July 31, 2017 -- A dish of pasta piled high with processed meats and a milkshake spiked with sweet liqueurs helped The Cheesecake Factory dominate a nutritional watchdog group’s annual list of least healthy meals.
The restaurant chain gets a perennial pie in the face from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which released its Xtreme Eating awards Monday. This year is no exception, with two Cheesecake Factory dishes on the list of eight high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium items singled out by the center.
The least healthy single dish on the list was the Pasta Napoletana, which takes the toppings of a meat lover’s pizza and drops them onto a bowl of noodles. All that adds up to more than 2,300 calories, plus 79 grams of saturated fat and nearly 4,400 milligrams of sodium.
“Nobody goes to The Cheesecake Factory expecting a light meal,” says Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist at the center. “You’re going to get a huge portion of food. But the foods themselves are some of the worst as well. This dish has sausage, pepperoni, meatballs, and bacon on a pasta that’s absolutely covered in butter and cream.”
What Is Actually Recommended
U.S. government nutrition guidelines recommend that most women eat between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day, depending on age and physical activity. The guidelines call for 2,000 to 3,000 calories for most men. And no one should eat more than 2,300 milligrams of salt and 31 grams of saturated fats daily.
Most of the items on the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list this year approach or blow past those recommendations in a single dish. The Cheese Curd Bacon Burger at Buffalo Wild Wings, for instance, weighs in at 1,950 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 4,700 milligrams of sodium. The Cheeseburger Omelette at IHOP delivers a full day’s supply of calories at breakfast, at 1,990, along with 45 grams of fat and 4,580 milligrams of sodium. And The Cheesecake Factory’s Flying Gorilla delivers 950 calories and 60 grams of fat in a milkshake laced with banana and dark chocolate liqueurs.
'Winners' respond to awards
Alethea Rowe, senior director for public relations at The Cheesecake Factory, says the chain’s choices aren’t limited to the kind of items singled out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest: The restaurant also features a “SkinnyLicious” menu of nearly 50 items under 590 calories.
But Rowe added, “Many of our guests come in and want to celebrate and not be concerned with calories. Others want to share their dish -- and we love it when guests share -- that’s a great sign that our portions are generous -- and a large percentage of our guests take home leftovers for lunch the next day.”
Full List of This Year's 'Winners'
Rounding out the list are:
- Chili’s Ultimate Smokehouse Combo, a platter of ribs, chicken, and sausage with potatoes and broccoli that packs in 2,440 calories, 41 grams of saturated fat, and more than 7,600 milligrams of sodium.
- Dave and Buster’s Carnivore Pizzadilla, a quesadilla covered with pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and cheese. It has 1,970 calories, 67 grams of fat, and more than 4,400 milligrams of sodium.
- Texas Roadhouse has a prime rib meal that includes a 16-ounce slab of beef, a baked sweet potato covered with marshmallows and caramel sauce, and a Caesar salad. The combo tops out at more than 2,800 calories, 72 grams of fat, and 5,300 milligrams of sodium.
- Uno Pizzeria, which topped the 2016 list with its Whole Hog Burger, weighs in on this year’s list with a 1,740-calorie piece of chocolate cake. Modestly dubbed the Ridiculously Awesome, Insanely Large Chocolate Cake, it packs the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar, Moyer says.
'Everything in Moderation'
“Yum yum,” Harry Preuss, MD, a former president of the American College of Nutrition, says in an e-mail.
Preuss says everyone should be watching their calories and reducing carbohydrates, especially sugars like sucrose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup, while some people should be particularly mindful of their salt intake.
“Keep everything in moderation,” says Preuss, a professor of biochemistry at the Georgetown University Medical School. “Once in a while, you can do extreme eating, but keep it down to once or twice a month.”
But Moyer says with more Americans eating out more often, keeping tabs on calories isn’t easy -- and it’s made harder by the Trump administration’s decision to delay carrying out a part of the Affordable Care Act that requires all chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. Some chains had been prepared to follow the rule before it was scheduled to take effect in May and rolled out those counts anyway. But others haven’t, including pizza giant Domino’s, which lobbied against the measure, Moyer says.
A New Award for 2017
Domino’s work to slow the new rules led the Center for Science in the Public Interest to grant the pizza giant its Xtreme Putting Profits Before Public Health Award.
In a written statement, Tim McIntyre, Domino’s executive vice president for communications, says the center “is off base.” He says that the pizza chain has been disclosing nutritional information about its products on three points on its website for nearly 15 years, and that the rule the Trump administration pushed back is a “one-size-fits-all” measure that's a poor fit for the pizza chain.
“A menu board like you find at a burger place makes sense for them; a printed menu at a sit-down restaurant makes sense for them; an online option for restaurants who receive mostly online or phone orders makes sense for them,” McIntyre says. “That’s all we’ve ever asked for.”
The center has been making this list since 2007, and the calorie counts just keep going higher, Moyer says.
“When Xtreme Eating started out, sometimes it would be, ‘Here’s a really big cheeseburger,’ or ‘Here’s a really big plate of pasta.’ But what we’re seeing now are companies taking it to the extreme in calorie counts, or all the unhealthy foods they’re piling on a plate. These high-calorie mashups are everywhere,” she says.