Want fries with that? Think twice.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2006

Americans eat an average of 4 servings of french fries every week — more than 50 pounds per year. Other countries aren't far behind. New Chinese capitalists are matching our appetite for french fries and other fast foods. Belgians serve them with mayonnaise.

Kids in Hong Kong are switching from noodles to fries at a fattening rate.

Maybe it's no coincidence that obesity and its fellow-traveler, type 2 diabetes, are also increasing rapidly in all Western and wannabe-Western societies. Obesity has tripled in the United Kingdom since 1985 and it has done the same in China since as recently as 1990.

Why am I picking on french fries when there are so many candidates that we can blame for the health problems of the Western world?

First, they are a prime example of a manipulated food almost without equal. The second reason is that french fries are everywhere. It's a rare American menu that doesn't list french fries. Third, french fries are a nutritional disaster. Sorry, but there are few foods that contribute as significantly to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The potato is a nutritionally valuable food, a generous provider of carbohydrate, protein and fiber. The very little fat that it contains is a healthy polyunsaturated type.

It's a good source of several B vitamins and vitamin C as well as magnesium, potassium and other needed minerals. Left to itself it has almost no sodium.

The carbohydrate in a potato enters the bloodstream rather quickly when it's mature and baked but much more slowly when it's new and boiled. Per ounce it contains half as many calories as rice or white bread. Further, eating it with the skin slows down the rise in blood sugar.

But what a transformation when we deep-fry it! French fries are made from naked potatoes. Removing the skin doesn't eliminate all the nutrients but you wouldn't last long on what is called the pulp. In contrast, whole potatoes would make a pretty good survival food. Our kids must think that it is; one-quarter of the vegetables in their diet consists of french fries.

McDonald's, the world's most successful fast food vendor, uses vegetable oil to make their french fries. Unfortunately nearly a quarter of the fat is trans fat, which gives fries great taste and appearance but has a harmful effect on the lining of blood vessels. The fat that is used for deep frying forms other toxic substances after a few hours and these can also harm that sensitive lining.

Finally, salt gives fries even better flavor but adds to the health risk. Americans already eat twice as much salt as they need and it is a major contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Cutting way back on french fries might be the hardest change to make in your diet. At more than 500 calories for a large serving at McDonald's it might also be one of the most important.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.