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I have laid a lot at the feet of the fast food industry as far as their contribution to the problem with obesity, overweight, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. I do believe that they have a tremendous responsibility to make changes that help their customers eat better. I have been critical as well of the soft drink companies, but there's an amazing issue with freestanding chain restaurants.
As those of you who follow the Friday Newsletter know, we have been reviewing such places and will be continuing to do so over the next few months. This is in anticipation of the launch of the update to our eatTHISdiet software. Generally before going I have been reviewing the nutrition information if it is available online. (There's wide variation between restaurants as to whether they offer that information or not.)
It always amazes me what is on these pages. I have written about the problem with traditional fast food joints and how high in fat and sodium as well as calorie dense their foods are. I am just not sure there's any reason for McDonald's to sell a 740 calorie hamburger or an 1,160 calorie milkshake.
All of this makes a 150 calorie can of Coca-Cola seem like it's diet food. Likewise, the McDonald's choices seem positively slimming when you look at some of the foods at chain restaurants. Here are a few examples:
Let's say you and a friend go to Chili's and start with an appetizer. Splitting an order of Classic Nachos will ring up 725 calories for each of you (and an incredible 28 grams of saturated fat with 1,365 mg of sodium). Hmm... that's dinner and maybe it's time to quit. Most folks don't, however, and move on to dinner. Feeling a bit guilty, maybe, about having the Nachos, you decide on a salad. The Southwestern Cobb Salad maybe? That's gotta be healthier than a burger, right? Not at 970 calories and 2,590 mg of sodium.
Whew! Chili's has taken a nice unsuspecting, honest, healthy plate of greenery and turned it into a calorie bomb. The Big Mouth Bite burger is only 850 calories and 1,930 mg of sodium for gosh sakes!
If you think that I am picking on Chili's, don't. Kung Pao Chicken at P.F. Chang's comes in at 1,478 calories and over 80 grams of fat. Their Citrus Soy Salmon Lunch Bowl is 1,047 calories. For lunch! Over at Chevy's Fresh Mex the Grilled Fish Tacos are 970 calories and over 3 grams of sodium. At Olive Garden they won't tell you what's in their dishes except for their "Garden Fare" where they list the Capellini Pomodoro as being "low-fat" at 17 grams, but the dish comes in at 840 calories for a single serving.
Restaurants are fighting bitterly right now against listing their nutrition information on menus. They argue that it's not necessary and there's no evidence that it will change our behavior. They are correct in that there is no evidence, but no large studies have been done on this. While there may not be research to support that putting nutrition info on menus helps, there are great studies that show if you feed folks healthier food and just don't tell them that it's healthier, they like it better and are generally more satisfied.
The thing that I don't understand is that all that fat and salt is expensive and doesn't add that much flavor to a dish. (Remember, before I became a doctor I ran restaurants for a living.) Granted, salt is not all that expensive (although it adds up to a lot of money in a big chain like Red Lobster or Olive Garden). Fat is expensive, though. Those extra tablespoons of butter, oils, cheese, heavy cream, half and half and overdressed salads really adds up to big bucks. In these lean times of rising food prices, the way to improve profit is to cut these and to cut portion size a bit. All of that makes a big difference in the bottom line (and customer's bottoms).
O.K., I might be dreaming, but for you the best course is to look before you leap. If you are going to a chain restaurant like Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday's, Cheesecake Factory, Denny's or IHOP, check out their website first for the nutrition facts – if they're available – and decide on what you will have before setting foot in the door.
September 22, 2008