People go to festivals and fairs to enjoy the rides, games, animals, and bake-offs. But what really attracts the crowds is the food -- especially the fried food. And these days, the food at fairs, festivals, and amusement parks is scarier than the tilt-a-whirl or roller coaster! WebMD spoke to nutrition experts to get the truth about fat and calories in food at the fair.
Deep-Fried Diet Disasters
Food was no doubt served at festivals even before the nation's first state fair, held in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1841. But it was in 1904, at the St. Louis World's Fair, that fairgoers were introduced to the first real ''fast food'' -- hot dogs and ice cream cones that could be eaten as they walked, according to the statefairrecipes.com web site.
Since then, fair food has progressed way beyond caramel apples, corn on the cob, and nachos. There appears to be no end to what can be battered and deep fried -- cookies, candy bars, cheese curds, macaroni and cheese, pralines, chocolate-covered strawberries, even cola (the last made with a cola-sweetened batter that's deep fried and topped with cola syrup and powdered sugar). The Minnesota State fair, for one, boasts 54 varieties of food on a stick at this year's fair.
Most nutrition databases don't include fat and calorie values for such foods. But according to Lona Sandon, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, you can count on these foods to have a shockingly high level of fat and calories.
''My educated guess is a serving of fried cola dough, whipped cream and Coke syrup on top is roughly 830 calories,'' says Sandon. ''The fried macaroni and cheese is approximately 610 calories; the fried cheesecake in the ballpark of 500 calories; a fried praline will come in around 350 calories; and a tortilla-wrapped hot dog and cheese from the fryer about 550 calories.''
Here are more frightening nutritional figures, from the Calorie King web site, about fat and calories in food at the fair or festival:
- Fried Snickers (5 oz.): 444 calories and 29 grams (g) fat
- Fried Twinkie (2 oz.): 420 calories/34 g fat
- Funnel cake (1): 760 calories/44 g fat
- Twinkie Dog Sundae: 500 calories/14 g fat
- Cotton candy: 171 calories/0 fat
- Fried cheesecake (6 oz.): 655 calories/47 g fat
- Foot-long hot dog and bun: 470 calories/26 g fat
- Giant turkey leg: 1,136 calories/54 g fat
"Eating at a fair or festival can wreak havoc on your waistline because it is so easy to consume thousands of calories," says Christine Palumbo, RD.
The Truth About Trans Fats
Common sense tells you to stay away from deep fried cheesecake. But in some states, like Indiana, they have decided to follow the lead of New York and KFC and try to make fried foods healthier by banning cooking oils containing trans fats.
Even without trans fats, however, fried foods are not exactly low in calories or fat.
"Using trans fat-free cooking oil is certainly better. But no matter how you look at it, that doughnut is still a doughnut and it is still fried, and anytime you fry foods you pump up the fat and calories," says Joan Salge-Blake, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Fair Food Choices
So just what can a health-conscious person find to eat and drink at fairs, festivals, and amusement parks?
"You can find healthier choices on the menus at the state fair. Cotton candy, also knows as spun sugar, is among the least offensive foods at the fair," says New-York based nutrition expert Bonnie Taub-Dix, MS, RD. "Look for fruits, vegetables, lean meats, pickles, corn on the cob (hold the butter) -- even caramel apples are better than most fried foods."
There are more options than there used to be, at least at Disney amusement parks, says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA, an associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"Fruit and water carts are all over the parks showcasing chilled, cut fresh fruit that kids and adults love, especially on hot days, along with cold water and sugar-free drinks," says Ayoob, who served as a nutrition consultant to Disney.
You can still get burgers and fries, but Disney is featuring healthier kids' meals, such as lean wraps paired with choices of fruit and veggies and water, juice, or low-fat milk.
Dietitians also offer these tips to help take the scare out of fair foods:
- Don't arrive hungry. Eat before you go so you can limit your food to a few treats instead of grazing on food all day long.
- Go early in the morning, when you may be less likely to be enticed by the aromas of food.
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated, especially when the weather is hot.
- Check out all the offerings first, then choose three items over the course of the day.
- Ask for an extra plate and share your food choices. This way, you can taste a variety of foods without doing too much damage, says Palumbo.
The real problem with fair and festival food, dietitians say, is mindless eating. That's what happens when you're walking and talking, and before you know it, that food on a stick has disappeared.
"It is better to find a place to sit down, enjoy the food, eat it slowly so you can recognize when you are full," says Palumbo.
But, you ask, what about all the miles you log as you walk all day at the fair or festival?
Unfortunately, it's most likely not enough to counteract the fried food calorie explosion, says Washington, D.C., weight loss expert Katherine Tallmadge, RD.
"One of my clients went to a theme park for a week with her kids, and despite logging 20,000 steps a day, she still gained 5 pounds!" she reports.