A Heart-Healthier Way to Eat Fried Food?

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A new study finds that consuming foods fried in olive or sunflower oils is not linked to an increased risk of heart disease or premature death.

The finding seems counterintuitive since risk factors for heart disease like obesity and high blood pressure and cholesterol have been associated with diets high in fried foods. But the research linking fried food directly with heart disease has been inconsistent to date, so researchers from the Autonomous University of Madrid looked more closely at the connection.

The study’s authors surveyed nearly 41,000 adults between the ages of 29 to 69, asking about their health and eating habits. None of the participants had heart disease at the beginning of the study. Participants were split into four groups according to how much fried food they ate and then monitored for heart disease for 11 years.

People in the lowest consumption group ate about 1.6 ounces of fried food a day. Those in the highest intake group ate 8.8 ounces a day. On average, people consumed just under 5 ounces of fried food a day, which accounted for about 7% of all the food they ate. The participants reported eating foods that were fried in various ways, including deep-fried, pan, battered, crumbed or sautéed.

According to the study published in the BMJ on Tuesday, there were 606 heart-related events and 1,134 deaths during the study follow-up period. When the researchers compared heart disease and death rates to the participants’ diets, they found no link regardless of how much fried food people ate.

This doesn’t mean you should up your French fry consumption. The study was conducted in Spain, where people mostly use heart-healthy olive and sunflower oils in their cooking, both at home and at restaurants. Unlike in the U.S., the study participants were eating fried foods in the context of a healthier Mediterranean diet. And as the study authors noted further, “consumption of fried foods in Spain is not a proxy for fast food intake.” While the Spanish tend not to eat fried snacks that are high in salt and trans fats, in the U.S, these foods make up a significant part of our diet.

“Frying with mainly olive oil or sunflower oil is not associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease,” the authors concluded, but “frying with other types of fats may still be harmful.”