Sky-High Calories in Some Restaurant Meals

Restaurants Are Piling on Fat, Calories With Larger Portions, Group Says

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 02, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

June 2, 2009 -- Restaurants are serving ever-larger portions of super-bad food to entice customers to start eating out again, according to a consumer watchdog group.

In a list of the most over-the-top, unhealthy restaurant foods, the Center for Science in the Public Interest singled out some dishes that provide more saturated fat or sodium than most people should eat in three days. The foods were also high in calories.

U.S. dietary guidelines call for healthy Americans to get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, about the amount in a teaspoon of table salt, to lower blood pressure and reduce risk of heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease. But for the 70% of Americans who are middle-aged or older, African-American, or have high blood pressure, no more than 1,500 milligrams a day is recommended.

Federal nutrition guidelines also advise that less than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fat, about 20 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. Eating lots of saturated fat can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

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

  • Chili’s Big Mouth Bites with French fries (four mini bacon cheeseburgers with fried onion strings): 2,350 calories, 38 grams saturated fat, 3,940 milligrams sodium.
  • Olive Garden Tour of Italy, with lasagna, chicken parmigiana, and fettuccine alfredo: 1,450 calories, 33 grams saturated fat, 3,830 milligrams sodium.
  • The Cheesecake Factory Fried Macaroni and Cheese: 1,570 calories, 69 grams saturated fat, 1,860 milligrams sodium.
  • Chili’s Original Half Rack of Baby Back Ribs: An add-on for entrees, with 490 calories, 12 grams saturated fat, and 2,050 milligrams sodium.
  • Red Lobster Ultimate Fondue shrimp and crabmeat in a lobster cheese sauce served in a sourdough bread bowl: 1,490 calories, 40 grams saturated fat, 3,580 milligrams sodium.
  • Uno Chicago Grill’s Mega-Sized Deep Dish Sundae: 2,800 calories, 72 grams saturated fat.
  • The Cheesecake Factory’s Chicken and Biscuits: 2,500 calories.
  • Applebee’s Quesadilla Burgerwith fries: 1,820 calories, 46 grams saturated fat, 4,410 milligrams sodium.
  • The Cheesecake Factory Philly Style Flat Iron Steak with fries: 2,320 calories, 47 grams saturated fat, 5,340 milligrams sodium.

The examples are extreme, says Jayne Hurley, RD, chief nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But that’s the point.

“The problem is these oversized foods come with oversized calories, saturated fat, and sodium,” Hurley says. “It used to be you got a single entree, and now in some cases you’re getting three entrees on your plate.”

The typical restaurant entree, appetizer, and dessert contain about 1,000 calories apiece, Hurley says. The Center for Science in the Public Interest obtained the nutritional information in the report from restaurant web sites and menus.

“As a consumer-driven industry, we give our guests what they want,” says Shelia Weiss, RD, a nutrition consultant for the National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group. “Certainly there are indulgent items on menus, but there are more diet-conscious items on menus than ever before.”

Hurley believes diners don’t realize just how indulgent some items are. It’s a given that you’re splurging when you order Uno Chicago Grill’s Mega-Sized Deep Dish Sundae, a chocolate-chip cookie baked in a pizza pan and topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce, she says.

“But how many people would guess there are 2,800 calories and 72 grams of saturated fat when that sundae hits the table?”

Weiss disputes CSPI’s contention that restaurants may be offering much larger portions to entice recession-weary customers into eating out again.

“If anything, restaurants are adjusting their portion sizes down as a measure of the economy,” Weiss says.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is backing a federal menu labeling bill that would require calorie counts to be listed on the menus and menu boards of chain restaurants. The National Restaurant Association is supporting a measure that would allow nutritional information to be listed in other locations -- such as a brochure or poster -- when a customer orders.

Providing more information on fat, calories, and sodium in restaurant meals would help diners trying to protect their health, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Blatner, who provides nutrition counseling, says helping her clients learn what’s in restaurant meals is critical.

“People do not understand just how high in fat and calories these things can range,” Blatner says. “We’re talking about a day’s worth of calories in some cases. And, this is not the only meal that most people are going to be eating in a day. It’s no surprise that two out of three people are overweight in America.”

Want to avoid restaurant meals high in fat, calories, and sodium? Try these tips:

  • Check online for nutritional information before dining out. If your restaurant doesn’t disclose information, look for similar dishes at other restaurants that do provide that data.
  • Downsize the portion. Order a lunch portion or half-portion. Split a dish with a friend. Or take half home to eat later.
  • Try customizing. Ask if a food can be baked or grilled instead of fried. Substitute a vegetable for a side dish that may be high in calories and fat, such as a biscuit or mashed potatoes. If a food is laden with fatty additions, such as bacon, mayonnaise, and cheese, ask for it to be prepared without at least one of those high-fat foods.

Show Sources


Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Xtreme Eating 2009.”

WebMD Health News: “Group: Too Much Salt in Restaurant Food.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005.”

Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Sheila Weiss, RD, nutrition consultant, American Restaurant Association.

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