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Regular consumption of deep-fried foods plays a role in many health concerns and in diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. That's a high price to pay for a few minutes of taste satisfaction. But are we really aware of what we're eating?

Deep-fried foods are not only high in calories and fat; they contain very little nutrient value and can be high in harmful trans fats and saturated fat; they can also contain a potentially carcinogenic compound called acrylamide.

Acryla-what?

When a high carbohydrate, low protein food is cooked at a high temperature it creates a chemical compound called acrylamide. French fries and potato chips are among the foods with the highest acrylamide levels. Although the impact of acrylamide in humans is not fully understood, it has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. Health Canada does recommend minimizing your intake of acrylamide foods (including all deep-fried foods); officials are also working to regulate the amount of acrylamide found in foods. 

More is not always better

Deep frying packs calories into foods …and pounds onto you. Fat is calorically dense, containing 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates contain only 4 calories per gram-so it doesn't take much for the calories to add up in high fat food.

Food that is cooked in fat is going to contain more calories than non-fried food without any additional nutritional value. Consider this: a large order of French fries from a fast food restaurant contains 539 calories, 29 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 7 g trans fat, and 328 mg sodium. Homemade oven baked fries contain only 161 calories, 0 g fat, and 8 mg sodium.

It pays to discriminate

Not all fats are created equal. Trans fats are garbage to the body, causing clogging of the arteries; they have been linked to cancer. They are produced through a process called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation, which changes the chemical makeup of vegetable oil and produces a more stable solid or semi-solid product such as shortening or a hydrogenated oil.

Trans fats were developed to add flavour and extend shelf life to food. Many commercial baked goods, crackers, microwave popcorns and deep-fried foods contain trans fats. The good news is that many food producers have eliminated trans fats from their foods but beware: read the labels and ask for nutritional information.

Another culprit when it comes to heart disease is saturated fat. Your body does require a small amount, but much less than what is found in many deep-fried foods. Saturated fat is found in animal products, palm and coconut oils and the partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated vegetable oils often used in deep fryers. This creates a saturated fat double whammy, because many deep-fried foods such as hamburgers and chicken with skin are high in saturated fat to begin with. 

Quantity and quality

Fat is an essential part of your diet, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Focus on quality as well as quantity. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3s) in small amounts are essential to the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, promote heart health, contribute to brain development, and have the potential to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Sources of these fats include safflower, olive and canola oils and non-hydrogenated margarines, nuts and seeds.

What's an appropriate serving? A quarter cup of nuts or seeds or 2-3 tbsp of oil a day. Deep-fried foods well surpass this recommendation-unless you can eat just one small serving.

Food is meant to be enjoyed-so all this is not to say that you should never enjoy another deep-fried food; it just shouldn't be eaten regularly. Make your food count and fuel your body with the nourishment it requires to work to its full potential. Enjoyable, flavourful food does not require a deep fryer; it all comes down to allowing your taste buds to adjust to lower fat foods, and to knowing some flavourful ingredients you can add to replace that greasy taste.

The best way to control what you eat is to make the food yourself and to use low fat cooking methods such as baking, broiling, and grilling so you can  watch the added fat. If you can't go homemade, be aware of the nutritional information, and try to make healthier choices.

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