America’s chain restaurants are making Americans fatter and sicker say consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) who have just awarded their Xtreme eating awards 2009 to chains like the Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden, and Applebee for offering appetisers, entrées, and desserts that give you a whole day’s worth of calories in one dish.

For a heart-healthy lifestyle, the average person needs only 2,000 calories a day and should limit their intake of saturated fat to 20 grams, and of sodium to 1,500 mg. Bear this in mind while you peruse the following list.

The “winners” of the 2009 Xtreme eating award include:

  • Cheesecake Factory’s Fried Macaroni and Cheese which contains 1,570 calories and 69 grams of saturated fat. “You would be better off eating an entire stick of butter”, said the CSPI statement.
  • Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy invites you to pile Lasagna, Chicken Parmigiana, and Fettuccine Alfredo onto a very large dinner plate.
  • Uno Chicago Grill, The Melting Pot and Olive Garden’s Red Lobster Ultimate Fondue, described as “shrimp and crabmeat in a creamy lobster cheese sauce served in a warm crispy sourdough bowl,” contains 1,490 calories, 40 grams of saturated fat, and 3,580 mg of sodium.
  • Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger is essentially a bacon cheeseburger inside a quesadilla and contains two flour tortillas, two kinds of meat, two kinds of cheese, pico de gallo, lettuce, Mexi-ranch sauce, and fries. This dish has 1,820 calories, 46 grams of saturated fat, and 4,410 mg of sodium. Plus there is an option to top up the fries with more sauce and cheese.
  • Chili’s Big Mouth Bites is four mini-bacon-cheeseburgers with fries, onion strings, and jalapeno ranch dipping sauce (the term “mini” is misleading said the CSPI report because each burger is like a quarter pounder). This dish comes as an appetizer or an entrée. The entrée version contains 2,350 calories, 38 grams of saturated fat, and 3,940 milligrams of sodium.
  • The Cheesecake Factory’s Chicken and Biscuits has 2,500 calories. CSPI describes this dish as “discomfort food.” and said that “if you wouldn’t eat an entire 8-piece bucket of KFC Original Recipe plus 5 biscuits, you shouldn’t order this”.

Unless you live in a city that has menu labelling, you wouldn’t know about these figures. CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley described some of the dishes in the list as “would you like an entrée with your entrée?”

Over the last couple of years several states and cities have passed legislation forcing restaurants to put nutrition and calorie information on menus to help people make better informed choices, and CSPI suggests Congress will soon pass national legislation to the same effect, especially as one of the federal judges who agreed to allow New York City’s law stand when they appealed a ruling that favoured the restauranteurs, is President Obama’s nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Part of the argument that the chain restaurants use to resist the legislation is that consumers are adults and should be free to choose what they eat without a “nanny state” telling them. However, lobby groups and health experts counter this with the argument that without the nutrition and calorie figures consumers can’t make an informed choice and therefore can’t properly exercise their responsibility. They can still choose to eat unhealthily if they wish, so the “nanny state” argument is a hollow one.

CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G Wootan said:

“Ultimately, Americans bear personal responsibility for their dining choices.”

“But you can’t exercise personal responsibility if you don’t have nutrition information when you order. Who would expect 2,800 calories in a dessert?”

The CSPI did a survey of New Yorkers recently and found that 82 per cent of the respondents said seeing the numbers affected their choices.

There is a bill currently going through Congress, put forward by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and US Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), called the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act which if implemented would force big restaurant chains to show calories on menu boards and other nutrition basics on the menus themselves, including saturated and trans fat content, carbohydrates, and sodium.

If passed, the law will apply to restaurants throughout the US that have more than 20 outlets, and then only to their standard menu items, not to their daily specials or to their custom orders.

Source: — CSPI: Xtreme Eating 2009 (PDF download).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD