Health Team

State Fair wreaking havoc on your diet?

Posted October 23, 2008 5:23 p.m. EDT
Updated October 24, 2008 10:33 a.m. EDT

— The food at the North Carolina State Fair has evolved over the years from traditional favorites like cotton candy, hot dogs, snow cones and funnel cakes to deep-fried creations using cheesecake, candy bars, Twinkies – and even macaroni and cheese.

In a world where the wise advice is to watch calories, carbs and fats, we all know that a majority of fair food can wreak havoc on your diet.

But even with knowing that, Tara Wind, a registered dietitian at Life Time Fitness in Cary, says you might be surprised at just how many calories you could easily pack on during one fair visit and how that one visit could get you off track with your health and fitness plan – if you’re not careful.

“Most of the foods you find at a fair have 500 to 1,000-plus calories (fried macaroni and cheese has at least 600 calories) that can easily outdo a week’s worth of exercise or weight-loss efforts,” she says. “Not to mention, it may be hard to get back to eating healthy and following an exercise and meal plan afterward.”

Being armed with a little knowledge and planning ahead, however, Wind says most people can still have fun, enjoy the same food and minimize the “damage” to their nutrition plans.

Wind offers these suggestions when planning your visit:

  • Eat really healthy in the day or days leading up to the fair. “This means lots of color in your diet, with fruits and vegetables for every meal.”
  • Avoid high-fat foods, including fast food.
  • “Don't skip meals either,” she says. “This can weaken your defenses and make you eat more at the fair than you intended.”
  • Exercise as much or a little more than you normally would.
  • If you have health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, get advice from your doctor or nutritionist. “Most likely, that will be to avoid high-salt, high-fat and high-sugar foods.”
  • Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Don’t arrive at the fair hungry.
  • Take friends with you and split the food.
  • Set a food budget and take just enough cash. “Leave your ATM card at home, and if you run out of money, tough turkey!”

Wind also recommends educating yourself on the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates in what you’re thinking about eating. Keep in mind that 3,500 calories equals one pound.

And even though you might not eat the fair’s deep-fried treats on a regular basis, remember that they can be damaging to your body.

“Even consuming some of these products in moderation – more than once per year or on any kind of regular basis – can be damaging,” she says. “The saturated fat and trans fat content of some of these items is more than you should get in a week or two.”

Also, try to avoid sugary drinks, like lemonade, icees, smoothies and soda – all of which can add up to hundreds of empty calories and leave you feeling hungry and, in the long-term, tired. Instead, go for water – or, if you must, diet soda.

"A large soda (32 ounces), for example, has 400 calories and is the equivalent of 25 teaspoons of sugar," Wind says.

But what to eat? With all the options and even after all your research, it might still prove difficult to choose what to eat.

Wind says that making wise decisions is key, because most foods are high in fat, salt and sugar.

Cheese fries and the fried onion mum top her list of some of the worst foods to eat, followed by fried cheesecake and fried pecan pie.

"Both have too many calories and fat before they even get to the fryer," Wind says.

And a turkey leg, she says, has more than 1,100 calories, nearly half of which is fat – enough calories to split between four people.

Her top recommendations:

  • Ostrich burger – “It’s lean, with only about 5 grams of fat per burger, less than 200 calories, including the bun.”
  • Corn on the cob
  • Caramel apple
  • Hot dog with bun – “Not that I am recommending you eat a hot dog, but it has only about 200 calories and 15 grams of fat compared with 500 calories and 30 grams of fat in a Polish sausage with bun and toppings.”
  • Chocolate-covered frozen fruit (bananas or strawberries)
  • Cotton candy – one serving. (A bag can have more than 1,000 calories.)

One last point: Wind warns people not to be fooled into thinking they can easily burn off calories just by walking around the fairground.

"If only it was that easy," she says.

Eating a tiny slice of pumpkin pie over the holidays equates to the average person walking at 4 mph on the treadmill at a 4-degree incline for 30 minutes.

"And that has nowhere near the calories that most of the fair foods have," Wind says. "Depending on how often and what intensity a person is walking at, it could take days of workouts to burn off the amount of calories they consume at the fair."