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May 25th, 2010
02:39 PM ET

Restaurants take calories to the extreme, report says

By Sabriya Rice
CNN Medical Producer

An estimated 67 percent of U.S. adults over age 20 are overweight or obese - and a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest says some popular restaurant chains are contributing to the problem.

The report awards the Extreme Eating 2010 Award  to a total of nine dishes from seven companies.  

“These chains don't promote moderation. They practice caloric extremism, and they're helping make modern-day Americans become the most obese people ever to walk the Earth," stated CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a press release.

The report highlights for example that a Five Guys bacon cheeseburger with a large order of fries adds up to 2,380 calories, and that P.F. Chang’s double pan-fried noodle combo, which includes beef, pork and chicken, comes to about 1,820 calories.  One meal can put a person close to – or well over – the 2000 -2500 calories  per day the USDA recommends for the average person to maintain a healthy weight.

A spokesperson from P.F. Chang’s says the nutritional information for the double pan-fried noodles combo is inaccurate. The company notes that according to the website, the dish contains only 455 calories per serving, and the serving size is for four people. However the CSPI says, that wording can often be misleading.

“One of the oldest tricks in the book is to say that a given plate of food serves X number of people,” says the CSPI. “While people do often share at Chinese restaurants it's hard to imagine four people sharing this and nothing else!”

CNN received responses from two of the other restaurant chains mentioned in the report. California Pizza Kitchen – which was cited for two dishes, including a pesto cream penne pasta that amounted to 1,350 calories before any meat was added – says it offers a wide variety of menu choices and that, most often, its pizzas are shared. “We welcome our guests to modify any of our menu items to meet their dietary needs," a company spokesman says.  Similarly, Outback Steakhouse said its chefs can customize meals, desserts and drinks to satisfy customers’ specific preferences and dietary needs. Outback says the company was among the first  to offer an online nutritional tool that “ provides [consumers] with all of the information needed to make an informed decision when placing an order.”

In fact, many of the companies in the report currently list their nutritional information right on their websites: Bob Evans; California Pizza Kitchen; Five Guys; P.F. Chang's; Outback Steakhouse; Chevys. Nutritionists say it is a good rule of thumb to check out nutrition information before heading to a restaurant. Also, the USDA and the American Heart Association  offer other useful tips for ways you can eat healthfully when dining out on their websites.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Ryan

    I am not for government restriction or intervention, but I would encourage people to pay attention to how many calroies they are eating. Many times the foods we eat in restaurants contain many more calories than most people would think. I have twice in the last 6 months taken the time to look up the number of calories in the places I eat out at, neither of which would be considered terribly unhealthy places in general, and I was shocked both time to see how many calories were in the meals.

    I think the point of the article is to keep track of these things and read the fine print on what is a "portion":

    May 26, 2010 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sue

    While the article does make a good point, why do people not realize that healthy choices in food are just as easily available ? If there's a PF Chang in the freezer section, there's also Lean Cuisine which has lots of oriental meals. If people insist on making stupid decisions and choose to eat "large fries and a triple cheeseburger" instead of a just-as-available grilled chickn sandwich, it is completely their own fault, and they have no one but themselves to blame for their obesity. Why do we expect the govt to be our nanny and absolve us of all responsibility towards our own health ?

    May 26, 2010 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Pam

    I am so tired of the restaurants being blamed for obesity; obese people are to blame. We also don't get off of our lazy butts to do anything for ourselves anymore. Food is around every corner, not like when we were growing up and burger joints were a treat. We also eat like it is our last moments on earth, racing to see who gets there first. I can say this because that's how I use to eat; I eat slow now. I use to be fat, partly because of junk food and eating fast; an hour after a meal, I would be hungry again and eat. The other part was medication, which I quit taking but it was mostly HOW MUCH I ate.

    You can go to any restaurant you want, and eat anything as long as you do it slowly. Stop during a meal to talk if you are with someone; if you are alone, just stop a couple of minutes from eating. You will not be able to eat everything if you eat slow; that's what to-go boxes are for. I get two, sometimes three, meals from a restuarant visit or even a drive-thru meal.

