Nutrition Action Healthletter
March 1996

Bad News Breakfast


Sure, you know that eggs are high in cholesterol, sausage is fatty, and pancakes with syrup aren't diet food. That's no surprise. But the answers to this mini-quiz may be.

1. Which has more fat: an order of hash browns or two slices of toast with margarine or butter?

2. Which has more saturated fat: a Belgian waffle or an order of biscuits & gravy?

3. Which has more calories: two scrambled eggs or four strips of bacon?

You'll find the answers as well as the (mostly) bad news about eating breakfast out below. The bottom line: if you go with many of the most popular breakfast specials, you can easily blow a day's worth of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium not to mention 1,000 calories before 10 a.m.

Bad News Breakfasts

What you don't know about restaurant breakfasts can hurt you, as the answers to our little quiz above suggest.

Who would have guessed that two slices of toast with margarine or butter have more fat than an order of hash browns? Or that a Belgian waffle has almost twice as much (artery clogging) saturated fat as biscuits & gravy? Or that two scrambled eggs have more calories and fat than four strips of bacon? But they do.

You'd never know because few restaurants provide nutrition information on their menus. And we only know because we had the dishes analyzed.

We looked at popular breakfasts served at some of the country's largest family-style restaurant chains: Denny's, Big Boy, Shoney's, Perkins, SHOP, Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans, Bakers Square, Waffle House, Village Inn, and Carrows.

And what they serve is, generally speaking, different combinations of your arteries' worst nightmares:

Any one of those ingredients is enough to make your blood vessels quake. Pile two or more on the same plate and you could be in real trouble. It's surprising that restaurants don't sell life insurance right on the premises.

Of course, you can get a healthy breakfast when you eat out. Most places have hot or cold cereal, juice, plain toast or English muffins, and fresh fruit. You might even be able to scare up a bagel or some non-fat yogurt. (Some chains we looked at, like Bob Evans and Village Inn, have special "healthy" sections on their menus. We didn't test them, so we can't vouch for their claims.)

And if your favorite restaurant has a "breakfast bar," head for it. It's not perfect, you probably won't find lower-fat turkey bacon or veggie sausage. But you can load up on cereal and fruit. Just pretend that the "all you can eat" sign doesn't apply to the bacon, eggs, etc.

Other breakfasts are less healthy, but not terrible. Take scrambled egg-substitute with hash browns, ham, and two pieces of toast, or pancakes or French toast with ham or two pieces of bacon.

As long as you hold the margarine or butter, they're no fattier than a spaghetti with meat sauce dinner or the "healthy" versions of chicken fajitas we've praised in the past.

But you're still getting at least half a day's sodium plus lots of empty calories from the sugary syrup. So don't think of it as breakfast. It's really the equivalent of dinner. . .a big dinner. And even if you pay extra for orange juice or a fruit cup, you've got a lot of catching up to do if you're going to get five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables by bedtime.

The Main Event

Pick the wrong breakfast, like pancakes or French toast with butter or margarine and sausage, and you can do as much damage to your arteries as two Quarter Pounders and a large order of fries.

Here are some of the most popular platters, with their main dishes ranked from best (least saturated fat) to worst (most saturated fat).

Typical Platter: Many restaurants offer something like Denny's Cereal Combo, which consists of 2% milk on cereal, plus a cup of juice, 3/4 cup of fruit, and toast, bagel, biscuit, English muffin, or blueberry muffin. Get it with plain toast, bagel, or English muffin and you could eat five of these breakfasts and still get less fat and saturated fat than you would from a ham & cheese omelet.

To Make it Better: Ask for a low-sugar, whole-grain cereal like Wheaties or shredded wheat and 1% or skim milk to pour on it. Use preserves on your whole wheat toast or bagel instead of margarine or butter.

Most restaurants offer egg substitutes like Egg Beaters (which is cholesterol-free) or Eggstro'dnaire (which has a quarter the cholesterol of regular eggs) Combine either with hash browns and plain toast and you've got a pretty decent breakfast. . . if you get what you ordered. Judging by the cholesterol in the egg substitute breakfasts we analyzed, two of the nine restaurants we visited served us regular eggs instead.

