French fries: How bad are they for you and what's the best way to eat them?

It’s impossible not to love french fries, but everyone knows that they’re unhealthy. Here's everything you need to know.

 Illustrative image of french fries.  (photo credit: PXHERE)
Illustrative image of french fries.
(photo credit: PXHERE)

French fries are a complicated dilemma - so good, but so bad for you. International French Fries Day was last Wednesday; let's look at what french fries actually do to the body.

Burnt french fries soaked in oil from an unknown source are bad for people's health., period. This is due to the "deadly" combination of simple carbohydrates in boiling and burnt oil. Beyond these components, frying leads to the formation of carcinogenic poisons.

Another problem is that most places that sell french fries don’t change the oil on a daily basis. Boiled oil, or oil which is heated, cooled and heated again oxidizes, stagnates and becomes something to avoid.  

French fries can also serve as an excuse to eat ketchup, salt and other sauces that are very high in sugar or have artificial flavors, aromas, preservatives and saturated fat.

What can we say, they are very good. Tasty food disrupts our ability to feel full so we always want to eat more of it. Our satiety system which signals us that we’re full weakens when we eat fried and salty foods.

 Illustrative image of french fries.  (credit: PIXABAY) Illustrative image of french fries. (credit: PIXABAY)

There are evolutionary explanations for this. For example, fried and salty food gives the body what was previously less available to us, like calories and salt. Today, we don’t have these deficiencies but we’re still 'programmed' to be able to eat more of these foods.

Another problem is the way they’re cut. When we eat slices of whole potatoes we can estimate the right amount to eat.. With french fries, we can’t.

We can reach the amount of four potatoes in a portion of french fries without knowing that this is the amount we’re eating. About 10 units of medium-sized French fries are usually counted as a whole serving of potatoes. How many of us have counted or estimated the number of french fries in our portion?

Still, they’re delicious, comforting and fun so how can we eat a portion without guilt?

Potassium, magnesium and B6

Potatoes have nutritional benefits: They are relatively low in calories, an excellent source of potassium, magnesium and B6, and they’re always available compared to other plant products.

These minerals and vitamins have been linked to a reduction in blood pressure and the onset of cardiovascular disease. Potatoes also contain antioxidants and if we cook, bake or fry with the peel we’ll lose less of them.

So the main problem is not in the potato but in the preparation. Baking them with olive oil and spices is much more satisfying and healthier.

How can you make and eat healthier french fries?

  • Make French fries in the oven: strips with a little salt and olive oil.
  • Serve french fries with a salad and a non-fried protein such as: chicken breast or lean meat.
  • Cut the potato into large strips so less oil is absorbed in each unit. Hence curled purchased french fries have the largest surface area and therefore absorb the most oil.
  • Packaged fries are fried so bake them and don’t add oil.
  • Avoid sauces or choose sauces low in fat and sugar. For example, 5%-fat mayonnaise or no-sugar ketchup, and eat more french fries than sauce.

 The last and perhaps also the most difficult tip to follow: Limit the number of french fries eaten in particular and fried in general. If you often eat out, plan ahead when you will eat and how much. Planning will help you limit the amount of eating.

And most importantly, if you're going to eat french fries, enjoy every bite!
Dikla David is a bariatric dietitian at Maccabi Health Services.