A Pound of Weight Gain on a Single Plate?

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

June 3, 2015 -- A trio of shrimp dishes served as a single meal has hooked the top spot at the 2015 Xtreme Eating awards.

The "Create Your Own Combination" plate at Red Lobster-- built with the Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp, Walt's Favorite Shrimp, and the Shrimp Linguine Alfredo, along with French fries, a Caesar salad, a cheddar biscuit, and washed down with the restaurant chain's 900-calorie Lobsterita -- has diners swimming in 3,600 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat, and a 4-day supply of sodium.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has put together this list of the unhealthiest restaurant dishes since 2007. The nonprofit group finds its "winners" by surveying the menus at more than 200 popular chain restaurants nationwide. The Red Lobster meal packs enough extra calories to gain a pound in a single sitting, says Susan Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

"Remember, you already ate breakfast, lunch, and perhaps had some snacks. And the meal itself has more calories than a pound of weight gain," Roberts says.

Even worse, she says, all those calories come with a lot of refined carbs, fat, and very little fiber. Making a habit of meals like that "encourages your brain to think that kind of food and calorie level is normal," she says. "The next time you eat out you will be tempted by similarly large portions, and there goes another pound around your waist."

Red Lobster Snaps Back

The seafood chain takes issue with how the list was created. The "Create Your Own Combination" lets guests choose two or three options from a list of nine to create a dish that meets their individual tastes and dietary preferences.

"CSPI's Xtreme Eating awards hone in on just one atypical combination and as a result inaccurately portrays the nature of this menu item," says Erica Ettori, director of communications for Red Lobster.

Pick the steamed snow crab legs, seafood stuffed flounder, and 7-ounce grilled sirloin with a garden salad and a side of steamed broccoli, and you end up with 620 calories instead.

Calorie-Bombs Away

Paige Einstein, the registered dietitian who drew up the list for CSPI, says the dish they picked --while extreme -- is sneaky because it's seafood, which is naturally high in protein and low in calories. But battered, fried, and bathed in cream sauce, even seafood can lose its healthy stats.

"A lot of these foods, you wouldn't know they were that bad just by looking at it or reading the menu description," Einstein says. As an example, she points to another "dishonoree" on the list, the "Louisiana Chicken Pasta" from The Cheesecake Factory.

"It's pasta topped with chicken. Who would guess that had 2,400 calories? I'm a dietitian, and I couldn't guess that," she says.

The Cheesecake Factory made this year's list twice. CSPI points out that their "Warm Apple Crisp" has more calories (1,740) than any cheesecake on the menu, along with 48 grams of fat and 32 teaspoons of sugar -- more than 5 days' worth

Other dishes that filled out this year's list include:

  • The "Pineapple Upside Down Master Blast" from Sonic has more than 2,020 calories, 61 grams of saturated fat, and 29 teaspoons of added sugar.
  • The "Herb Roasted Prime Rib" dinner from Outback Steakhouse with a baked potato, side salad, and bread comes in at 2,400 calories and 71 grams of saturated fat.
  • IHOP's "Chorizo Fiesta Omelette," which comes with a side of pancakes, totals 2,000 calories, 42 grams of saturated fat, and 12 teaspoons of added sugar.
  • The 3-meat plate from Dickey's Barbecue Pit, with fried onion tanglers, mac & cheese, 32 ounces of sweet tea, and an ice cream cone for dessert, serves up 2,500 calories, 49 grams of saturated fat, and 29 teaspoons of added sugar.
  • The "Baked Ziti and Sausage" with a "Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza" -- two choices from Uno Pizzeria & Grill's "2 for $12 Pick & Choose menu" -- pack nearly 2,200 calories, 49 grams of saturated fat, and more than 5,000 milligrams of sodium.

And last but certainly not least, there's the mountainous "7x7 Steakburger 'n Fries" from Steak 'n Shake. "It's seven beef patties layered with seven slices of cheese, and it's served with fries," Einstein says. The tally for both is 1,570 calories, 47 grams of saturated fat, and more than 4,500 milligrams of sodium.

You can read the entire report from CSPI here.

Chains Vs. Independent Eateries

Not everything on the menu at big chains is bad. Joan McGlockton, vice president of Food Policy & Industry Affairs for the National Restaurant Association, says its members have recognized that people want healthier choices, and that their research shows "healthful options are a lasting strong trend across the industry."

And starting in December, new regulations will require big chains to post calorie counts directly on their menus.

Nutrition professor Roberts says that's a good first step, but she warns the new law doesn't apply to independent eateries, which make up about half the restaurants in the U.S.

Roberts and her colleagues at Tufts used a machine called a "bomb calorimeter" to test 157 of the most commonly purchased meals from independent restaurants around Boston. Bomb calorimeters are extremely accurate way to measure the calorie content of food.

They found that on average, meals at independently owned restaurants had about 1,300 calories each -- roughly 50% more than the similar meals served at chain restaurants. They published their findings in 2013 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

"Independent places have calories that are just as bad as the places that give [or list] calories. Plus, they don't give you the counts, so it is easy to think you're eating something reasonably sized when it is absolutely the opposite," she says. "I absolutely think the law doesn't go far enough."

To eat healthier when you're eating out, CSPI offers these tips:

  • Order from the "light" menu, which typically offers more reasonably-sized entrees.
  • Swap beef for chicken, turkey, or veggie patties on a burger. Trade fries for a green salad.
  • Pick pizzas with a thin crust.
  • Skip fried seafood. Get it baked, broiled or grilled.
  • Look for leaner cuts of steak. A filet or sirloin typically has less fat than a New York strip, porterhouse, ribeye, or T-bone.
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SOURCES: Susan Roberts, PhD, professor of nutrition, Tufts University, Boston. Paige Einstein, registered dietician, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. "Xtreme Eating 2015," The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. Erica Ettori, Director of Communications, Red Lobster, Orlando. Joan McGlockton, Vice Presiden of Food Policy & Industry Affairs, the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C. JAMA Internal Medicine, July 22, 2013.

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