Few people would pour themselves a half-cup of sugar and eat it for dessert. Nor would you (hopefully) sit down and gobble up five breakfast sandwiches sprinkled with 10 packets of sugar. Yet U.S. restaurants are serving the equivalents of those things every day, no matter how much bad press their woefully unhealthy offerings garner. Each year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) releases its annual "Xtreme Eating Awards" (dis)honoring the lows to which chain restaurants will stoop to get you to buy their food.
"This year, we found the highest-calorie menu items we've ever seen," says Paige Einstein, a registered dietician with CSPI, despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration is getting closer to finalizing calorie-labeling rules for chain restaurants. Such labeling was required as part of the 2010 healthcare overhaul, and, says Einstein, it's probably the only way people will be able to dodge nutritional landmines like this year's "honorees." Without further ado, here's the CSPI list.
Bacon Cheddar Double Cheeseburger, Sweet Potato Fries, and Big Apple Milkshake
The tally: 3,500 calories; 88 grams (g) saturated fat; 3,720 milligrams (mg) sodium; and about 1/3 cup added sugar
Lesson learned: Sit-down restaurants aren't always healthier than drive-throughs, and "sweet potato" fries are still fried potatoes, says Einstein, who notes that, at 1,770 calories, the burger alone would have you eating more calories than if you ate three McDonald's Quarter Pounders with Cheese. Also, don't drink your food: The Big Apple Milkshake includes an entire slice of apple pie blended with ice cream. "People don't register liquid calories the way they do solid food calories," she says. If you want apple pie...don't slurp it through a straw.
Country Fried Steak & Eggs
The tally: 1,760 calories; 23 g saturated fat; 3,729 mg sodium; and almost ¼ cup sugar. As CSPI puts it, the combo is equal to eating five McDonald's Egg McMuffins sprinkled with 10 packets of sugar.
Lesson learned: Combo meals are gut-busting. "An eight-ounce steak that's been breaded, deep-fried, and covered in gravy in itself would be a meal," Einstein says. Throw on two of IHOP's plate-size pancakes and a side of fried potatoes, and you may as well not eat for the rest of the day.
18-ounce Veal Porterhouse and Crispy Red Potatoes
The tally: 2,710 calories; 45 g saturated fat; and 3,700 mg sodium
Lesson learned: A buttery sauce and fried, buttery potatoes can ruin even the leanest cut of meat. Veal is a slightly healthier alternative than beef, with about 100 fewer calories and a third of the fat of similar cuts of beef. But like any red meat, once you eat six times the recommended three-ounce serving, you're not doing yourself any favors. If you want a steak, ask for the sauce on the side and opt for veggies, not fried potatoes, as an accompaniment. Then cut your meat in half and save the rest of it for leftovers the next day.
Bistro Shrimp Pasta
The tally: 3,120 calories; 89 g saturated fat; and 1,090 mg sodium
Lesson learned: Restaurant portions are unforgivingly huge. The dish has the most calories of any dish ever featured in CSPI's Xtreme Eating Awards, largely, says Einstein, because it clocks in at 3½ cups of pasta--plus toppings that include a buttery sauce and fried shrimp--when a standard serving is 1 cup. Even dividing the meal in half would still leave you with three-fourths of your daily calorie requirements. (Learn more about the restaurant industry's sneaky sales tactics in The End of Overeating by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.) Ask your waiter if smaller portion sizes are available before you order.
40-ounce Peanut Power Plus Grape Smoothie
The tally: 1,460 calories and 22 teaspoons sugar (nearly ½ a cup!)
Lesson learned: Smoothies you buy at the store are nothing like the healthy smoothies you could make for yourself at home. "Most people make healthy smoothies at home, with yogurt and a little fruit," says Einstein. Not so at restaurants. This one, for instance, isn't fortified with healthy grapes but with grape juice, one of the least healthy and sugary juices out there. In fact, when you factor in the naturally occurring sugar in grape juice, the sugar content of this smoothie shoots up to 39 teaspoons, or ¾ cup of sugar--in one drink! Stick with homemade smoothies and not only will you get real fruit, but you're less likely to drink an entire blender-full in one sitting.
Full Rack of Baby Back Ribs with Shiner Bock BBQ Sauce, Homestyle Fries, and Cinnamon Apples
The tally: 2,330 calories; 45 g saturated fat; and 6,490 mg sodium (keep in mind that 1,500 mg is the recommended daily amount of sodium)
Lesson learned: Order your sauce on the side. The staggering levels of sodium in this particular meal are owed, in part, to the BBQ sauce, which, Einstein says, is a notoriously salty condiment. Another lesson? Learn to substitute. This meal comes with two calorie- and sugar-dense sides, but chains like Chili's often allow you to substitute sides, even if it's not explicitly stated on the menu.
Crispy Chicken Costoletta
The tally: 2,610 calories; 89 g saturated fat; and 2,720 mg sodium
Lesson learned: Don't let healthy sides lead you astray. The fact that breaded chicken (enough to serve as three meals in a normal household) are accompanied by mashed potatoes instead of fries and bright green asparagus may lead you to believe that this chicken dish can't be that bad, but it is. The serving of mashed potatoes equals three-quarters of a pound. "And the way they served it to us, there was a pool of sauce on the bottom of the plate, and everything was sitting in it," says Einstein--even that healthy asparagus.
Deep Dish Macaroni & 3-Cheese Pasta
The tally: 1,980 calories; 71 g saturated fat; and 3,110 mg sodium
Lesson learned: Anything cooked in a deep-dish pizza pan that isn't pizza is probably not that good for you. In fact, this dish has more calories and fat than almost every other pizza on Uno's menu. Why? A single serving includes four cups of pasta, three different cheeses, and Alfredo sauce, says Einstein.
Chocolate Zuccotto Cake
The tally: 1,820 calories; 62 g saturated fat; and a little over ½ cup sugar
Lesson learned: Make your own desserts, and eat them when you get home from the restaurant. Even splitting this dessert with a friend is going to send you into calorie- and sugar-shock. "No one expects chocolate cake to be good for them," says Einstein, "but this cake slice weighed close to a pound."
A final word of advice? "We're talking about really extreme items here," she adds, "but even with regular menu items, you can expect that an appetizer, entrée, and desert are each going to have around 1,000 calories. Order one entrée and take half home, and skip the appetizers and desserts altogether."
For more unbelievable food facts--including the worst seafood you're eating and the nastiest ingredients on your plate--check out these Rodale News reports:
• The Best (and Worst) Seafood You're Eating
• 7 Things You Need to Know about GMOs
• The 15 Grossest Things You're Eating
And avoid future diet pitfalls when you eat out with the Eat This, Not That: Restaurant Survival Guide!