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A serving of meatloaf, for example, will plaster your arteries with a day's worth of heart-threatening fat -- before you touch your side dishes. It contains more fat than two 12-ounce sirloin steaks or two six-ounce pork chops.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- the group that exposed the fat content of movie-theater popcorn and Chinese restaurant meals -- analyzed popular meals from major family-style chains, like Denny's and Shoney's. The results are published in the May issue of CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.
"1950s food helped make the '60s the heart-attack decade of the century," said CSPI Senior Nutritionist Jayne Hurley, who carried out the study. "Even now, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services attributes approximately 400,000 deaths each year to poor diet and lack of exercise."
The fare at typical family-style restaurants, says CSPI, isn't any worse than what other types of restaurants dish out. But that doesn't mean it's good for you.
A patty melt -- a cheeseburger with fried onions between two slices of grilled rye bread -- gives you more than a day's worth of artery-clogging fat. Adding an order of fries brings the total to two days' worth. A vanilla milk shake ups the ante to three. That 2,000-calorie lunch has the fat of four McDonald's Big Macs.
A typical 13-ounce family-style vanilla milk shake is twice as fatty as a Wendy's shake, four times fattier than a Burger King shake, and six times fattier than a McDonald's shake. You could have a Quarter Pounder plus a McDonald's shake and still get less fat -- and saturated fat -- than you'd get from a shake at a family-style restaurant.
Hamburger is popular at family-style restaurants, but even if you get it plain -- that means no mayo, cheese, or bacon -- you're using up three-quarters of a day's quota of artery-clogging fat. That's much worse than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder, but not as bad as the larger burgers at more upscale restaurants like Chili's or Applebee's.
Hurley emphasized that family-style restaurants do offer some healthier choices and urged diners to choose them.
Pot roast, a lean cut of beef and a small-for-restaurants serving, uses up just a third of a day's saturated fat. Add mashed potatoes with gravy -- which is not as fatty as you might think -- and a side of vegetables. You'll walk away with quite a decent 600-calorie meal.
Chicken stir-fry with rice uses up just a third of a day's allowance of fat but, unfortunately, also packs almost a day's allowance of sodium.
Most family-style restaurants also offer grilled chicken or fish, and you can usually get a baked potato with sour cream and a salad with low-cal dressing. Some even have a "healthy" or "lite" items on their menus.
Once you venture beyond those "safe" options, however, watch out. "Family-style restaurants may be cheap," Hurley said, "but if you don't want to blow the savings on doctor bills, order with extreme care."
Among the biggest surprises:
A chef salad with dressing has about a day's worth of total fat and saturated fat. Most of the damage comes from the full-fat Thousand Island dressing and the rest comes from the cheese. To make it better, get a low-cal dressing on the side and use just a couple of tablespoons. Ask for extra turkey and hold the cheese.
Turkey with stuffing sounds healthy, but includes a half-day's worth of artery-clogging fat -- mostly in the stuffing. Short of holding the stuffing and substituting a salad, there's not much you can do to improve the entree.
Chicken pot pie contains nearly a day's worth of heart-threatening fat, because you get more pie crust and cream sauce than chicken and veggies. The typical pot pie at a family-style restaurant is twice the size and has twice the fat of a Banquet or Swanson Pot Pie. It contains more fat than a dozen McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.
"More and more diners are health-conscious and want to know the nutrient content of restaurant food," said CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson. "Restaurants, especially the larger chains, should provide that information. With numbers on fat, saturated fat, and calories, health-conscious diners could choose delicious, but more healthful, dishes."
In a recent survey of dietitians at a national annual meeting, at least three-quarters said that CSPI's studies of the nutritional content of restaurant foods were helpful to them. They said that they used the information in the studies both personally and professionally.
For its most recent study, CSPI bought takeout portions of 13 popular entrees and side dishes at 26 family-style restaurants in Chicago, Denver, Green Bay, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. After mixing nine samples of each item, CSPI had the composites analyzed for calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Chains sampled were Bakers Square, Big Boy, Bob Evans, Carrows, Coco's, Country Kitchen, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, Friendly's, IHOP, Marie Callender's, Perkins, Shoney's, and Village Inn. Many other restaurants serve similar food.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization with nearly one million members. CSPI focuses on nutrition, food safety, and alcohol policy. It fought for -- and won -- the law that requires "Nutrition Facts" labels on all food packages. Its studies of restaurant foods have changed the way millions of Americans eat out. CSPI publishes the Nutrition Action Healthletter and accepts no government or industry funding.
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