The Skinny on Fried Foods

Deep frying is known for making foods fattening. Frying multiplies the fat and calorie content without adding any beneficial nutrients. But, if you have a craving for something fried, there are some tricks you can use to lighten things up as much as possible.

 *** Local Caption *** French fries in hot fat in a deep fryer

What Frying Does

  • Adds fat and calories: The most obvious thing with deep-frying foods is that it increases the fat content. And this causes the calorie content to skyrocket quickly, because fat is denser in calories (9 calories per gram) than protein and carbs (4 calories per gram).
  • Adds omega-6s: While popular omega-3s are known for being heart healthy and anti-inflammatory, omega-6s work in an opposite manner to promote inflammation and clotting in our bodies. The oils typically used to deep-fry (peanut oil, vegetable oil, etc.) are high in omega-6s.
  • Adds possible carcinogens: Deep-frying is a tricky process. If an appropriate oil is used and heated to the correct temperature, this shouldn’t be such a big concern. Heating an oil past its smoke point or reusing oil can cause the fats to start breaking down and producing carcinogenic chemicals and free radicals (the things that antioxidants get rid of).
  • Other chemicals: Acrylamide is a possible carcinogen that can be made when potato products are heated to a high temperature (as with deep-frying). High amounts have been found in foods like potato chips and French fries.

What’s the Difference: Fried vs. Roasted Potatoes

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* per 160 g serving. Source: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Frying foods will automatically up the calories and fat without adding any beneficial nutrients. This is why fried foods like French fries are commonly referred to as calorie-dense foods: They have tons of calories and a small amount healthy nutrients. On the other hand, roasted potatoes are more nutrient-dense because they have less calories, which makes their nutrient content more beneficial.

A common marketing trick used by restaurants is to advertise that their foods are fried in cholesterol-free oil. Cholesterol is only found in animal products, so anything fried in a vegetable oil will be naturally cholesterol-free. This doesn’t mean that it won’t raise your body’s cholesterol levels, as that’s impacted by the type of fats you eat.

How to Make It Skinny-Friendly

potato wedges with the peel in spices, food closeup

  • Skip the Fried: The preparation method makes a big difference in the calorie and fat content, sometimes more than the difference it makes in flavor. Choose preparation methods like grilling, roasting, baking or sautéing, and flavor with herbs and seasonings instead of fat.

If you do choose to deep-fry, follow these tips:

  • Not too hot, not too cold: The amount of fat retained by fried foods depends greatly on the heat. If a food is fried at an appropriate temperature (usually around 350 degrees F), it will retain less oil. If fried at a lower temperature (not hot enough), it will retain more oil, causing it be higher in fat and calories. If it’s fried at too high a temperature, the oil can start to smoke and have carcinogenic properties.
  • Make it at home: Restaurants typically use the cheaper oils, which are lower quality and processed with more chemicals. In addition, restaurants deep-fry in the same oil all day (sometimes even for multiple days), which causes the oil to break down and have more free radicals. For example, if you order French fries or fried chicken at 1 p.m., the oil could already be five hours old when it was used to make hash browns for breakfast. For a DIY version of French fries, check out our recipe for Homemade Healthy French Fries or Baked Sweet Potato Fries.
  • Skip the batter and dipping sauces: Adding a thick batter onto fried foods will lead to greater oil retention and an increased amount of calories and fat. In addition, using calorie-heavy dipping sauces like ranch and 1000 Island will take the fat content overboard. Stick with basics like ketchup and mustard.

Bobby is the community and social media manager at Zipongo. He has a degree in nutrition and dietetics and previously worked as a health educator.

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