on your overall diet. While you want to watch your fried food intake, don’t ignore your overall diet in the process. Many of the women in the study who ate a lot of fried food also had a less healthy diet in general, with fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and more sugary drinks.
So, it’s not just about avoiding one food; it’s about making sure you have a healthy dietary pattern. Ideally, this should include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats such as olive oil, and lean meats.
Image: © Elena_Danileiko/Getty Images
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