Smart Eating at the Fair

By Ann Thelen

It’s Iowa State Fair time and people come from all over the state and country to experience the sights, thrills and food! Amidst the celebration of all things agriculture, food takes center stage. From new creations to long-time favorites, there is something to satisfy everyone’s palate.

Although it may not always be on your mind when you come to the 11-day celebration, the Iowa State Fair does have a healthy dose of good-for-you foods! For those who want to stick to their diets while seeing the biggest boar, studying the butter cow, checking out the giant pumpkin, walking the grand concourse or watching a concert there are plenty of options.

The list of nearly two dozen food choices – dubbed as “Healthy Options” – is based on the USDA guidelines for healthy meals with school lunches and meets the following criteria:

  • Entrées less than 600 calories.
  •  Side dishes less than 300 calories.
  • Less than 35 percent of calories from total fat.
  • Less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
  • Less than 35 percent of calories from sugar.
  • Less than 1000 mg of sodium.

Some of the Iowa State Fair’s “Healthy Options” are mouthwatering favorites, including: Apples with Caramel Dip; Baked Potatoes; Beef Brisket; Caprese Salad On-a-Stick; Corn-on-the-Cob; Dried Fruit Log; Fresh Fruit, Melon and Berry Cups; Fruit Shishkbobs; Grilled Chicken and Turkey Sandwiches; Not Your Mamma's Taco (Made with Turkey); Pork Chops On-a-Stick; Salad On-a-Stick; and Sandwich Wraps. Plus, stop by the Agricultural Building for a free Egg On-a-Stick! At just 70 calories, one egg serves up six grams of protein and all nine essential amino acids. Talk about egg-cellent for you!

With so many tempting foods – including those not on the “Healthy Options” list – Dr. Amy Michelle Willcockson, director of Live Healthy Iowa, says you can enjoy some of those once-a-year treats without setting back your health and wellness goals. She shared some of her tips for enjoying the foods of the fair without the guilt!

Dr. Amy’s Tips for Smart Eating at the Fair:

1.    Use the app. The Iowa State Fair has a terrific app (Iowa State Fair Food Finder) and online information to navigate eating your way through the fair. With the app, you can search for the type of food you're craving and see nutrition information provided by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Plus, you can specifically find the new foods, healthy foods and food on-a-stick. In addition, you can search by vendor and review their menus.

2.    Pre-pick what you’ll eat. It’s OK to indulge now and then. Pick out three healthy things that you’ll eat while at the fair and treat yourself to one indulgence. Know where the food is that you want to have. Plan your activities so that you’re close to your favorite foods at mealtime.

3.    Have small portions. If you love the caramel apple dip, try to eat more of the apples and less of the dip. Share different items with your spouse, kids or friends – you’ll get to try more things that way without feeling like you’ve gone overboard with eating. Often, just having a small taste of something satisfies your craving for that food.

4.    Say yes to protein, no to empty carbs. Indulge in protein. Iowa is well-known for its high-quality beef, turkey, pork and eggs. Choose those items for satisfying and healthy protein. Some favorites include a grilled pork chop, grilled chicken, turkey leg, grilled turkey breast and beef options. A 3-ounce serving of a boneless and skinless turkey breast packs a whopping 26 grams of protein. The same serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Not only is the meat protein delicious and nutritious, it will keep you feeling full longer and give you the energy to take on your favorite activities and events during the Fair.

If you want a sandwich, skip the bun. Buns pack on the carbs and don’t offer any nutritional value. In doing so, you can save those calories to try another food item at the Fair.

5.    Burn the calories If you count your steps, you’ll hit the jackpot at the Fair! The exercise you’ll get by walking from building to building, to the free concerts and demonstrations, taking in the exhibits (especially the Iowa Food & Family Project interactive display in the South Atrium of the Varied Industries Building!) or attending livestock demonstrations adds up!

The Iowa State Fair Food Finder app also shows you how long you need to walk, run or otherwise do an activity to burn the calories. The app also will connect you to pedometer apps to find out if you burned off the few bites of the funnel cakes or a corn dog during your walk around the fairgrounds.

Here's a fun step guide to a few favorite stops on the fairgrounds:

“In addition to soaking up all the fun the Fair offers, soak up the delicious aromas of the food,” Willcockson says. “Sometimes, that alone will satisfy your senses.”

She adds, if you can’t resist the temptation of a Fair food you look for to all year long, go ahead and enjoy it. Just because you have one guilty pleasure, it doesn’t mean you have to overindulge. Nothing compares to having a terrific adventure while at the Fair while balancing the experience with healthy choices and exercise!