iStock / Getty Images Plus / master1305
We Americans love potatoes, and we especially love fries. In fact, the United States uses about a third of its potatoes to make French fries, according to the Alliance for Potato Research & Education (yeah, that’s a thing).
You can find fries on most restaurant menus, often with enticing adjectives like “house-made” or “garlicky” or “crinkle-cut.” And even as fast food restaurants offer healthier fare (like fresh apples or garden salads), you won’t hear people call for McDonald’s to ditch their famous fries any time soon.
But even though they might seem super indulgent, French fries, like most other foods, can fit into a healthy and balanced diet. Here’s the skinny.
Let’s start with the most standard fries of all: McDonald’s. A small order of McDonald’s “World Famous Fries” has about 230 calories. About 100 of those calories come from fat, which is the inevitable result of deep frying.
But bigger portions add up quickly, and restaurants have a fondness for piling fries on the plate. A side of “classic fries” at Applebee’s clocks in at 430 calories. In a 2,000-calorie diet, those fries would make up about 22 percent of your day’s calories—a pretty big chunk for a side dish. (By contrast, Applebee’s garlic mashed potatoes dish contains just 250 calories.)
Other fry varieties can also affect the calorie count. For example, a small order of curly fries from Arby’s contains 410 calories. The extra calories can be partially explained by the coating of flour and spices, which creates that thin, orange-hued breading.
Ordering a small size (or a “kid” size, if it’s available) will help save calories, but places like Applebee’s or your favorite local gastropub typically only give you one size to choose from: a heaping mountain of fries.
For home cooks, you have an opportunity to scrape hundreds of calories—no exaggeration—off your fry order. That’s because you can skip the frying process and bake your fries, which reduces the amount of oil on the potato. Even drizzling the potato strips in a bit of oil before baking will result in a less fatty fry than one that’s deep-fried.
How you prep your fries can make a big difference. Here are a couple different scenarios:
If you’re splitting with a group, don’t set the fry platter in the middle of the table and eat straight from it: You’ll likely eat more than you realize. Instead, put one portion of fries on your plate and pass the fry dish to the center.
“A reasonable serving size [of French fries] would literally fit in your hand,” says Jennifer Fitzgibbon, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, a registered oncology dietitian at Stony Brook Cancer Center. Or put another way, a portion of fries would be the size of half a baseball. If you’re a numbers person, take about 10 to 12 fries for yourself, suggests Toby Amidor, MS, RD, Wall Street Journal best-selling author of the upcoming Smart Meal Prep for Beginners.
If these portions sound small to you, you’re not crazy: The portion sizes at restaurants are pretty big—and not just when you “supersize” it. Stick to ordering a size small, and share whenever possible.
Anything that dips into a deep fryer is going to contain a hefty dose of fat—usually saturated fat. (Thankfully, most establishments no longer use trans fat in their frying.) Saturated fat can raise your LDL cholesterol, which in turn may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
For a healthier heart, the AHA recommends getting no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means just 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat. Here’s how many grams of saturated fat these fry orders contain:
As you can see, fries won’t undo your saturated fat intake for the day. However, think of your fries in the context of the full meal. Often, fries are served alongside meaty burgers, steak, and chicken wings, which contain saturated fat as well. For example, the classic burger from Applebee’s has 16 grams of saturated fat, so your meal would exceed 19 grams when combined with the fries.
Perhaps the main concern with your French fries is actually the sodium. A high-sodium diet is one of the biggest influences on blood pressure, and it can increase your risk of heart disease and heart failure. (Here are other effects of a high-salt diet.) The AHA suggests sticking to 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day—or at the most, 2,300 milligrams.
Here’s how much sodium is in some of America’s favorite fries.
Even a small order of fries can make up a third—or even a half—or your recommended daily sodium intake. If you opt for a large size, your sodium count will be in trouble. A large order of those famous Arby’s curly fries contains 1,480 milligrams of sodium. #Yikes.
Few people eat their French fries naked (regarding the fries, anyway). Most fry dips are pretty harmless, but they can add up. Ketchup—arguably a fry’s best friend—contains about 15 calories and 160 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. If you’re the kind of person that needs multiple pumps of ketchup for your fry order, that sodium can quickly hit 400 milligrams, matching the amount in the fries themselves.
Another popular dip for your fry is mayo. Although lower in sodium, mayonnaise is significantly higher in calories and fat. One tablespoon of mayo contains 100 calories and 11 grams of fat. If you dipped a small order of fries from White Castle into two tablespoons of mayo, you’d end up with 530 calories and 43 grams of fat—and that’s just for your side order.
So when it comes to dipping, proceed with caution. Try to stick to a single tablespoon to keep calories, sodium, and saturated fat to a reasonable level.
Remember, French fries aren’t all bad. Just like potatoes themselves, you can get some useful nutrients. Russet potatoes are one of the top food sources of potassium, and they’re also a good source of fiber and even protein.
As with any food, balance and portion control are key. “It’s important that if you really want a French fry that you do eat it, in moderation of course,” says Amidor. If you’re looking to add fries to your meal, consider what else is on your plate—not only for that meal but also the entire day. The healthiest option is always to make it yourself, of course. Then you have the option to bake them, which should save you calories as long as you don’t go overboard on oil. Try jazzing up your home-baked fries: Amidor likes adding Cajun seasoning and Sriracha to his fries, “which adds a delicious, spicy twist to baked fries.” You can also make sweet potato fries for a fun variation.
But sometimes, you just want the real thing. “If you are eating French fries, then complement them with a non-starchy vegetable like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or string beans,” says Amidor. Here are more examples of non-starchy vegetables to add to your plate.
Treat your fries as the main starch of the meal and go easy on additional carbs. “Drink lots of water with lemon and say no to bread during the meal,” says Fitzgibbon. Although French fries tend to get demonized on the reg, they’re fine in moderation—just like any treat food.
Try to stick to baked fries at home to keep cravings at bay, but every now and then, go ahead and get your Fryday on.