May 22, 2008 — -- Think you're being good when you order off the diet menu in restaurants? An investigation by several TV stations suggests that you may be getting more calories and fat than you think.
Eight TV stations owned by Scripps tested a small sample of diet menu dishes (one sample of 23 different items) from popular chain restaurants including Chili's, On the Border, Macaroni Grill, Applebee's and the Cheesecake Factory.
Reporters ordered off the low-calorie, low-fat menu. The food was then tested by lab technicians, who weighed each sample, extracted the fat and then figured out the calories in each meal.
Of the 23 items tested, 78 percent exceeded the fat limit listed on the menu and almost 69 percent of the samples went over the calorie count listed.
The guiltless grilled salmon at Chili's promises a dish that's 480 calories and 14 grams of fat. But the tests revealed the dish was actually 664 calories and 35 grams of fat.
In fact, every "guiltless" item tested from Chili's contained more fat and calories than what was listed on the menu.
"I have clients who order off the guiltless menus and many of them are not losing weight. This could explain why," said clinical dietitian Chrissy Barth.
Chicken fajitas from On the Border Mexican Grill's "border smart" menu are listed as containing 570 calories and nine grams of fat.
The serving tested weighed in at 654 calories and 26.5 grams of fat. And the dish came with a free "sample" of queso dip, salsa and chips that would add an additional 2,067 calories and 117 grams of fat.
The skinny chicken at the Macaroni Grill is supposed to be 500 calories and six grams of fat.
Not bad at all, but if you eat the huge piece of bread they include, you get twice the calories and eight times the fat.
These three restaurants are owned by Brinker International. In a statement, they apologized to their customers and said they "strive to ensure nutritional information … is accurate."
At Applebee's, reporters ordered seven meals low in fat and calories from the "weight watchers" menu.
The calorie difference was slight, but the fat was over what was stated on the menu on every item tested, doubling and even tripling the fat count in three of the meals.
Applebee's responded that their menu is 94 percent compliant and that they will continue to regularly test these "weight watchers " items and, if required, take action.
Finally, a look at the Cheesecake Factory's weight management salads, which according to the menu all have under 590 calories, found the salads were very close to the stated calorie count.
But the fat totals of all of the salads were high, topping out at 49.7 grams.
The Cheesecake Factory doesn't list the fat content on their menu, so they said that their menu was correct, and people could order dressing on the side to help cut the fat.
Barth, the dietitian, said that people need to look at "diet" menus with a more critical eye.
"When people do go out to eat they need to really … just be more aware of the portions," Barth said.
It's important to watch out for the extras that come with some of these meals. Having a great low-calorie, low-fat meal doesn't do much good if you eat the bread and butter, or chips and dip, or ladle on the high-fat dressing. Those are the things that can really pack on the pounds.