"I don't believe consumers actually go to restaurants like Olive Garden or Romano's Macaroni Grill to become devotees of this healthful eating style," said Jackie Newgent, culinary nutritionist and author of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook." "I believe consumers go to these Italian chain restaurants because they love the food and they get filled up without spending a fortune."
Both the Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill were quick to respond to the CSPI report. Both chains noted that customers at their restaurants were free to request healthful alternatives to many options on the menu.
"Our menu has something for everyone, from traditional favorites to lower-fat garden fare items," the Olive Garden said in a statement. "There are also choices available to guests to tailor their meal to accommodate their preferences from whole wheat pasta to steamed vegetables."
"Macaroni Grill is able and happy to modify most menu items to fit the individual dining and dietary needs of its guests," read another statement from Macaroni Grill. "For example, substituting side items or whole wheat pasta, getting sauces or dressings on the side, and asking for adjustments in preparation or a container for leftovers are very common guest requests."
And even CSPI applauded Macaroni Grill for posting its nutritional information online. But diet experts were quick to point out that the heavy portion sizes at these establishments, more often than not, tipped the scales against the chances for a healthy dining experience.
"The quantities are outrageous, often two to three times the calories and fat that a meal should contain," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine New York. "That's the antithesis of the Mediterranean diet."
Part of the problem is that, with all that Americans hear about a Mediterranean diet, few truly understand what might constitute such offerings.
"Basically, a Mediterranean-style eating approach refers to a plant-based diet with plenty of produce, grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil, some cheese and yogurt, fresh fish and poultry, very little red meat, moderate alcohol (mainly wine) consumption and plenty of exercise," Newgent said.
"It's a diet that is based heavily on fruits, vegetables, fish and for fat, olive oil," Ayoob said. "But olive oil is simply the main fat source; it doesn't drown everything, as some would like to believe."
The Mediterranean diet is so foreign a concept in mainstream American restaurant cuisine that some say it's almost a sure bet that if you're eating out, the food you're enjoying is probably nothing like what actually graces the tables of families living on the shores of the Mediterranean sea.
"The idea that a chain restaurant could produce healthy Mediterranean food is unlikely," said Dr. Darwin Deen of the department of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "I have eaten at both Romano's Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden and can tell you that while it is possible to eat healthy from their menus, most of what is offered is no better than a steak house in terms of complying with the Mediterranean diet."
There are ways for Italian chain restaurant faithful to make their outings as healthy as possible.