We've long known that restaurant meals aren't a paragon of healthy portion sizes -- but a new study shows they may be even worse than we think.
A whopping 96 percent of America's chain restaurant entrees fell outside the range of the USDA's recommendations for fat, saturated fat and sodium per meal, according to a new analysis from the RAND corporation, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
"If you're eating out tonight, your chances of finding an entree that's truly healthy are painfully low," lead researcher Helen Wu, assistant policy analyst at RAND, told USA Today.
Wu and her team evaluated 28,433 regular menu items and 1,833 children's menus at 245 restaurants around the country between February and May 2010. They looked at the USDA recommendations for daily maximum intake in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium and divided that by three to arrive at a government recommendation for a single meal. And while the majority of dishes fell below the USDA's calorie limit for a meal (667 calories), they did not meet the requirements for fat, saturated fat and sodium (which, according to the government regulations, should not exceed 767 mg per meal).
"Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria," Wu told the Los Angeles Times.
Sodium, in particular, was problematic -- according to the report, the average dinner entree packs a whopping 1,512 mg, more than the CDC's recommended adequate intake for an entire day (and not too far from their recommended maximum intake of 2,300 mg). And while the average calorie total was a more reasonable 674, fat and saturated fat counts were well above limits at 32 g and 12 g, respectively.
And don't think you're doing your diet any favors by ordering an appetizer instead of a main dish -- the researchers reported that those meal "starters" often had more calories, fat and sodium than any other item on the menu.
While fast food restaurants are often the most vilified chains, the truth is that family-style restaurants, like Red Lobster and Denny's, actually had "significantly more" calories, fat and sodium than their drive-thru counterparts.
So, for a much-needed reality check, we rounded up just a few of the most diet-derailing meals from some of Forbes' 2011 list of America's favorite chain restaurants. And for those restaurants that don't list their nutrition facts online, ignorance isn't diet bliss. According to the researchers: "Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had signiﬁcantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request."
More than 80 percent of us eat out at least once a week, so take a look at the list, then tell us which meal is the most surprising -- some of these items blow an entire day's worth of recommended calorie, fat and/or sodium intake out of the water in a single sitting.
Call the portion police -- the <a href="http://www.cheesecakefactorynutrition.com/restaurant-nutrition-chart.php" target="_hplink">pasta carbonara with chicken</a> at Cheesecake Factory is loaded with 2,290 calories (more than a whole day's worth on a healthy diet) and 1,630 mg of sodium.
Theoretically, with the chain's Never Ending Pasta bowl, the calories, fat and sodium could be infinite at the Olive Garden. But just one plate of the <a href="http://www.olivegarden.com/menu/nutrition/" target="_hplink">spaghetti with italian sausage</a> delivers 1,270 calories (more than half your daily intake), 3,090 mg of sodium (more than the <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dsSodium/" target="_hplink">CDC's recommended intake</a> of 1,500 for a whole day, <em>and</em> even their maximum upper limit of 2,300 mg), 24 g of saturated fat and 67 g of fat. The CDC recommends limiting dietary fat between 30 and 35 percent of total calories, which means between 44 and 78 grams in an <em>entire day</em>.
<a href="http://www.pfchangs.com/menu/nutritionalinfo.aspx" target="_hplink">The chicken lo mein</a> packs close to three times the USDA recommendation for sodium in a single meal, or 2,050 g -- it also has 1,240 calories (close to double the recommendation in a meal), 25 g of fat and 4.5 g of saturated fat.
Seafood may be healthy, but not when it's loaded down with carbs and creamy sauce -- the <a href="http://www.redlobster.com/health/nutrition/dinner.asp" target="_hplink">crab linguini alfredo</a> at Red Lobster boasts 1,120 calories (again, more than half what you should eat in a whole day), 50 g of fat, 24 g of trans fat and a whopping 3,650 mg of sodium.
A <a href="http://www.outback.com/menu/nutritionitem.aspx?id=2290" target="_hplink">16-ounce prime rib with Aussie fries at the Outback</a> will cost you a cool 1,074 calories, 51 g of fat, 21 g of saturated fat and 3,405 mg of sodium (more than four times the USDA max per meal).
<a href="http://www.longhornsteakhouse.com/nutrition/" target="_hplink">The chop steak</a> at LongHorn Steakhouse is loaded with 980 calories, a full 67 g of fat, 20 g of saturated fat and 3,120 mg of sodium (again, more than double what you should be eating for the <em>whole</em> day).
The <a href="http://www.goldencorral.com/menu/" target="_hplink">steakburgers at Golden Corral</a> serve up 859 calories, 55 g of fat and 1,754 mg of sodium. And that's if you can limit yourself to just <em>one</em> item on that buffet.
In the mood to order more than <em>eight times the sodium</em> recommendation from the USDA? That's what you're getting with the <a href="http://www.chilis.com/EN/LocationSpecificPDF/MenuPDF/001.005.0000/Chilis_Nutrition_Menu_Generic.pdf?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1" target="_hplink">jalapeno smokehouse burger</a> with ranch at Chilli's -- 2,210 calories (more than a whole day's worth), 144 g of fat (<em>well</em> over a full days worth), 46 g of saturated fat and, yep, 6,600 mg of sodium.
Think a chicken sandwich sounds light? Think again. <a href="http://www.tgifridays.com/_images/pdfs/Nutritional.pdf" target="_hplink">The Caribbean chicken sandwich at Friday's</a> has a full 1,210 calories, 49 g of fat, 17 g of saturated fat and 3,660 mg of sodium. That's half the calories you need in a full day, more than twice the sodium and more than enough fat.
By now, you probably know ordering a salad isn't necessarily a nutritional free pass -- but sometimes we're <em>still</em> surprised by just how many calories they can be. <a href="http://www.applebees.com/~/media/docs/Applebees_Nutritional_Info.ashx" target="_hplink">The pecan crusted salad</a> at Applebee's sounds harmless enough, but it's loaded with 1,360 calories, 80 g of fat, 17 g of saturated fat and 2,640 mg of sodium.
Tilapia <em>sounds</em> like the healthy pick, but <a href="http://www.rubytuesday.com/assets/menu/pdf/informational/nutrition.pdf" target="_hplink">the sauces on the chain's tilapia trio</a> ratchet it up to 1,071 calories, 53 g of fat and 2,948 mg of sodium. That means more than half the calories you'd need all day and almost twice as much sodium.