    May 26, 2010 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Lisa P

    I think the restaurants should be required to provide accurate information on the menu about how many calories a particular dish contains so that people can make an informed decision. As it now stands, it is not possible to do so. Most people are not going to look on a website before they go to a restaurant. Furthermore, if this issue was about "personal responsibility" then 66% of the American populace wouldn't be overweight or obese. The problem is that there are very serious problems with the nation's food supply and our eating habits that aren't going to be resolved by self-righteous cliches about personal responsibility.

    May 26, 2010 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. amanohyo

    For those who complain that this is the government controlling our lives, what's wrong with requiring that large chains display nutritional information on the menu? You are still free to eat whatever you want, it just provides additional information.

    The amount of sodium in the average American restaurant meal is obscene, to say nothing of the calories, even if you only eat half of the enormous portion. Anything that allows people to make more informed and healthy decisions is a good step.

    May 26, 2010 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. retire 10

    I have had some restaurants bring me only 1/2 of what I ordered to eat and then take a doggy bag home for another meal. It not only saves calories at once, but also gives you a second meal for one price

    May 26, 2010 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lydia

    Lincoln and David, both of you are way off your mark.

    Most of the articles CSPI offers are pretty much common sense. All they do is alert the public about what's in the stuff they serve and sell in fast food restaurants, chain restaurants and supermarket aisles.

    Whether you are a Republican or Democrat or tea-totaler, wouldn't you like to know what you are eating and how much it will add to your girth? I do and I'm obese.

    I take full responsibility for my weight. With that said, if I read a menu and its implication is that it is healthy, I'll go for it. So if the dish has over a day's worth of salt and fat, that would put a damper on what I could eat the rest of the day.

    Most adults assume when they are pigging out, they think they are pigging out with a caloric intake of more or less 1000 calories. Many people would never think 2350 calories in one sitting.

    Restaurants serve meals in huge dishes and dangle "all you can eat" deals all over the place along with the bottomless drink. Eventually this all catches up to us and only we can monitor it.

    The food industry is not blameless but unless we know what we eat, we will not be able to make informed decisions. So yes, let CSPI continue with their work. No one is obligated to read their publications but we sure can learn from them and that's not a bad thing.

    May 26, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Lincoln Brigham

    Does anyone ever notice that the math from the Calorie Counting Commandos like the CSPI never works out over the long run? It sounds great in theory, but do the math.

    For example let's assume that your calorie counting is off by 15%, a rather modest miscalculation. Calculate what happens to your bodyweight after only 5 years. Calculate by using both an overestimate of calories and an underestimate. What amount of weight loss/weight gain do you get? If you use the Calorie Counting Commando's assumption that a pound of bodyweight is 3,500 calories, I get a weight gain/loss of 156 pounds for someone that is supposed be eating 2,000 calories a day.

    Now run the math using CSPI's claim that people are massively underestimating the amount of calories they consume. Does the answer even make sense?

    Obesity is a year-to-year problem, not a day-to-day or meal-to-meal problem. CSPI makes the assumption is that obesity is due to inaccurate calorie counting. However, the math clearly shows that counting calories couldn't possible be the method the body uses to regulate bodyweight in the long run. A system designed that way could never work; not now, not 10,000 years ago. The body is using a different, more sophisticated method to try to establish homeostasis. Obviously that system has been disrupted – and that system is not a calorie counting system.

    May 26, 2010 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. kevin

    Actually, man was a grazer for millions of years. He ate small amounts all day, wherever he could find it. And most of that was not meat.
    Lincoln, you should get your facts straight........., not make them up to support your opinion

    May 26, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Helen

    I just came from London and Paris trip. I have seen none of fat people on the streets. None. Only when I met fellow American :-:). And considerable amount of us has genes that are coming from exactly the same place ... But ... Portions are smaller. People are using public transportation and walk between trains. I almost did not see snacking people around me.
    The bottom line is that something is wrong with our food habits or food quality or state food regulation or ... I do not know may be all of the above.
    And insead of getting angry when we are told so we shall be looking for solutions. 2000 calories meals are not part of the solution for sure.

