Xtreme Eating Awards 2013: Extremism Running Amok at America’s Restaurant Chains

Read the full Xtreme Eating Report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest here.

A milkshake with a slice of apple pie blended right in. A 3,000-calorie plate of pasta. A breakfast that includes deep-fried steak and pancakes (and hash browns and eggs and gravy and syrup). Obesity rates may show signs of leveling off, but it looks like America’s major restaurant chains are doing everything possible to reverse the trend, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group unveils the latest “winners” of its Xtreme Eating Awards in the current issue of its Nutrition Action Healthletter.

“It’s as if IHOP, The Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and other major restaurant chains are scientifically engineering these extreme meals with the express purpose of promoting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “You’d think that the size of their profits depended on their increasing the size of your pants.”

Most people wouldn’t sit down to eat a 12-piece bucket of Original Recipe KFC all by themselves, says CSPI. Yet The Cheesecake Factory somehow crams about that many calories into a single serving of its Crispy Chicken Costoletta—though the bucket of KFC has less than half the saturated fat, “only” two days’ worth as opposed to the four-and-a-half days’ worth in the costoletta. In fact, the Crispy Chicken Costoletta has more calories (2,610) than any steak, chop, or burger meal on The Cheesecake Factory’s famously oversized menu.

To put these numbers into context, a typical adult should consume about 2,000 calories and no more than 20 grams of saturated fat and 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than six teaspoons of added sugars for women and nine teaspoons for men. The Xtreme Eating dis-honorees include: 

  • IHOP serves a breakfast consisting of deep-fried steak with gravy, two fried eggs, deep-fried potatoes, and two buttermilk pancakes. The Country Fried Steak & Eggs combo has 1,760 calories, 23 grams of saturated fat, 3,720 mg of sodium, and 11 teaspoons of added sugar. CSPI says that’s like having five McDonald’s Egg McMuffins sprinkled with 10 packets of sugar.
  • Johnny Rockets’ Bacon Cheddar Double burger has 1,770 calories, 50 grams of saturated fat, and 2,380 milligrams of sodium. An order of the chain’s Sweet Potato Fries adds another 590 calories and 800 mg of sodium. The chain’s Big Apple Shake—a milkshake that actually contains a slice of apple pie—has 1,140 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat, and about 13 teaspoons of added sugar. That meal delivers a total of 3,500 calories (nearly two days’ worth), 88 grams of saturated fat (four-and-a-half days’ worth) and 3,720 mg of sodium (two-and-a-half days’ worth. It’s like eating 3 McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese, a large Fries, a medium McCafé Vanilla Shake, and 2 Baked Apple Pies.
  • The Deep Dish Macaroni & 3-Cheese at Uno Chicago Grill has four cups of pasta; Cheddar, Parmesan, and Romano cheeses; an Alfredo sauce made from heavy cream, cheese, rendered chicken fat, and butter; and a crushed Ritz Cracker topping. With a day’s worth of calories (1,980), three-and-a-half days’ worth of saturated fat (71 grams), and two days’ worth of sodium (3,110 mg), eating this entrée is like eating a whole Family Size box of Stouffer’s Macaroni & Cheese—with half a stick of butter melted on top.
  • One might think that the Bistro Shrimp Pasta from The Cheesecake Factory is one of the less fattening things on the menu, what with its shrimp, mushrooms, tomato, and arugula. It actually has more calories than any other entrée (at 3,120), along with 89 grams of saturated fat (enough to keep your arteries busy from Monday morning to noon on Friday, says CSPI). It’s the nutritional equivalent of three orders of Olive Garden’s Lasagna Classico plus an order of Tiramisu.
  • Smoothie King combines peanut butter, banana, sugar, and grape juice in its Peanut Power Plus Grape Smoothie. Some may think that sounds healthy, but a 40-oz. large size has 1,460 calories and three- and-a-half days’ worth of added sugar (22 teaspoons). Make that six-and-a-half days’ worth, since the 17 teaspoons of naturally occurring sugar in the grape juice aren’t any healthier than added sugar. There’s an additional 12 teaspoons of sugar coming from the banana and nonfat milk.
  • Few would consider eating an entire, eight-serving Entenmann’s Chocolate Fudge Cake. Yet a slice of the Chocolate Zuccotto Cake at Maggiano’s Little Italy is roughly equivalent, with almost a day’s worth of calories (1,820), three days’ worth of saturated fat (62 grams), and four days’ worth of added sugar (26 teaspoons).

The full list of winners is available here.

Calorie counts will soon be required on chain restaurant menus, thanks to the landmark health care reform legislation signed by President Obama in March 2010 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Draft regulations that implement the calorie-labeling provisions have been released by the Food and Drug Administration, though final regulations have been stalled for months, according to CSPI.

“I hope the Obama Administration promptly finalizes overdue calorie labeling rules for chain restaurants,” Jacobson said. “Not only do Americans deserve to know what they’re eating, but, as our Xtreme Eating “winners” clearly indicate, lives are at stake. And perhaps when calories become mandatory on menus, chains will begin innovating in a healthier direction, instead of competing with each other to make Americans heavier and sicker.”

CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter is published 10 times a year, has 850,000 subscribers, and accepts no advertising.

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