The Cheesecake Factory is the winner: three meals listed in the top 9 Xtreme Eating Awards from the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), rating restaurant foods high in calories, fat, sodium and sugar. Leaders on this list may astonish people with their sheer unwholesomeness. For example, number 9 is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, coming in at 1,500 calories, the equivalent of 4 1/2 hours of aerobic exercise.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends a daily diet consisting of approximately 2,000 calories per day, with no more than 44 to 78 grams of fat (about 20 to 35 percent of total calories) and about 16 grams of saturated fat (7 percent of total calories). Each meal on the Xtreme Eating Awards list from CSPI not only includes a lot of calories, but each contains at least a days worth of saturated fat, with one topping out at nearly five days worth.
CSPI advocates for healthier foods, and first handed out its Xtreme Eating Awards in 2007. They ranked meals at over 200 of the top chain restaurants, reviewing menu and nutritional information and, according to CSPI registered dietician Paige Einstein, looking for the worst items they can find. Many menus are beginning to show nutritional content, but restaurants may be reluctant to advertise the amount of calories and fat in some of the foods rating high on the CSPI list. This information will be a requirement in the future for chains that have at least 20 locations, but so far federal regulations regarding this issue are not finalized.
Although some restaurants have been adding some lighter dishes to their menus, Einstein said she thinks people may not be ordering healthier items because they just do not realize how bad the unhealthy items really are. According to industry watchers, restaurant meals with too many calories are the norm. Einstein says people should expect to consume about 1,000 calories in a typical appetizer, another 1,000 calories in a typical entrée and yet another 1,000 calories in dessert. Some of the menu items contain more sugar or saturated fat than a person should consume in an entire week. With consumers eating out more often, even several times a week, this information goes a long way toward explaining the obesity problem in America.
Number 8 on the CSPI list is the Super Cinco Combo from Chevys Fresh Mex, at 1,920 calories. Play tennis for 3 1/2 hours to burn this one off.
Number 7, from BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, is the Signature Deep Dish Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza (the small size), at 2,160 calories. Hopefully people eating this one have some place to go, as they will be pedaling their bike nonstop for five hours to get rid of that many calories.
Number 6 also comes from the Cheesecake Factory, their Farfalle with Chicken and Roasted Garlic. This one actually sounds sort of healthy, but the portion is enormous and tops out at 2,410 calories, five hours worth of jogging.
Number 5 is Maggiano’s Little Italy’s Prime New York Steak Contadina style, with 2,420 calories and a portion size big enough to feed a family of four. Plan on hitting the rowing machine for 7 1/2 hours after eating this one.
Number 4 comes from Famous Dave’s. The Big Slab of St. Louis-Style Spareribs has 2,770 calories. People should not consume this unless they have a big yard, as it is worth 7 1/2 hours of lawn-mowing.
Number 3 is the Cheesecake Factory yet again. Their Bruleed French Toast (only two pieces) has 2,780 calories and packs in more than five days worth of saturated fat. Seven hours of swimming laps would be needed to burn it off..
Number 2 is the Big “Hook” Up platter from Joe’s Crab Shack, hooking in at 3,280 calories. That is golfing without a caddie or a cart for 11 straight hours.
And the big winner, Number 1 on the Extreme Eating Awards restaurant food rating, comes from Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, with their super-high calorie meal consisting of an A.1. Peppercorn gourmet burger (Monster-Sized), Monster Salted Caramel Milkshake and bottomless steak fries. This combination comes in at a whopping 3,540 calories. The burger alone has “only” 1,390 calories, but few diners at Red Robin pass on the bottomless fries. People consuming this meal should plan on walking briskly for 12 hours, assuming they can still move.
There are ways to dine in restaurants and eat healthier. Registered Dietician Cynthia Sass recommends reviewing the menu ahead of time and figuring out what to eat before arriving and throwing caution to the wind. Avoid the bread, chips and salsa and other extras that come ahead of the meal and help pack in the calories. She says to order strategically and “unapologetically.” Many people are hesitant to ask for special meal preparations such as steaming rather than frying, salad dressing on the side or a lettuce wrap in place of a burger bun. Eat slowly, to allow the full feeling to come on gradually, and stick to drinking water, which helps slow eating, fills the stomach and avoids calories from sugary drinks.
The final suggestion Sass offers is to redefine value: it is not necessary to eat every bite of the meal that is served in a restaurant, especially if it is a daring splurge of one of the Xtreme Eating Awards’ top 9 high calorie dishes. Eating more than the body needs is still wasting food, only instead of going in the trash it goes in fat cells, where it can be carried around for a long time.
By Beth A. Balen