    May 26, 2010 at 15:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Just the Facts

    I must say, as someone who falls into the 67percent of overweight/obese adults, it's not the restaurant's fault that I'm in this category. It's my fault for choosing high calorie foods, eating too much and not getting enought physical activity in. I'm currently working toward not being a statistic and while it's a difficult process, I don't need other people/companies to take the blame on my behalf.
    If more people would take responsibility for their own health, not only learning to eat better for themselves but making sure their kids are given the tools they need to make good choices, we'd all be better off for it.
    We all need to stop making excuses about time (not having enough to cook a proper meal, causing a reliance on fast food), blaming everyone else, and generally passing the buck.
    No one made me fat but me, no one can get me back to a healthier weight but me.. and that's just what I intend to do!

    May 26, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. joseph pablo

    How about this... eat as much as you feel comfortable eating then go for a nice run around town to compensate! maintaining a heathly lean body is not only about what and how you eat. A good excercise routine will increase your metabolism which will allow you to intake more calories to feed your body. I am a binge eater myself but I maintaint a healthy body by excercising every chance I get ,even just 10 minutes here and there, and 30 minutes every morning. Keeping your heart rate up and running means your body needs more fuel to run! I'm not saying it is right to eat three 1800+ calorie meals a day but excercising would definitley be an important factor in the equation!

    May 26, 2010 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. chessyjames

    Oh, come on, what a worthless study. The restaurants are only giving their obese customers what they want. It's simple supply and demand, just like anything else. Don't blame restaurants for their customer's obesity. Nobody is holding a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to overeat–it's a personal choice. If the restaurants mentioned in the article were to suddenly serve meals unsatisfying to their obese customers, they would just eat somewhere else.

    May 26, 2010 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lincoln Brigham

    kevin said,

    "Actually, man was a grazer for millions of years. He ate small amounts all day, wherever he could find it. "

    and sometimes the hunter/gatherer pigged out when he came upon a cache of food.

    and sometimes he went for long periods of time without a lot of food.

    and this irregular feeding did not cause him to become fat.

    The human body was designed to withstand large fluctuations in food availability, to survive while maintaining a remarkably stable bodyweight. Until very recently.

    Seriously people, the occasional big meal is not the cause of obesity. The Thanksgiving feast was invented long before the obesity epidemic hit.

    May 26, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. David Ridge

    Why is it that Americans in particular have such serious problems with obesity? Now the Army says obesity in young adults is a threat to our national security, 1 in 4 are unable to serve because of their weight. It's not just obesity that's the problem, diabetes and heart problems are also on the rise with no end in sight. Those of you who keep pushing personal choice seem to be pushing for nothing to change. How far should the obesity problem go in our country before significant changes are made to at least stop the trend, never mind turning it around.

    Did I miss the part of the story where the government wants to control what we eat? I believe the key here is education and disclosure of what people are eating. If restaurants are willing to serve high calorie dense meals to make money off the Americans insatiable desire for bad foods why can't they disclose basic nutritional information on the menus? They don't want Americans to have the facts because they might make other choices.

    As far as supply and demand, did people really demand deep fried butter, twinkies and pop tarts at county fairs or was that food offered because they knew Americans would buy it? That crap wouldn't sell in Japan, at least not very well.

    We have an obesity problem, which is now becoming an epidemic. Something has to be done.

    May 26, 2010 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. kakilicli

    According to my BMI, I'm obese (> 30). That's just based on hight and weight. I also had a bone density scan that accurately measured my percent body fat (about 17). BMI is based on a whole bunch of assumptions about body composition that can be grossly inaccurate for people with large bones or are muscular. Great scare tactic! Too bad a lot of people buy into it.

    May 26, 2010 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. j

    Wow, yet more blame on resturants by Jacobson who doesn't seem to understand that something that doesn't sale wouldn't be served, and that it's people's choice to get the lard laden garbage. Until the blame is put on those at fault, the fat folks too lazy to exercise self control, and the decision to eat such crap carries a risk they can understand, like not being allowed medical care to replace their clogged arteries, this will continue.

    Hell, why fight it anyway, it could be the answer to over population.

    May 26, 2010 at 23:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rob L

    I can't believe the amount of ignorance I read through, ok maybe I can.

    Comparing how our prehistoric ancestors ate 60 thousand years ago, to how we eat now? 1. Those people led VERY active lives. 2. Those people were also not consuming processed foods, genetically modified foods, the vegetation they ate was not loaded with pesticides, or lacking in nutrion due to depleted soil, and the meat they ate was 100% natural, not hopped up on steroids and other hormones. They ate when they needed to, or could.

