Few of us are under the illusion that french fries – or any fried foods — are good for us. But could eating them actually shorten our life?
Although the connection between eating fried foods and obesity and heart disease is well known, a study published earlier this month is the first to link eating fried potatoes to death risk.
The study found people who ate fried potatoes (including french fries, fried potatoes, and hash browns) more than twice a week were more likely to die early than those who ate fried potatoes less often.
The report included 4,440 people, ages 45 to 79, who were enrolled in a study that looked at ways to prevent and treat knee osteoarthritis. Researchers followed participants over an 8-year period and asked them about their diet — including the amount of fried and unfried potatoes they ate.
Study author Nicola Veronese, MD, said they focused on potatoes because the link between eating them and death risk hadn’t been studied before. Some studies had found that potatoes raise the odds of having heart disease and other medical conditions, says Veronese, a researcher at the Institute of Clinical Research and Education in Medicine in Padova, Italy.
After 8 years, the chance of early death was about twice as high in the group that ate fried potatoes more than 2 times a week. What about french fries might have contributed to the participants’ premature demise?
“We think that several mechanisms could lead to mortality,” Veronese says. First, he says, people who eat more potatoes have a higher incidence of medical conditions that can increase the risk of death. Also, “The potatoes are fried in unhealthy oils rich in trans fats. Finally, the high amounts of salt used further increase the risk of death.”
Are French Fries Really Deadly?
Before you swear off french fries forever, here are a few things to consider. First, the study didn’t determine exactly how the study participants died. “Those deaths might have had nothing to do with diet. They could have been run over by a car,” says Ken Lee, PhD, a professor in the department of food science & technology at the Ohio State University Food Innovation Center.
Second, it relied on the participants’ memory of what they ate. “That is one of the least reliable forms of diet studies,” Lee says.
The researchers also didn’t prove that french fries caused an early death. “We don’t know what other things in their diet and lifestyle may have contributed to their death,” says Lisa Sasson, a clinical assistant professor of nutrition in the NYU Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.
She adds that unless a food is poisonous or tainted with bacteria, it’s not likely to kill you on its own. “That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it.”
Fried Food Risks
That doesn’t mean you should go on a french fry binge — or binge on any fried foods. Fried foods are high in fat, calories, and often salt. A few studies, including one published in 2014, have linked fried foods to serious health problems like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
“Fried foods may influence risk of these diseases through several key risk factors: obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol,” says lead author Leah Cahill, PhD, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Canada. “The process of frying is known to alter the quality and increase the caloric content of food.”
Fried foods served in fast-food restaurants are often cooked in hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats. Many restaurants use these oils because they give food a satisfying taste and crunch. But they’re not good for you. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels, and raise your chance of having heart disease.