Fair season in Wisconsin is in full swing and with it comes endless options of foods on a stick and decadent sweets. Amidst the cream puffs, corn dogs and fried dough, there are healthy food options if you know what to look for. Andrea Dietz, RD, CD, a registered dietitian with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network, offers some tips to stick to healthy habits on the fairgrounds.

“It is possible to consume more than twice your daily intake of calories at a fair,” Dietz said. “If you keep a few simple strategies in mind, you can avoid that.”

Choose baked or grilled foods

Choosing your food based on how it is cooked is important if you’re looking for a lower-calorie option. Fat contains more than double the number of calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. One gram of fat provides nine calories, compared to four calories in one gram of protein or carbohydrate.

Baked and grilled foods will be lower in fat and calories than anything fried, even if the food is considered “lean,” like a chicken breast. A 3-ounce portion of chicken breast is about 120 calories. The same portion, deep-fried, is about 220 calories.

“By deep-frying the chicken breast, the oil adds fat to the food,” Dietz said. “Steam from the chicken escapes and oil soaks in.”

Eating baked or grilled foods instead of fried foods is also better for your overall health. Fried foods are associated with a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, all risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Researchers at Harvard analyzed data from more than 100,000 people and found those who ate fried food four to six times a week had a 39 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes than people who ate fried food once a week. For people who ate fried food seven or more times a week, the risk increased to 55 percent. Even people who ate fried food once a week were at a greater risk of having heart disease and type 2 diabetes. [1] The research also showed that eating fried foods away from home (where it may be more common practice to reuse frying oil) presented the most risk because the oil becomes more degraded and is absorbed more into the food with each use.

Not all carbohydrates are alike

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and are our primary source of energy. They’re not an inherently bad choice if you are watching your waistline, but the type of carbohydrate you consume matters. Vegetables, fruits, unprocessed whole grains and beans contain fiber, which slows the digestive process and helps you feel full. Because dietary fiber is not able to be broken down by the body and used for energy, high fiber foods tend to give a larger volume while being lower in calories. At the fair, good choices include corn, baked potatoes (without the calorie-laden, high-fat toppings) and fruit.

“Fruit kebobs are plentiful at county and state fairs,” Dietz said. “Some are chocolate-covered or fried, which are not as healthy as the plain ones. However, overall, they are a good snack choice.”

Hydrate with water

Dietz recommends drinking at least 16 ounces (two cups) of water before you arrive at the fairgrounds and continuously hydrating throughout the day.

“Drinking water before a meal increases one’s feeling of fullness and suppresses appetite,” Dietz said.

Research published in the European Journal of Nutrition studied the impact of water consumption on young men immediately before a meal. Those who drank 2½ cups of water immediately before eating felt fuller, more satisfied and ate 22 percent fewer calories than those who did not drink water before eating.[2] For older adults (60-85 years old), another study found water consumption 30 minutes before a meal resulted in similar benefits.[3]

While drinking alcohol might make you feel full, it will not curb your appetite. A study compared calorie consumption of people who drank 16 ounces of wine before a meal to those who drank 16 ounces of juice before a meal. Those who drank wine ate 30 percent more calories than those who did not. [4]

Know your portion sizes

Cheese curds and cream puffs might be calling your name, but for these high-fat, and high-calorie items, portion control is a must.

Dietz recommends familiarizing yourself with these easy-to-remember serving sizes:

  • 1 cup: two palmfuls or the size of a baseball
  • 1/2 cup: one big palmful or the size of a tennis ball
  • 1/3 cup: a handful
  • 1/4 cup: similar to the size of two ping pong balls
  • 3 ounces (the appropriate serving of a piece of meat): about the size of a deck of cards

You may consider splitting the food with a friend to cut down the portion size, but Dietz’s advice is don’t save it for later.

“If you are going to enjoy a high-calorie food, have that experience at the fair,” Dietz said. “Bringing the food home with you (like a box of cream puffs) could get in the way of healthy habits later on.”

Nutrition Chart for State Fair Foods

State Fair Food Serving Calories Protein Grams Carb Grams Sugar Grams Fiber Grams Fat Grams
Beer-Battered, Pretzel-Coated Cheese Curds (coated in a batter made of pilsner beer, crushed pretzels and panko bread crumbs, and then deep-fried and served with a zesty Caribbean sauce) 4 oz. 640 31 71 1.1 1.5 39
Cheese Curds 4 oz. 415 19 17 2 0 31
Loaded Potato Bomb (cheesy mashed potatoes, rolled, breaded, deep-fried and injected with amber beer turkey gravy) 3/4 cup 445 9.6 43 5.2 3.3 23.4
Baked Potato 1 medium
(2.5" diameter)
165 4.6 37 2 4 0.2
Flamin’ Hot Corn on the Cob (ear of corn that is skewered, deep-fried and then dipped into a spiced mayo cream and dusted with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos®) 1 ear 630 6.1 37 6.5 3.5 52
Corn on the Cob (unbuttered) 1 ear 60 2 14.1 2 2 0.5
Deep-Fried Bananas (dipped in batter and deep-fried to golden perfection) 1 medium banana 375 3 51 18 3.6 19
Fruit Kebab 1 kebab
(1/2 cup fruit)
30 0.7 6.5 6 0.7 0.2
Chicken ’N Waffle Cone (rosemary cornmeal waffle cone filled with creamy blue cheese coleslaw, Cajun buttermilk marinated and battered fried chicken and honey lager maple syrup, and topped with Oktoberfest beer candied bacon) 1 filled cone 1,055 47 85 41.5 3.8 57
Chicken Shish Kebab 5 oz. 210 43 0 0 0 4.8
Pickle on a Stick 4" pickle 15 0.7 3.3 1.5 1.5 0.4
Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp Tempura On a Stick (battered with tempura, wrapped with bacon and fried) 4 oz. 640 18 21 1.2 1 54.4
Shrimp on a Stick 6 oz. 170 40 0.3 0 0 0.5
Pomegranate Juice 1 cup 135 0.4 4.1 4 0 0
Cranberry Juice Cocktail 1 cup 140 0 33.2 30.9 0 0.9
Apple Cider 1 cup 120 0 29 28 0 0
Tart Cherry Juice 1 cup 160 0.8 37 32 0 1.5
About the Author

Andrea Dietz, RD, CD, is a clinical dietitian with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network.