    The bottom line is that while the food industry is giving people what they want, they pretty much make it a secret what people are getting... It's fine and good that Five Guys makes their nutritional info available on their website, but why not in the store itself, like say Subway? Is it because some of Subway's subs have only 350 calories and less than 6 grams of fat, and low levels of all that other good stuff, while Five Guys bacon cheeseburger has 900 calories and like 40 grams of fat and loaded with sodium? Five Guys and all these other restaurants don't make their nutrional info readily available to the consumer because they know full well that most people, including the heaviest of the heavy, would turn away from getting a 900 calorie 40 grams of fat cheeseburger. Are they responsible for making people fat? Not entirely, but they responsible for making the contents of their product readily available to people in their stores, no questions asked. Sorry, but a man or woman, fat or thin, cannot possibly be expected to check on the nutritional info of a restaurants food before hand every single time out, if you go out on your lunch break from work more often then not you are making a spontaneous decision.

    There is also this issue that I see a lot of with these restaurants... The ones that DO offer healthy alternatives aren't offering healthy alternatives at all in many cases... Some of these salads are loaded with fat and sodium. And then there is desceptive advertising... I went to a Wawa store recently, and was gonna get a chicken wrap instead of a mini sub sandwich, the package of the wrap had pictures and labeling that suggested it was healthy, it was packed next to the salads, next to the fruit, and all the other healthy food.... I turned the package over and saw that this thing had 28 grams of fat in it!!!! I also went to get a salad, and saw that one of these salads, without any dressing, had 20 grams of fat, all because of this little pinch of cheese they include, they keep the cheese off the salad, so you don't have to add it, but still, how many people really think to look at the calorie and fat content of a salad that has not dressing, no croutons, no bacon bits, just a pinch of shredded parmasian cheese, a tiny sliced egg, and cubed ham (which is not high in calories or fat really)... Even if you took those things into consideration, would you think 20 grams of fat? Probably not.

    When I was a kid I worked at Burger King, and at the time they had pamphlets that had all the nutrional info for every item, including contiments like ketchup.... Not anymore. It doesn't help that todays small drink was yesterdays large? Also, when I worked at BK the Double Whopper wasn't even a menu item, the only people who were ordering them were Mexican landscapers in Freehold NJ... I don't recall people asking for larger fries or drinks, and certainly don't recall the masses asking for double, triple, or quadruple Whoppers. The idea that there is public demand for these items is BS, the companies create the product and offer it to the consumer, and more often then not the consumer will buy it.

    Now this doesn't take away individual responsibility... Cheeseburgers and french fries are not healthy, everyone knows that Whoppers and Big Macs are not good for you, but there are still millions who shovel them down their throats, they also know that sitting on the couch all day isn't healthy and that chewing does not constitute exercise.... These people need to stop living in denial, as a business that serves the public these restaurants are obligated to make their nutrional info readily accessable on a whim, but people are obligated to themselves to make the right choices, there will be that person who will see the nutrional info for a Five Guys burger and still eat it a few times a week... If he drops dead in the Five Guys store then it's his fault 100%, Five Guys told him that eating that food that often is bad.

    The government shouldn't be in the business of forcing restaurants to serve only healthy food, but the government should force them to make the nutrional info available in the store and on the packaging.

    May 29, 2010 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Chipper

    I wish that the restaurants would at least make the nutritional information known, and make it easily available for the patrons. I used to go to a well know Italian chain, but stopped after I found out that the nutritional information was not available. When I emailed the chain, they replied that they had decided not to publish that information. That scared me off of eating there!

    It would be nice for restaurants to offer plant-based, whole food selections. Whole wheat, brown rice, is that so hard to offer? As it is now, it is difficult to go out and get a decent meal without feeling like they are posioning you.

    June 1, 2010 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. mdyer

    I've taken to looking up the calories at places like Olive Garden before I go there- there are good web sites for that. I don't want to eat a 2000 calorie meal at one sitting. I used to could eat anything and stay skinny, but I am older now and don't want to turn into a blimp. I sure don't think the government needs to make these choices for me.

