Americans open their wallets at restaurants an average of four times a week, according to the National Restaurant Association. But the real cost of restaurant food may be ballooning waistlines and clogged arteries.
We're spending about $222 billion on dining out each year, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it's becoming a dangerous habit.
In CSPI's new book, Restaurant Confidential, the non-profit group that campaigns to improve nutrition and health makes some surprising claims about the nutritional value of typical restaurant dishes.
The magnitude of the fat and calories in many of the foods surprised even the authors, CSPI's Jayne Hurley and Michael F. Jacobson.
"More than half of Americans are overweight and it's no coincidence that we are eating out in record numbers," Hurley told Good Morning America. "More restaurants are serving huge portions of high-calorie food. An entree or appetizer or dessert that is less than 1,000 calories is tough to find. That's half of what you need for the whole day."
CSPI nutritionists spent nine years and several hundred thousand dollars analyzing about 250 menu items. They examined national chains like Bennigan's and Applebee's, as well as family-style, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Greek, seafood, steakhouses, pizzerias and some fast food restaurants. They also looked at mall food, drinks and movie snacks.
The average person needs about 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day, containing about 65 grams of fat. But Americans can take a big bite out of that allotment with seemingly simple snacks, or healthy-seeming meals that may be surprisingly high in calories and fat. Here is a sample of some of the items cited in the book:
Cheese Fries (appetizer size), 3,000 calories, 217 grams fat and 90 grams saturated fat
Pizza Hut Sausage Big New Yorker, per slice, 570 calories, 33 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat
Starbucks Venti White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream, 600 Calories, 25 grams fat, 15 grams saturated fat.
Starbucks Scone, 530 Calories, 26 grams fat, 16 grams saturated fat
Tuna Salad Sandwich, 830 Calories, 56 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat
Chicken Caesar Salad, 660 Calories, 46 grams fat, 11 grams of saturated fat
One of the disturbing discoveries about restaurant food was the huge amount of calories and fat in appetizers, Hurley said. Instead of whetting the diner's appetite, they might literally bludgeon it, with some appetizers containing over 3,000 calories. An appetizer of deep-fried onions, for instance, contains 2,000 calories. Buffalo wings totaled 1,000 calories.
A plate of cheese fries from the Outback Steakhouse chain was the worst offender they found, Hurley said. It contained over 3,000 calories and 217 grams of fat, including 90 grams of saturated fat, which is the artery-clogging kind. This one appetizer contains the maximum amount of saturated fat that a person should eat in four days.
"It's like starting your meal off with two T-bone steak dinners with Caesar salad and baked potatoes and butter, for one person," Hurley said.
Even if you split the appetizers, it is still a huge caloric intake. The fries split four ways contain 750 calories — and the diner has not even gotten to the main course yet.
Hold the Extra Cheese
If you are going to eat pizza, the wisest thing to do nutritionally is to stick to one slice of regular cheese pizza, which contains half the day's supply of saturated fat, Hurley said.
"It's not the crust — it's the cheese," she said. "And when you go to the extra cheese and the toppings you have a big problem."
The Pizza Hut Big New Yorker Sausage pizza contains 570 calories per slice, along with 33 grams of fat and 14 grams of saturated fat. That amounts to three-quarters of a whole day's suggested caloric requirements. In terms of health value, the pizza slice is worse than a Big Mac from McDonald's. But while most people wouldn't eat more than one Big Mac, almost everyone has more than one slice of pizza.
Hurley suggests that pizza lovers order half cheese, and choose vegetable toppings, which cut down on calories and fats. They should also avoid stuffed crusts, she said.
When Snacks Become Meals
At Starbucks, a Venti White Chocolate Mocha with whipped cream contains 600 calories, 25 grams of fat and 15 grams of saturated fat. That is the equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese from McDonald's. If you add a scone, that extra snack adds 530 calories, 26 grams of fat and 16 grams of saturated fat. That is the equivalent of a Quarter Pounder.
You can easily reduce the calories by asking for skim milk and skipping the whipped cream. A latte with skim milk is only 150 calories and a cappuccino with skim milk is only 100 calories.
Lunch can also lead to calorie confusion.
A tuna salad sandwich might seem like a healthy choice, but the tuna is usually drowned in mayonnaise, and that is where the problem is, Hurley said. A run-of-the-mill tuna sandwich has about 830 calories, 56 grams of fat and 10 grams of saturated fat. If you add chips, that equals 1,000 calories.
Try going to Subway, where a light mayo version of the tuna salad sandwich is about one half of the calories, Hurley suggests.
Even Salad Isn’t Safe
A chicken Caesar salad may sound healthy, but it usually is not exactly diet food. A typical one contains 660 calories, 46 grams of fat and 11 grams of saturated fat.
Most of the fat is in the salad dressing, because restaurants often put too much on. Try ordering the dressing on the side, or asking for less of it.
Hurley says that it should be mandatory for restaurants to place nutritional values on the menu. The big chains already have the information, and they should give it to consumers, so that they know how much they are eating, she said.