Can Fried Foods, in Moderation, Be Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet?


An 11-year study of natives of Spain found no link between fried food consumption and heart disease, but it raises a lot of new questions.


Fried food lovers take note: An 11-year study of natives of Spain found no link between fried food consumption and coronary heart disease or premature death.

The researchers stress that their findings may not apply to people in other countries. But the findings do suggest that eating fried foods in moderation may not be as bad for the heart as it's commonly held to be.

Two factors that make frying different in Spain (and other Mediterranean countries) are frequent use of olive or sunflower oil to fry with and infrequent re-use of the cooking oil, a procedure that's common in many fast food outlets in the United States.

Sixty-two percent of the people in the study reported using olive oil for frying. And fried foods, on average, made up about seven percent of the people's diet.

Though there's a perception that fried foods and heart disease go hand in hand, no study has comprehensively investigated that association. Those that have touched on the relationship have produced conflicting results. Several studies do agree that a diet high in fried foods can increase blood pressure and obesity and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, all risk factors for heart disease. But that's not the same as actually increasing heart disease.

As far back as the 1970s, evidence began accumulating that despite fairly high fat consumption, inhabitants of Mediterranean countries had a very low rate of heart disease. Much of this has been attributed to the type of fat in the typical Mediterranean diet -- little saturated and trans-fat, much monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. It seems that the type of fat people eat has as strong an effect on heart health as the amount of fat they eat does.

The current study looked at the diet and cooking methods of over 40,000 healthy Spaniards from five different regions of the country that traditionally have widely varying diets. Data were collected between 1992 and 1996 as part of a larger multi-nation European study (EPIC).

A detailed dietary questionnaire was administered by trained interviewers to all study subjects upon their enrollment into the study, a process that took about an hour. The subjects were then tracked for an average of 11 years and the number of deaths and cases of heart disease were compared with the subjects' dietary habits. Overall, there were 1,135 deaths, 606 definite cases of heart disease or serious angina, and 712 suspected cases of heart disease found in the next 11 years.

Increased fried food consumption had no effect on the probability of death or developing heart disease. The results were the same for those who used olive oil for frying and those who used sunflower oil or other vegetable oils.

Frying food adds extra fat and calories. Clearly, it's not a recipe for weight loss. But at least in this study, eating it didn't add up to increased heart disease or a shorter life span.

There are some shortcomings to the study. It only followed subjects for 11 years and heart disease may take longer to develop. And it only surveyed the dietary habits of the subjects once, at the study's start. Clearly, it doesn't give all the answers on how dietary fat affects heart health. It's only one piece in the puzzle, a piece that suggests fried foods, in moderation, can be part of a healthy diet.

An article on the study was published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

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