Typical Platter: Denny's Grand Slam is the best-selling restaurant breakfast. How can you beat two eggs, two pancakes, two strips of bacon, and two sausage links, all for $1.99? You can't, which is why many other chains now offer similar (but not as cheap) versions like Big Boy's The Big Tuvo and IHOP's Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity.

They're grand slams all your heart and waistline. We're talking more than 1,100 calories, three quarters of a day's fat, saturated fat, and sodium, and two days' cholesterol. Cholesterol aside, that's like eating two Big Macs. If you have trouble remembering that the Grand Slam type platter has two of everything, just think of it as the Double Bypass. For an extra buck you can spring for a three-of-everything feast like Denny's Super Slam. Now you're talking Triple Bypass.

To Make it Better: Ask for egg substitute and hold the margarine or butter on the pancakes. Order fresh fruit instead of the sausage or bacon.

Typical Platter: Four pancakes with margarine or butter and syrup, With four strips of bacon or sausage links. Bacon knocks the calories up to 1,100 and the fat and saturated fat to more than half a day's worth. Sausage makes it a full day's worth. Denny's serves just two strips of bacon, but you'd still be better off with a McDonald's Hotcake Breakfast with Sausage.

To Make it Better: Tell them to hold the margarine or butter. Use just two tablespoons of syrup or ask for "low calorie" syrup (it has less than half the calories of regular).

Typical Platter: Three slices of French toast with butter or margarine and syrup, plus four strips of bacon or sausage links. At Denny's it's two strips or links. Eat the four link breakfast and you'll waddle out of the restaurant 1,300 calories heavier, and with room for no more saturated fat until lunch tomorrow.

This breakfast makes two Dairy Queen Banana Splits look like diet food.

To Make it Better: Have it made with egg substitute and skim milk. Hold the butter or margarine and use "low calorie" syrup or just two tablespoons of regular.

Typical Platter: if it resembles Denny's Southern Slam which adds two eggs, two strips of bacon, and two sausage links it also resembles the fat and saturated fat in half a pound of Spam. Some restaurants team their biscuits & gravy with hash browns and four sausage links. Congratulations. Fat wise, you've just eaten the equivalent of nine Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Frosted Donuts.

To Make it Better: You can 't.

As for the 900 calories, you could eat three McDonald's Hot Fudge Sundaes and still get fewer.

Typical Platter: At most restaurants, Belgian Waxes stand alone (phew!). But Denny's, bless its greasy heart, will throw in a piece of ham, two strips of bacon, or two sausage links for about a quarter. Save it for the parking meter.

To Make it Better: Skip the whipped topping. But that may only help a little, since most of the fat and cholesterol probably are in the batter.

Typical Platter: Mercifully, omelets usually come with "just" hash browns and toast with margarine or butter. That's enough, though, to make the fat and saturated fat equal three corned beef sandwiches.

To Make it Better: Some restaurants offer Vegetable or "garden " omelets. Ask for a cheese-less one made with egg substitute or just egg whites.

Choosing Sides

Putting together your own breakfast by combining side dishes? We've ranked the most common ones, from best (least saturated fat) to worst (most saturated fat).

Juliann Goldman coordinated the food purchasing and testing. Daved Alexander and Anne Didato helped purchase the food And Ingrid Van Tuinen and Patricia Treanor compiled the information for this article.

The Breakfast Blues

We've ranked some of the most popular breakfast platters from best to worst that is, from least to most saturated fat in their main dishes (without margarine). if your favorite platter isn't on our list, you can add up the side dish numbers yourself. Breakfasts in color are for comparison. (Note: Menus may have changed since the fall of 1995, when the dishes were purchased. Numbers are averages of breakfasts from nine different chains.)


