A day of eating at the Minnesota State Fairby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Sure Minnesotans go to the State Fair for the rides and the animal exhibits, but the main attraction for most people is the food. You can choose from more than 60 different items served on a stick, and most of it isn't what you'd call health food.
So, I decided to take on a mission. For one day I ate nothing but fair food, and plenty of it. We wanted to know how eating all that deep-fried fare would affect me physically.
The morning of my state fair binge began at the Mill City Clinic in downtown Minneapolis, where Medical Assistant Catherine Robbins drew a tiny vial of blood from my left arm.
I'd been fasting for 12 hours, so we could establish my baseline cholesterol level. It takes just seven minutes for a countertop machine called a Piccolo to spit out my results.
"This is considered to be a little elevated," Robbins said, as she scrutinized the small slip of paper with my numbers on it.
My LDL -- the bad cholesterol -- is above the normal range. So are my triglyceride levels and my overall cholesterol score. I started to have misgivings about spending the day pounding deep fried cheese curds.
But this was for science, and breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
That means bacon and eggs. Bacon at the fair comes in a quarter-pound serving size, with plenty of grease to leaven the fat. Eggs come hard-boiled, wrapped in sausage, rolled in bread crumbs and fried in a vat of boiling oil. Both items are served on a stick.
I washed it down with lemonade, and follow it with a crepe, whipped cream and blueberries.
I may have been the only person at the fair carrying a food scale. It helped help with calculating the calories. The crepe comes to 9.5 ounces and about 700 calories.
At the fair, there is no need to break between breakfast and lunch. They run together like horseradish and maple syrup on a Scotch egg.
I waddled up to Bayou Bob's Gator Shack and demanded one deep-fried gator on a stick. The girl behind the counter shook her head. I can get gator on a stick, but there's a catch.
"It won't be deep fried," she informed me earnestly.
I told her to forget the stick. Luckily, next door they have one of the only foods that actually grow on one -- buttered sweet corn.
It's roasted in great steel ovens and then dipped in crock pots of butter, pepper and water.
"To make it go further so we don't have to use as much," said the teenager who handed me my ear. That kept my cholesterol in check, until my next stop.
"Deep fried Twinkies," Shawn Leake hollered at the top of his lungs. "Don't be scared. Get your Twink on. You feel me dog?"
As long as I was eating things dipped in batter and dunked in oil, I helped myself to a Pronto Pup hotdog. I snagged some cheese curds, and Sweet Martha's cookies, too. For dinner I try to go healthy; a pork chop and, believe it or not, a Greek salad.
I sent a list of everything I ate, along with precise weights and descriptions to Therese Liffrig and Carrie Earthman, two dieticians at the University of Minnesota. With the help of a graduate student, they estimated I consumed about 6,400 calories during my one day at the fair.
Earthman called it a "ballpark" estimate, but even if it's close, that's about 2.5 times my recommended daily allowance, with almost four times the salt and six times the saturated fat. But what I find out when I get my post-fair blood test is even more surprising.
"Oh my God, your cholesterol is down from yesterday," said Catherine Robbins staring at the results of my second lipid panel. "You're in the good zone."
I go from an elevated to a normal cholesterol reading, even though just about everything I ate the day before was drenched in fryolator oil.
"I don't know how to explain this," said Dr. John Hallberg, MPR's medical analyst and who helped design the experiment. "This is so not what I was expecting. I'm sure there's some physiologic way to explain this, I just don't know how to do it."
Hallberg and the nutritionists I talked to said the lesson is this: There's nothing wrong with gorging yourself on greasy food for a day, as long as you're otherwise healthy and it's just one day. But they also said that if you don't want to gain weight from that State Fair binge, you'd better be prepared to eat less and exercise more for the next week.
Believe me. I will.
- Morning Edition, 09/01/2009, 8:40 a.m.