The salty flavor, the crunch, the fat. There’s really nothing like biting into a piece of fried chicken, or fried mozzarella, or fried… anything really. The satisfaction of digging into a big greasy plate of fries is real, but so is the sluggish feeling that comes after. But we’re not here to tell you to give up your favorite dishes, only to swap them for fried food alternatives that capture the crunch and flavor with fewer health consequences.
Why exactly is fried food bad for you?
Maybe you’re familiar with that feeling of a food coma after a plate of chicken fingers. Or that over-full feeling when you just can’t stop eating a plate of french fries. Nutritionist Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS explains, “Fried foods are hyper-palatable. The combination of fat, salt, and carbohydrates activates the reward center of the brain. This can bypass our feeling of fullness and lead to overeating.” Been there. Fried foods also require more energy for your body to digest overall, Scheller tells us.
The flour, breading, and hydrogenated vegetable oils in fried foods are a recipe for potential bad health. Eating white flour can cause insulin spikes which may lead to inflammation and can complicate other conditions like type 2 diabetes. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (like the ones found in fried foods) has been shown to contribute to risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular events.
The technique of frying can also add to the unhealthy side effects. “Deep frying uses higher temperatures than some other forms of cooking, which can promote the formation of compounds called Advanced Glycation End Products,” according to Scheller. If AGEs sound ominous to you, you’re onto something: High levels have been linked to increased risk inflammation and cardiovascular disease in some studies.
Strategies for your fried food alternatives
Fried food alternatives can still be tasty, but they substitute the bad stuff (hydrogenated oils, added calories, AEGs) for more nutrient-dense ingredients.
We rounded up a few alternative frying techniques our chefs use to keep the crisp and flavor of fried foods, without the extra fat and carbs that leave us ready for a long winter’s nap.
1. Choose your breading wisely
What you lose: Fried foods are typically dredged in milk or egg, and then coated with refined wheat flour, seasonings, and sometimes even artificial flavor enhancers. By cutting those out, you’re eliminating processed ingredients that can be difficult for your body to digest, according to Scheller.
What you gain: Refined flours are processed in a way that removes key nutrients. Instead, we like to use in dishes like our Homestyle Chicken. Almonds pack nutrients like fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E, which can boost your immune and digestive systems — while still giving you that satisfying coating with a slightly-nutty flavor.
2. Try oven frying
The alternative technique: Sometimes fried food alternatives are about the technique, not the ingredients. Ditch the messy pan of oil for a baker’s sheet in the oven.
What you lose: With the alternative technique of oven-frying, you can ditch the AGE products. AGE products that result from frying in high temperatures can have some pretty negative side effects including increased risk inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
What you gain: By oven frying (like we do in our Sicilian-Style Chicken Parm), you get to keep the crisp-factor and the flavor of your traditionally fried foods. You’ll also eliminate some of the potentially negative impacts of high-heat cooking.
3. Pay attention to your oil
The alternative technique: This is probably the easiest way to switch to a fried food alternative. Choose a high quality, heat stable oil, like a non-GMO expeller pressed canola oil or olive oil over the more highly processed vegetable oils that are often used in frying.
What you lose: Potential inflammation. Here's the deal: Different oils have different breakdowns of fats—there are “good” and “bad” types of fat, according to Scheller. Consuming high amounts of unhealthy (bad) fats found in low quality vegetable oils such as corn and soybean and other chemically extracted oils, like canola oil (also found in ultra-processed, packaged foods) can contribute to increased levels of inflammation. In the short run, inflammation can lead to swelling or pain, but in the long run, may lead to higher risk for disease.
What you gain: Depends on which oil you pick: Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats (the good kind!) and may help improve heart health, according to the Mayo Clinic. High-quality expeller pressed canola oil has a higher amount of omega 3 fatty acids, which are extremely important to support the brain, heart, digestion, skin, and more.
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