Calories in Restaurant Food Are Higher Than You Expect

Americans get a third of their daily calories, and spend half of their food dollars on eating out, which can be a problem when you consider that calories in restaurant food are often higher than expected. To try and tempt customers into continuing this behavior in the face of a struggling economy, restaurants appear to be offering ever-larger servings of saturated fat, calorie and salt laden foods.

In fact, the typical restaurant appetizer, meal and desert have about 1,000 calories each. More than you thought, isn’t it?

And since it’s almost unheard of for a restaurant to provide nutrient information when you’re ordering, most of us get more salt, fat and calories than we think from that dinner out.

To help inform diners, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has come up with a list of the worst restaurant meals in terms of calorie content, fat and salt.

The group’s Xtreme Eating 2009 dishes, appearing in the June issue of its Nutrition Action Healthletter, include:

– Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger with Fries, a bacon cheeseburger wrapped inside a quesadilla that packs 1,820 calories, 46 grams of saturated fat and 4,410 milligrams sodium. You can add to these totals by topping your fries with chili and more cheese.

– Chili’s Big Mouth Bites serves up four mini (not all that small really) bacon cheeseburgers, fries and fried onion strings with jalapeno ranch dipping sauce to deliver 2,350 calories, 38 grams saturated fat, 3,940 milligrams sodium.

– Chili’s Original Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs adds 490 calories, 12 grams saturated fat and 2,050 milligrams sodium to any entree. Think of this as adding a Quarter Pounder with Cheese to your meal.

– Olive Garden Tour of Italy brings together Homemade Lasagna, Lightly Breaded Chicken Parmigiana and Creamy Fettuccine Alfredo to create a trifecta of a meal with 1,450 calories, 33 grams saturated fat and 3,830 milligrams sodium.

– Red Lobster Ultimate Fondue includes shrimp and crabmeat covered in a lobster cheese sauce served in a warm, crispy sourdough bread bowl to bring you 1,490 calories, 40 grams saturated fat, 3,580 milligrams sodium.

– The Cheesecake Factory Fried Macaroni and Cheese delivers four deep fried cheese and white flour balls over creamy marinara sauce and supplies 1,570 calories, 69 grams saturated fat (3½ days worth) as well as1,860 milligrams sodium.

– The Cheesecake Factory Chicken and Biscuits is anything but comfort food though it centers around a potentially healthy chicken breast. The trouble comes from the mashed potatoes, shortcake biscuits, mushrooms, peas and carrots covered in rich gravy that bring the calorie count to an uncomfortable 2,500.

– The Cheesecake Factory Philly Style Flat Iron Steak with Fries adds cheese to a substantial portion of charbroiled red meat and includes fries for 2,320 calories, 47 grams saturated fat (2½ days worth) and 5,340 milligrams sodium (3 days worth).

– Uno Chicago Grill’s Mega-Sized Deep Dish Sundae is a dessert that starts with a monster chocolate chip cookie, adds ice cream, whipped cream and drizzled chocolate sauce to create a sweet treat with 2,800 calories and 72 grams saturated fat.

The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, a menu labeling measure just introduced to Congress In May 2009, has the strong support of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a chance of being passed in the near future.

The measure calls for fast-food and chain restaurants (places with over 20 locations) to show nutrient information on menus and display tags that should include the number of calories, levels of saturated plus trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium.

The National Restaurant Association points out that there are more healthy options on menus today than ever before. They also contend that portions sizes, rather than rising, are getting smaller, as a measure of the slowing economy.

While not fundamentally opposed to the idea of offering nutritional information, the organization is backing a measure that would allow the details on calories, salt and fats to be shown in other places like a brochure or poster.

If you want to help yourself eat better when enjoying a dinner out, you can:

1. Check the nutritional information of menu options online before you get to the restaurant.

2. Ask for healthy cooking alternatives, like baked or grilled; substitute a veggie for a side dish, or choose one of multiple non-healthy toppings instead of indulging in all of them.

3. Cut your portion size in half by ordering a lunch size or half portion to reduce the impact of calories in restaurant food, or take half of your meal off the plate before you start eating, and put it into a “to go” container to save and enjoy later on.