    June 1, 2010 at 23:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Marie

    Restaurants should be REQUIRED to list basic nutrition information and accurate serving sizes on menus just as food labels are required to do so. I would not consider that 'governmental control' over what we eat. It will be a tool to empower people to make healthier choices.

    With 2/3 of people obese or overweight, clearly 'personal choice' is currently NOT working in America. The government should promote tools for making healthy eating choices, while not explicitly limiting certain menu options.

    June 2, 2010 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. TJ

    I do try and look up calorie information before I go out to eat. Some places don't list the information anywhere. Try and find nutritional information for Buca di Beppo. I went for a business dinner where I wasn't the one in charge of choosing the location. I couldn't find anything associated with Buca listing the information. With a google search I was able to find some information for a few menu items but have no way of knowing how accurate the info was. I don't see anything wrong with requirering caloric info be included on the menu. While people need to make the right choices, they could use a little help. Even if you eat only half or a third of a restraunt serving, you could still be getting way more calories then you need. It's frustrating when you do the effort to educate yourself to make good choices and the information isn't available.

    June 7, 2010 at 16:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. JH

    The resturants are NOT to blame. It is in their right to make a profit and make money out of food. IT IS the responsiblity of the obese and overweight indivisuals in this country to educate themselves about healthy living, being active, taking care of their body. In the end, your reap what you sow the more fat you eat the more health problems you get.

    Once again I blame the obese individuals NOT the resturant.
    People need to educate themselves about the importants of healthy living.

    Peace.

    June 8, 2010 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Cassie

    It is appalling that so many people are justifying and defending our high calorie and large portion society. These are unnecessary and quite crude to the human body. We no longer eat to survive, we eat for pleasure. Satisfying cravings has become a way of life and filling the stomach to capacity is a norm. There is no justifying our way of life, our processed high calorie rich foods, or the portions we consume. This is no longer an isolated issue either. Asia is beginning to suffer due to our chain's migration. Rather than spend $20 dollars at a restaurant's meal, why don't you go to the grocery store, purchase $10 in vegetables, and make a veggie stir fry at home, and donate the remaining $10 to a charity that provides NECESSARY food for starving people in other regions. America is a worldwide embarrassment, especially in our consumerism.

    June 22, 2010 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Dog Boy

    What is appalling is that other people think they have the right to tell me, a grown man, a father and grandfather, what I should or should not eat. It’s my choice to visit a restaurant and feast if I so choose. It is not the restaurant’s fault if I order something I enjoy and love – in fact I GO THERE because the dish I want they create. This “let’s take care of fat people” talk is shameful and degrading and has nothing to do with freedom and personal accountability.

    September 13, 2010 at 15:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. amma

    This articles strikes me as funny today, as just last night I went to a wonderful small Italian restaurant with delicious food, attractively prepared in small proportions. I came home to post on Yelp about how good the food is, only to find that previous Yelpers had rated the restaurant ONE STAR, saying they thought the food was exceptional except for the "small portion size"! Some even said they'd rather have had a larger plate of mediocre food for their money. The owner of the restaurant replied on Yelp explaining he is from Northern Italy and as he is aware of the love of hearty meals in the US, the portions he serves are actually larger than those served in Italy. Subsequent posters didn't care – they said he was in America now and he must serve more food to keep people happy.

    So there's my own anecdote that connects to survival of the fittest, as another poster mentioned upwards somewhere – to survive in the restaurant world in the US you have to give the customers what they want – and what they want is not proper, meal size portions of well-prepared and attractive food. They want to feel they're getting a lot of food for their money. Restaurants who don't offer what the consumer wants won't last long.

    September 27, 2010 at 06:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • william

      Hi amma im doing a research paper on this obseity problem... i would love to cite the source that you used for the yelp rating restaurant.... would it be possible to tell me about the website where you saw the comments of those people complaining about the small portions?

      October 26, 2010 at 01:52 | Report abuse |
  27. Samantha

    I think they that resturants should not have to take food of of there menu do to high calories.But i think it should be made that each resturant should have to have a nutrition guied for any coustomer who needs it because my boyfriend has suger and he has to know how many carbs and in his food for the right amount on medication to take!!!! so i think they should make that a law!!

    February 16, 2011 at 20:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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