The New York Times recently landed a major scoop with a story that detailed how French fries are—egad!—not very healthy for you. In fact, they’re worse than that: They’re “starch bombs” and “a weapon of dietary destruction.” Most people reading probably already had an inkling that was true, but something about the piece touched a nerve: Blowback spread quickly, and one of the Harvard experts consulted for the piece felt the heat, asking Vanity Fair, “Am I really a monster?”
The article’s premise rankled readers less than one detail in particular: After citing the Agriculture Department’s suggested serving size of 3 ounces, or 12 to 15 “individual potato sticks,” the Times quoted Eric Rimm, of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as saying, “I think it would be nice if your meal came with a side salad and six French fries.”
Six French fries! Six! And we’re talking average fries here, not some giant mutant steak fries or waffle fries. Six: An appropriate number for chicken fingers or ravioli, certainly, but eating six fries is like making yourself spaghetti with only six noodles in it, or pouring six Cheerios into a bowl of milk. It really does not compute. Can you imagine eating just six fries? Well, I can, because for your sake, I decided to try it. And I have some findings to report.
My first impulse was to try to find an eating establishment that would sell me only six fries. You can go into Dunkin’ Donuts and buy one Munchkin, can’t you? But I quickly saw this was a mistake. At the Five Guys near my office, I realized I am way too much of a wimp to ask a stranger for just six fries, so I compromised and ordered the smallest portion of fries, the little fries, and asked, sheepishly, if the restaurant might only fill the cup halfway. But I was at Five Guys, famous for giving customers an extra scoop of fries with every order, so the person at the counter interpreted my request as “without the extra scoop.” He also didn’t pass this information down the line. When I got my order, it had the extra scoop and then some. I flagged down an employee and asked him to make some of the fries go away. He complied, and I sensed it wasn’t the first time he’s had to do that. Nevertheless, the lesson here is that asking to be served fewer fries is almost certainly more trouble than not ordering them at all.
Armed with my small cup of fries and no overflow whatsoever, I got back to the office and invited several co-workers to share my fries—as long as they stopped at six. They were mostly happy to indulge. Maybe six fries … is fine? “I was surprised with how satisfied I am by the number of fries I had,” one said. “I’ve got to say, consciously thinking of the number of fries I’m eating, and eating only six fries, I’m happy.” Another agreed: “It makes me really enjoy each fry much more. Like each of those fries had a distinctive character.” I also had six, and was pretty impressed with my self-control. I’m basically keto now.
However, my co-workers also questioned the integrity of my experiment. I had surprised them with the fries in the late afternoon, when they weren’t necessarily hungry. “I think if you caught me at like 11 right before lunch, I’d be like, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” a third colleague said. Another person put it, “These are bonus fries! This is like, I wasn’t expecting fries and then suddenly I get six free fries, that’s awesome.” As we were discussing this, he motioned to the plate and added, despite earlier claims of serenity, “There’s two more good fries there that I’m sort of fixating on.”
My co-workers were right: I had to try the six-fry thing within the context of a meal. So one day this week I offered several co-workers lunch at Shake Shack as long as they agreed to a catch. They suspected it had to do with fries. As we sat down to eat, a colleague mused, “I would argue there’s no such thing as a fry. There are only fries.” You know, like the philosophical paradox involving grains of sand. As we realized, the real revelation of fry-counting is that wanting to stuff fries in your mouth has very little to do with hunger. “Counting fries in general seems very self-abnegating, and I don’t want to have to count,” one wise co-worker said. “The whole point of fries is abundance and indulgence. To track how many I’m having ruins the entire joy of that.”
This makes sense, and of course, the answer is discipline. But some of us have a harder time putting that into practice than others, and perhaps we do need restaurants and other institutions to give us a nudge. Maybe every burger should come with a small salad and a few fries, “like a garnish,” one colleague suggested. My Five Guys crew had the following more impractical, if entertaining, idea: “You should only get them every third order. So, like, two people come in and order fries, they pay for them, they don’t get them,” one said. Honestly, I would sort of be OK with it if things were completely out of my hands like this, but I suspect I am alone.
In the end, my comrades’ opinions of the experiment were mixed. “Six fries were not enough. I’m still hungry,” one, who is training for a marathon, said, while the fries-equals-abundance guy said he was rethinking his ways: “I feel pretty satisfied. I think I liked the stricture. I do eat too many fries.” I have to agree with him. I have rarely in my life felt more accomplished than when I managed to limit my fry intake to this absurd, spartan degree. This is definitely not for everyone, to be clear. But the idea that I don’t have to eat all the fries seems like a very useful thing to keep in mind. They’re so bad for you, but they’re so easy to keep eating. As the same colleague soon lamented, “I saw the fries out of the corner of my vision and I just reflexively reached for a fry, after my big talk about how this was satisfying.” It’s true. Once you pop …