What if Fried Foods Were Healthy?

May 14, 2012
Daily Health News
Pilar Guallar-Castillón, MD, MPH

I want to talk to you today about fried foods—not just fried foods that you buy at fast-food restaurants, but also pan-fried and deep-fried foods that you cook at home using olive oil, vegetable shortening, butter or whatever you choose. There is something surprising to tell about them.

I admit that I enjoy making dishes such as a fried potatoes, but I consume them in moderation. Fried foods have always been considered dietary no-nos because of the concern that they increase your risk for cardiovascular problems. But a new Spanish study calls that common claim into question.

This research found that frying may not be nearly as bad for you as you might think—as long as only certain foods are fried and the right cooking fats are used.


Researchers were curious to see whether eating fried foods would, in fact, raise the risk for cardiovascular problems. So they asked about 40,000 Spanish men and women between the ages of 29 and 69 to fill out detailed questionnaires about their diets, cooking habits, health and lifestyles. Participants reported what foods they had eaten in a typical week during the previous 12 months (either at home or at a restaurant). Subjects weren’t able to report on what types of oil were used to cook the fried foods they ate in restaurants, but they did note that they used only two types of oil in cooking—olive and sunflower. Their most frequently consumed fried foods were, from most to least, fish, meat, potatoes and eggs. At the outset, none of the participants had heart disease.

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Next investigators divided the participants into four groups, depending upon how much fried food they ate. They followed them for 11 to 12 years and observed whether or not they had events related to coronary heart disease (such as heart attack or chest pain) and/or died. After taking into account variables such as age, exercise habits, blood pressure and smoking, researchers found that there was no association between how much fried food was eaten and having a heart-related event or dying. Those who consumed the most fried food (about nine ounces daily, on average) were no more likely to have a heart-related event or die than those who consumed the least (about two ounces).

Now, this doesn’t mean that people who ate the most fried food weren’t on their way to a heart-related event…unfortunately, the researchers didn’t measure risk factors.

The study authors reported no fiscal support from organizations that had a financial interest in their conclusions. But researchers acknowledge that this study has limitations. People reported their habits in just one initial questionnaire, and self-reporting is not always accurate—not to mention that eating habits can change over time. But the findings, which were published online in January in BMJ, certainly suggest an interesting concept that needs to be explored further—perhaps not all fried foods are, in fact, bad for us.


So why no increased risk for heart-related events or death? To investigate, I contacted study author Pilar Guallar-Castillón, MD, MPH, PhD, an associate professor of preventive medicine and public health at Universidad Autónoma in Spain, who told me the following…

  • One potential reason, she said, is that the oils that these Spanish participants (and most Spanish restaurants, for that matter) use to cook with are olive and sunflower, which are high in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated “good” fats. These fats are quite different from the ones that Americans commonly use to fry, such as butter, margarine, vegetable shortening and lard—all of which contain at least some saturated or trans fats (or both), which are both bad for the heart.
  • Another potential reason, she said, is that the most common food that these Spanish subjects were frying was fish, and fish are rich in cardioprotective omega-3 fatty acids—even when they’re fried.

So if you’re going to indulge in a fried food (whether pan-fried or deep-fried), mimic the Spaniards from this study and use olive or sunflower oil—and get your fried-food fix from fish. Here’s a great recipe: Pan-fry fish in olive or sunflower oil and then let it simmer in a “sofrito” sauce made of fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion and olive oil—the more Mediterranean it looks and smells, the better!