Breakfast Calories Fat (g.) Fat (% cals.) Sat. Fat Chol. Sodium
Hot or Cold Cereal w/2% milk 210 5 19 2 10 380
Plus OJ, mixed fruit (3/4 c.), and plain toast 600 7 10 3 12 660
Scrambled Egg Substitue 130 6 43 2 0 190
plus mixed fruit (3/4 c.) And 2 pancakes with syrup (1/4 c.) Only 830 15 16 4 45 1,200
plus hash browns and plain toast 480 18 35 5 0 670
plus hash browns, ham, and plain toast 580 22 34 6 50 1,580
Scrambled Eggs (2 eggs) 290 13 39 4 440 180
plus hash browns and plain toast 650 25 35 7 440 660
plus hash browns, ham, and plain toast 740 28 34 8 490 1,570
plus has browns and toast with margarine 770 35 41 10 445 780
plus has browns, 4 strips of bacon, and toast with margarine 910 45 45 14 465 1,300
plus 2 pancakes with syrup and margarine, 2 sausage links, and 2 strips of bacon 1,130 49 39 17 525 1,790
plus has browns, 4 sausage links, and toast with margarine 1,120 67 54 22 495 1,450
plus 3 pancakes with syrup and margarine, 3 sausage links, and 3 strips of bacon 1,570 73 42 25 785 2,660
McDonald's Big Scrambled Egg Breakfast 610 38 56 10 460 1,030
with a biscuit 730 49 60 13 460 1,650
Pancakes (4) with syrup (1/4 c) only 870 16 17 5 95 1,960
plus ham (2 oz.) 970 20 18 6 140 2,870
plus bacon (2 strips) 940 22 21 7 105 2,220
plus sausage (2 links) 1,040 32 28 11 115 2,290
Pancakes (4) with syrup (1/4 c) & margarine 940 29 28 9 95 1,960
plus ham (2 oz) 1,040 33 28 10 145 2,880
plus bacon (4 strips) 1,080 40 33 13 120 2,490
plus sausage (4 links) 1,290 62 43 22 145 2,630
McDonald's Hotcake Bkft. (With margarine, syrup, and sausage) 750 32 38 8 50 1,050
French Toast (3 slices) w/syrup (1/4c) 800 26 30 7 250 730
plus ham 900 30 30 8 300 1,650
plus bacon (2 strips) 870 32 33 9 260 1,000
plus sausage 970 42 39 13 275 1,070
French Toast (3 slices) w/syrup 1/4 c.) & margarine 910 33 33 11 280 1,030
plus ham (2oz.) 1,010 37 33 12 325 1,940
plus bacon (4 strips) 1,050 44 38 15 300 1,550
plus sausage (4 links) 1,260 65 47 23 325 1,700
Biscuits & Gravy 580 31 48 10 35 1,800
plus 2 eggs, 2 sausage links and 2 strips of bacon 1,110 65 53 22 510 2,580
Belgian Waffle w/ fruit & whipped topping 900 32 31 17 240 1,160
plus ham (2 oz) 1,000 35 31 18 285 2,070
plus bacon (2 strips) 970 37 34 19 250 1,420
plus sausage (2 links) 1,080 48 40 23 260 1,500
Ham & Cheese Omelette (3 eggs) 510 39 69 17 650 1,200
plus hash browns and toast w/ margarine 990 61 55 22 655 1,790
Side Orders
Toast, plain (2 slices) 130 2 12 0 0 270
Ham (2 oz) 100 3 32 1 50 910
Bacon (2 strips) 70 5 71 2 10 260
Hash Browns (1 cup) 220 11 43 3 0 200
Toast (2 sl.) w/ margarine 260 12 40 3 5 390
Pancakes (3) with syrup (1/4c) only 720 12 15 3 70 1,480
Bacon (4 strips) 130 11 71 4 20 530
Sausage (2 links) 170 16 84 6 25 330
Pancakes (3) w/ syrup (1/4c) & margarine 770 22 26 7 75 1,490
Sausage (4 links) 340 32 84 12 50 670
To keep in mind: Egg Beaters contain no cholesterol. For a two-egg order of Eggstro'dnaire, add 110 mg of cholesterol. "If you're served butter, you'll get more saturated fat. If you're served argarine, you may get slightly lss. Note: Numbers for cereal breakfast, syrup, and plain toast are from USDA Handbook 8 and manufacturers.

Daily Limits: (Daily Values -- DV) Fat - 65 grams; Saturated Fat - 20 grams; Cholesterol - 300 milligrams; Sodium - 2,400 milligrams. Food dissected by Strasburger & Siegel, Inc. (Hanover, Maryland). Analyses done by Sourthern Testing & Research Laboratories, Inc. (Wilson, North Carolina).

Nutrition Action Healthletter