When ordering a dinner entrée at a restaurant, few expect the waiter to return with a plate that holds more than their daily supply of calories -- or enough salt to meet their maximum daily intake for three days.
But if you order from the menu at some popular chain restaurants, this is exactly what you can expect to get. So says a scathing new report, titled "XTreme Eating 2009," released Tuesday by the nutrition and advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI, said that while the report covers just nine offerings from various chain restaurants, there are many more options that did not make the list, but which are nonetheless unhealthy.
"These items are just the tip of the iceberg in a growing trend of making restaurant foods bigger and badder," she said. "There are a number of trends in the restaurant industry right now that make it harder for Americans to eat well and watch their weight."
Restaurant industry representatives bristled at the annual report, which they said does not accurately portray most restaurant fare. Sheila Weiss, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the industry group National Restaurant Association said many restaurants have made strides toward healthier options in recent years.
"I think that unfortunately reports like this focus on the negative aspects," she said. "What would be helpful for the consumer would be to show them the options that are the healthy options in restaurants.
"There is definitely a time to indulge, and definitely a time to eat your favorite foods, in the context of a healthy lifestyle."
Central to the discussion of what restaurants should be offering consumers is the role of personal responsibility. In other words, shouldn't customers be able to order what they want, no matter what it does to them if they clean their plates?
Wootan acknowledged that the responsibility ultimately comes down to the consumer. But, she said, restaurants should be required to put certain nutritional information like calories, fat content and sodium content on menus next to these offerings.
"We're not saying take it off the menu," she said. "But the least that restaurants can do is to tell you how many calories you're eating.
"How can you make an informed decision and exercise personal responsibility without information?"
But even when presented with the information, will consumers make the right choices? When it comes to these foods, nutritionists say maybe not.
"People like [these foods]," said Barbara Rolls, director of the Laboratory for the Study of human Ingestive Behavior at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. "A lot of them are playing to our basic taste. A lot of them are based on the comfort foods we grew up with.
"In the end it's our responsibility, but the restaurants are really good at making this stuff taste good and we need to really be giving people more choices in portion size."
Keith Ayoob, nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, agreed. "All of these chains have one thing in common -- they make food people like to eat," he said. "One thing that applies to all of these meals is that they're way too high in calories."