Curb Your Extremism, Restaurants

07/19/2011 01:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

"Everything in moderation," goes one.

"There are no good foods and no bad foods," goes another.

Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone try to end an argument with one of those tired sayings! I believe such sayings had meaning when we first heard them from our parents or grandparents; after all, the meals we ate at home were typically moderate. And our parents and grandparents more often than not served real food, as opposed to what Michael Pollan calls "edible food-like substances" comprised of variously processed combinations of white flour, sugar, fat and salt.

In fact, there are plenty of good foods, including whole grains, beans, fish, fruits, vegetables, lean poultry, low-fat dairy and so on. And plenty of foods that are unambiguously bad for you, including sugary soda, fatty corn-fed ground beef, anything partially hydrogenated and so on.

"Everything in moderation" is usually used to justify serving (or consuming) one of those bad foods. But there is nothing moderate about most of the choices at sit-down restaurants like Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory and Denny's. And that is why we at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been handing out the Xtreme Eating Awards for the past few years.

Consider the Denny's Fried Cheese Melt. It's basically an order of mozzarella sticks stuffed into a grilled cheese sandwich. With fries, it comes to 1,260 calories. Or Cheesecake Factory's Farmhouse Cheeseburger. It's basically a bacon cheeseburger on steroids, with a layer of grilled, smoked pork belly and topped off with a fried egg. With fries, that's almost 2,000 calories. It's like someone ordered an order of breakfast on top of their lunch -- how moderate!

Cheese (I like to think of it as "dairy meat") is a common denominator of many Xtreme meals. Another example is Applebee's Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs With Fettuccine. That dish, which comes a piece of garlic bread, will sock you with 1,520 calories(!), two days worth of saturated fat -- 43 grams -- and more than two days worth of sodium.

These monstrous mash-ups are nothing new. Previous winners of the Nutrition Action Xtreme Eating Awards have included things like a cheeseburger stuffed into a quesadilla, or stuffed potato skins crossed with pizza. But this year, Applebee's is actively promoting this trend by advertising a special "stacked, stuffed and topped" menu, featuring things like meatballs stuffed with cheese.

It's too bad that these sort of dishes are so prominent on the menus of many American chain restaurants. Nutritionally, it sometimes seems to me like a race to the bottom, rather than food innovation. Fortunately, calorie counts are soon heading to chain restaurant menus, courtesy of last year's health reform law. We can only hope that that encourages restaurants to try stacking, stuffing and topping their items with an extreme variety of good foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit.