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.