By Matt Smith
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Aug. 1, 2016 -- A nearly 3,000-calorie burger with five kinds of meat and four kinds of cheese tops a food watchdog group's annual list of the least-healthy chain restaurant meals this year.
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"We're in the middle of an obesity epidemic, yet restaurants chains are just piling it on," says Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and co-author of the group's "Xtreme Eating 2016" list. "There's more layers, there's more courses, there's more combos. The portion sizes are really out of control."
Topping the nutritionists' charts this year is the Whole Hog Burger at Boston-based Uno Pizzeria & Grill. It's a 2,850-calorie mix of meats that delivers 62 grams of saturated fat and nearly 9,800 milligrams of sodium. That's more than a whole day's worth of calories for all but the most active adults.
"That's up there with some of the worst meals we've ever seen," Moyer says. "It's not just one type of meat, it's five of the fattiest types. There's hamburger, sausage, bacon, prosciutto, pepperoni. And it's not just one type of cheese, there's four. Plus, there's fries and onion rings."
U.S. government nutrition guidelines recommend that adult women get between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day, depending on age and physical activity. For men, the recommendation is 2,000 to 3,000 calories. Those guidelines urge that no one should eat more than 2,300 milligrams of salt and 31 grams of saturated fats daily.
A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association called the examples like the Whole Hog Burger "cherry-picked" and said restaurants are offering healthy choices.
For its part, Uno said it's not surprised the Whole Hog Burger wound up on the list. "It was designed for this kind of thing," says Uno Chief Marketing Officer Skip Weldon in a statement.
"We created the Whole Hog Burger to be an over-the-top eating experience that would capture the attention of our customers, taste great, and be a fun challenge to conquer," Weldon says. But he noted Uno restaurants also offer healthy items and post nutritional information on interactive kiosks.
The CSPI, a Washington-based nonprofit that pushes for healthier food, has been putting out the list since 2007 to spotlight what it sees as worst restaurant meals. Other items on this year's list include:
- The Short Rib and Cheesy Mac Stack at game palace Dave & Buster's, a beef sandwich topped with macaroni and cheese, with more than 1,900 calories
- Buffalo Wild Wings Dessert Nachos, a fried flour tortilla loaded with ice cream, cheesecake bites, chocolate and caramel sauce, at 2,100 calories
- Sonic's 44-ounce Grape Slush with Rainbow Candy. It's a grape-flavored crushed-ice drink laced with pieces of candy that packs 970 calories.
"Sonic's sugary, slushy drinks are basically liquid candy, but then they actually add candy to them," Moyer says. "That was something we had never seen before. The candy alone adds 370 calories, and so you're drinking one and a quarter cups of pure sugar."
And perennial contender The Cheesecake Factory is on the group's list again this year, weighing in with a 2,580-calorie combination of chicken and waffles and eggs Benedict, served with butter-infused maple syrup.
"No one goes to The Cheesecake Factory expecting a healthy meal," Moyer says. "But their latest creation even surprised us this year."
The Cheesecake Factory chief spokeswoman Alethea Rowe says in a statement the restaurant also offers customers a "SkinnyLicious" menu with nearly 50 dishes of 590 or fewer calories.
"The Cheesecake Factory has always been about choices," Rowe says. "Many of our guests come in and want to celebrate and not be concerned with calories. Others want to share their dish -- and a large percentage of our guests take home leftovers for lunch the next day."
Susan Roberts, PhD, the director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University, calls the calorie counts at the top of this year's list "huge, obscene and really, really unhealthy."
"It is impractical to think about working off anything of this magnitude. You would have to run something like a marathon to burn off these huge amounts," Roberts says.
But highlighting items like the Whole Hog Burger can be valuable, she says, not so much because consumers will change their habits, but because it can spur restaurants to revamp their offerings.
"That is a good thing to aim for," Roberts says. "It's very unhelpful to have portion sizes like this being treated as normal."
Christin Fernandez of the National Restaurant Association, the industry's leading trade association, says the list doesn't reflect the industry's support for healthy choices and providing consumers with information they can use to make those choices.
"CSPI's cherry-picked examples paint an inaccurate picture of the great strides the industry has made in the area of nutrition," Fernandez says. "America's 1 million restaurants provide numerous options to accommodate all types of tastes and diets -- diners looking for an occasional indulgence or those that are keeping things light."
Moyer says there are signs that having more information available for consumers is starting to affect what they order, and restaurants are starting to respond. That may pick up steam in 2017, when the FDA will require all chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie information on their menus.
In the meantime, the CSPI says calorie-conscious diners should look for a featured "light" menu, skip appetizers, substitute chicken or veggie burgers for beef, or get a doggie bag and make two meals out of one.
"We are starting to see more restaurant chains incorporating more vegetables, more whole grains, and more lean proteins in response to consumer demand," Moyer says. "It depends on the chain, but I think there are some bright spots. It's just people still need to know what the standard is, and the standard is getting at least 1,000 calories in an appetizer, entrée, and dessert."
SOURCES: Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Xtreme Eating 2016." U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020." FDA: "Menu and Vending Machines Labeling Requirements." Susan Roberts, PhD, director, Energy Metabolism Laboratory, Tufts University. Christin Fernandez, spokeswoman, National Restaurant Association. Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Skip Weldon, chief marketing officer, Uno Pizzeria & Grill.
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