Fair Food: Calorie Shockers

The scary truth about foods found at fairs, festivals, and amusement parks.

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on October 03, 2022
3 min read

We know: You weren’t exactly thinking that fall fair food would be good for you. It’s not like you eat it every day. But if you’re tracking your nutrition, be forewarned: It’s going to set you back. 

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  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 Lona Sandon, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. ''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 stats 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.

Common sense tells you to stay away from deep fried cheesecake. But 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.

You do have some healthier options.

"You can find healthier choices on the menus at the state 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)." 

Dietitians also offer these tips:

  • 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.
  • Check out all the offerings first, then choose three items to enjoy over the course of the day.
  • Ask for an extra plate and share your food choices. 

The real problem with fair and festival food, dietitians say, is mindless eating. That's what happens when you're walking and talking. 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," Palumbo says.

What about all the steps you log as you walk all day at the fair or festival? Unfortunately, it's not likely to counteract the fried food calories. So if you're going to indulge, just factor that in.