Need a reality check about restaurant calories? A consumer group with a history of criticizing unhealthy Chinese, Italian and other restaurant fare says diners at popular chain eateries may be getting many more calories and much more fat and salt than they expect--even when they are ordering what appear to be healthy or low calorie menu items.
In a recently published article in its newsletter, the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest has reignited the spat about fat and calories in restaurant food. The article, "X-Treme Eating, appeared in the organization's Nutrition Action Health Letter and highlights eight menu items from chain restaurants with sky-high calories, saturated fat and salt.
Here's a look at those items:
Ruby Tuesday Colossal Burger (two large patties, bun, and melted American and Monterey Jack cheese): 1,940 calories and 141 grams fat.
UNO Chicago Grill Pizza Skins (deep-dish pizza with mozzarella, mashed potatoes, crispy bacon, cheddar, and sour cream: 2,050 calories with 48 grams fat and 3,140 milligrams (mg) sodium.
On the Border Double-Stacked Club Quesadillas (two white-flour tortillas with fajita chicken, cheese, crumbled bacon and avocado, served with sour cream and ranch dressing): 1,860 calories, 52 grams saturated fat, and 3,140 mg sodium.
Ruby Tuesday Fresh Chicken & Broccoli Pasta (white-meat chicken, broccoli, and penne pasta in a parmesan cream sauce topped with cheddar cheese and baked): 2,060 calories and 128 grams fat.
On the Border Ranchiladas (an 8-ounce steak served with two cheese enchiladas, chile con carne, rice, and either refried or black beans with cheese): 1,870 calories, 46 grams saturated fat, and 3,810 mg sodium.
Cold Stone Creamery Gotta Have It Founder's Favorite (a large waffle bowl with 14 ounces of ice cream with pecans, brownie pieces, fudge, and caramel): 1,740 calories, 48 grams saturated fat, and 4 grams trans fat.
Romano's Macaroni Grill Twice-Baked Lasagna With Meatballs (six layers of pasta stuffed with meatballs, three cheeses, and Bolognese sauce): 1,360 calories, 38 grams saturated fat, and 3,900 mg sodium.
The Cheesecake Factory Chris' Outrageous Chocolate Cake (layers of chocolate cake, brownie, coconut pecan filling, and creamy chocolate chip coconut cheesecake): 1,380 calories, 32 teaspoons sugar, 33 grams saturated fat, and 5 grams trans fat.
The nutritional breakdowns for these items "come from the companies themselves, though obviously not from the companies' menus," states a CSPI news release.
The CSPI says such nutrition information should be listed on menus.
"Americans eat out on average about four meals a week," says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan in the CSPI news release. "With dishes like these, it's easy to blow your diet not just for the day, but for the whole week."
CSPI says some restaurant chains -- like McDonald's and Burger King -- publish nutrition brochures. But such brochures are "often hard to find in restaurants or are absent altogether."
Other restaurants "may list a little nutrition information for lighter fare" but not "for all of their standardized items," states the CSPI.
Restaurant Industry Responds
The CSPI's article is half-baked, according to the National Restaurant Association.
America's 935,000 restaurants and food-service outlets "provide a wide variety of venues and countless menu options to fit anyone's dietary needs and preferences," the association says in a news release.
"Pointing to a select few menu items at a select few restaurants as being high in calories, and generalizing that to all restaurant fare is misleading, inaccurate, and does the public a grave disservice," states the association.
"Virtually all restaurants provide healthful options," and diners can request that chefs curb calories or fat, the association says.
Many national chain restaurants make nutrition information available, the association notes. Since many diners customize their orders, the association says it would be hard to post simple nutritional information on menus and menu boards.
What you put on your plate is your business, whether it's a decadent splurge or spa cuisine, according to the association.
Diners are "free to choose what to eat, whether being mindful of calorie and fat intake, or indulging themselves with their favorite dishes," states the association.
"Our research shows that 95 percent of survey respondents feel they are qualified to make their own dietary choices, and more than two out of three (68 percent) say they are tired of the 'food police' telling them what to eat," the association says.
By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Extreme Eating," Nutrition Action Health Letter, March 2007; pp 13-15. News release, Center for Science in the Public Interest. News release, National Restaurant Association.