I got the column idea somewhere in the middle of Iowa, right after I took an exit ramp off Interstate 80 and pulled into Arby's. The nice gentleman at the drive-thru window handed me a large order of Arby's original curly fries. I started devouring them before I left the parking lot.
These curly fries are so good, I thought as I sped west toward home. These things should be renamed curly crack. These golden-brown circles are sexier than Don Draper and both Draper wives combined.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, my euphoria vanished. It disappeared at precisely the moment the last curly fry disappeared into my digestive tract.
I sat sullenly in the driver's seat as Top 40 played on the radio and a greasy Arby's bag silently rode shotgun. I sat sullenly, and I thought: What makes us so attracted to the fast-food french fry, even though we know it is so, so bad for us?
I threw the bag away, hiding the evidence in a random trash can so my wife wouldn't discover it.
And then, a couple of days later, I started dialing people who know far more than I about the Almighty French Fried Potato.
First, let's review with our panel of experts exactly how bad that large order of Arby's original curly fries was for me.
I ingested 630 calories and 35 grams of fat, according to the nutritional information provided by the fast-food restaurant.
“Let's take the 2,000 calorie average,” says Kristyn Lassek, the operations director for clinical nutrition at Alegent Creighton Health. “Thirty percent of your calories are supposed to come from fat.”
At this point, I hear her punching numbers into her calculator.
“Yep,” she says. “That's about half the fat. … You ate over half (of your daily allotted fat) just for those fries.”
It gets worse, actually, because the number that jumps out both to Lassek and Dr. Daniel Anderson, a UNMC cardiologist, is this: 1,420. That's the number of milligrams of sodium I took down along with my delicious curly fries.
“In the short term, that doesn't cause much trouble,” Anderson said. “In the long term (too much sodium) contributes to high blood pressure … so you are at greater risk for stroke, heart attack, other problems.”
Other problems, like the increased risk of getting severely depressed by this conversation.
Alexander Pavlista gets depressed when people tie the nutritional nightmare of the french fry to the crop from which french fries are made.
Pavlista, a longtime agronomy professor at the University of Nebraska's Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, is the state's foremost expert on the potato. (Yes, Nebraska has a foremost expert on the potato.)
The potato comes out of the ground high in potassium and vitamin C. Eat a potato, Pavlista said, and we are receiving every essential amino acid.
But take off a potato's skin, where many of the nutrients can be found, slice it, fry it at high temperatures in oil, add large amounts of sugar and salt, freeze it, transport it and then fry it at high temperatures in oil yet again and, well, that's a different story, isn't it?
“This is something we keep trying to tell people,” said Pavlista, who has co-authored several articles on the production of french fries and potato chips. “It is not the baked potato that is bad for you. Stop and think about it … do vegetables have fat? No, they don't!”
So we have established that eating a large order of Arby's curly fries isn't the best idea. (Neither is the potato dish at many high-end restaurants, Dr. Anderson notes — many defile the tuber with cream, sugar, butter and salt.)
So why do we eat those fries anyway? Estimates say that each American eats, on average, 29 pounds of these little sticks of badness each year.
The answer comes from the mists of history, back before we invented the wheel, attached four to a car and sped to the nearest drive-thru.
The prehistoric, hunter-gatherer versions of us had to fight constantly to get enough food to stay alive. In that environment, the body became an efficient storage unit for fat — fat that could be used when food got scarce.
Thus, our ancient relatives began to crave food high in fat and calories. They craved it because they liked to stay living.
Several millennia later, I no longer have to kill a saber-toothed tiger with a spear in order to enjoy lunch. Society has changed to the point where I can find food at any one of dozens of Dodge Street fast-food joints.
But I still have that craving, a cute little relic of human evolution.
When I ate those fries, a variety of what Lassek calls “happy hormones” flooded my brain, giving me a deep yet short-lived sense of satisfaction. She has seen brain scans of heroin addicts and people who have just consumed really fatty food. They look remarkably similar.
“It's that strong pull, you can think of it as an addiction,” she said. “Those fries stimulate the brain's pleasure centers. In that way it's the same exact thing.”
Anderson, the cardiologist, knows this all too well, he tells me during our phone interview.
Studies show that most heart patients don't change their diets — not even after they have a heart attack, a major bypass or open-heart surgery. So Anderson doesn't mince words when he meets with patients after their heart surgeries.
“If you don't change, statistically speaking, you are going to be dead in five years,” he tells me, recreating his post-operative talks with patients. “There's more than a 50-50 chance you aren't going to see your son graduate, and you aren't going to meet your grandchild. Is that what you want?”
How do they react to that?
“A lot of people get upset,” he said. “Some people thank me later.”
I thank Anderson for talking to me, and I hang up the phone.
It's time for lunch. I am so getting a salad.