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Harvard 'French Fry Guy' Holds His Ground About Cutting Down

Just... six fries? (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Just... six fries? (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Clearly, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor Eric Rimm struck a nerve. A big nerve, among the "You'll pry my French fries from my cold dead hands" set.

His crime: In an interview for a New York Times story about fries, he suggested that French fry servings in restaurants tend to be too big, adding, “I think it would be nice if your meal came with a side salad and six French fries.”

Amid the telephone-game distortions of the content cycle, some commenters interpreted his remark as meaning the correct serving size for French fries is six, and piled on.

On Wednesday, Rimm spoke with WBUR's Deborah Becker on Radio Boston; here's an edited transcript:

Becker: So six French fries — is that even realistic?

Rimm: Well, it wasn't meant as a hard-and-fast rule. What I meant was that it would be nice to have alternatives at restaurants. And when I was asked to give a quote about a recent study, I said well, some people may want to order a whole huge large order of fries. I like fries just like the next guy. But sometimes I'd like to have kale chips, but I kind of miss having those fries, so having a few on the side of the kale chips wouldn't be so bad. So that's where the six came from.

So are you surprised? This is like a social media tsunami now. I heard somebody criticize you for calling French fries a weapon of dietary destruction. And you know Padma Lakshmi tweeted that "I don't have time for this kind of negativity right now." Are you surprised by the backlash?

I have to say I am a bit surprised. I'm in London at a diet meeting and a lot of the newspapers here are calling me a Harvard monster. I knew that people love fries. I didn't realize that I would hit that deep of a vein.

And you did respond in Vanity Fair: Am I really a monster? So give us your defense.

I'm all about freedom of choice. If you want your fries, go for it. You know, a large order of fries at most fast food restaurants are over 500 calories. If you want that, go for it. It's like swigging down three or four cans of soda in a pretty fast time.

I come at this out of just experience. I love the flavor of it. Everybody's had fries when they were 3 or 4 years old, so that just gives you that warm feeling of your childhood. But 10 minutes after I get up from a table, after having a sandwich where fries were served me and I've eaten all of them, I think, Oh, what have I done?

So my defense starts with just my own anecdotal story, but the science is pretty strong for too many french fries leading to weight gain, diabetes and really a lot of metabolic diseases.

So tell us a bit about about the science and why French fries are so bad. And there's poutine, waffle fries, sweet potato fries. Does the type of French fry matter?

There really aren't differences. Sweet potato fries are orange so they have some carotenoids in them. But for the most part, the starch in potatoes is going to be starch, and that gets absorbed into your bloodstream faster than sugar, because the starch breaks down immediately when it hits your tongue, it breaks into glucose, and it's just straight glucose going into your bloodstream.

Over the long term, that's just not good for people, and especially as people get older and put on weight. The more weight you carry, the more your body is resistant to that glucose, and that's why people get diabetes.

In our country, the rates of obesity have not stopped going up; the rates of diabetes have not stopped going up. So I'm not saying everybody should take them out of our food supply, but it certainly would be a good place to start to cut back a bit. It's not all or nothing — cut back a bit. Everybody loves that flavor and taste, and they're thrown at us in commercials nonstop, so people are constantly reminded of it. It just doesn't need to be there at every meal, and just a few sometimes satisfy that desire.

So you're not backing down.

I'm not backing down from this one. You know, I wasn't out there looking for a fight. I got called for an interview and sort of put out that hope, or that wish, that I'd like to have alternatives at a restaurant. I think we should put out the six-fry challenge to get restaurants to come up with alternatives, instead of just saying, "That sandwich comes with fries, sweet potato fries or coleslaw, or you can get an up-charge of $3 for a salad."

It shouldn't be just all or nothing. Let's come up with creative ways. I'll let you guys call out "the six -fry challenge," but I think it would be a great way to reduce the amount of French fries consumed in this country.

Somehow, after what's happened with this, I don't think it's going to be like an ice bucket challenge.

Well if we could raise one millionth of the amount of money they raised, that would be a great way to start. I agree with you, I think most ice buckets will be turned on my head on this.

Some folks listening might say, "All right, maybe we eat a lot of fries, but it's enjoyable. Everything in moderation. I might have a plate of fries once in a while. What's so bad about that?"

Thirty percent of the "vegetables" eaten in our country are potatoes, and a lot of those are chips or French fries, so those shouldn't count as vegetables anymore. I agree: freedom of choice. Go for it. It's yours for the taking. Just don't think this counts as a serving of vegetables because your body does not treat it that way.

So I agree. Every once in a while if you want one, that's great. Just know what it's doing. Remember how it feels afterwards, so maybe those occasions will be fewer and farther between as time goes on.

Let me make one plea. I think for adults, go for it, if you want to have them and you hate professors from Harvard who live in their bubble, I can understand that. But if you're a parent and you have a 4- or 5-year-old, of course they're going to love that taste, and if you're somewhere and they want an order of fries, it makes them feel good, I think that's the wrong way to make our kids feel good. And we're going to train them the same way that our parents trained us.

So come up with alternatives. Don't serve them as many. I think parents need to be more creative. Every parent does — I'm not an exception to that. Please don't just feed them as your only vegetable to your 3- to 8-year-old children.

Some folks listening are saying, what's next? Ketchup is not a vegetable?

Someone else went before me on that....

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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