Nutrition Action Healthletter
May 1997 — U.S. Edition

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"Happy Days" . . . or "Grease"?


It's the food most of us grew up on. Meatloaf. Pot roast. Chicken pot pie. Turkey with stuffing.

It was cooked by Mom or maybe Swanson or Morton's on those rare occasions when Dad had to pinch-hit. It was classic American food before classic American food became a burger, fries, and a Coke.

Does anyone still eat '50's food? You bet.

For millions of people, it'll be on tonight's dinner menu. For others, it's comfort food . . . a once-in-a-while trip back to a safer, less complicated time.

Safer? To find out, we analyzed food from 14 so-called "family-style" restaurant chains like Denny's, Shoney's, Big Boy, Coco's, and Marie Callender's.

The results: What comforts your soul can mean trouble for your arteries and waistline. But no more than you're likely to encounter at an Italian, Mexican, steak house, fast food, or more-upscale dinner house restaurant.

Think you know '50s food?

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in nutrition to guess that a Country Fried Steak (beef that's been breaded, deep-fried, and smothered in gravy) can gum up your arteries.

Ditto for a Patty Melt (a hamburger covered with melted American or Swiss cheese and fried onions and served on grilled rye bread, typically next to a pile of french fries).

But other items on a family-style restaurant menu may fool you. For example.

1. Which has the least artery-clogging fat?

a. pot roast b. turkey with stuffing c. chef salad with dressing

2. A chicken pot pie has roughly the same fat and calories as:

a. a chicken salad sandwich b. a nine-piece order of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets c. an overstuffed corned beef sandwich

3. Which has the most fat?

a. two pork chops b. a plate of lasagna c. a serving of meatloaf d. a 12-oz. sirloin steak.

The answers:

1. a. Pot roast does the least damage. You can thank the turkey's stuffing and the chef salad's cheese and dressing for that.

2. c. A chicken pot pie isn't fried, but it's worse than fried Chicken McNuggets or a mayo-laced chicken salad sandwich.

3. b. Lasagna gets the booby prize. But the meatloaf is still worse than two pork chops or two 12-ounce sirloin steaks.

The take-home message: Family-style restaurants may be cheap, but if you don't want to blow the savings on doctor's bills, order with extreme care.

Most restaurants offer grilled chicken or fish, and you can usually get a baked potato with sour cream and a salad with low-cal dressing. Some -- like Denny's, Bob Evans, Village Inn, Carrows, and Coco's -- even have "healthy" or "lite" foods o their menus. Once you venture beyond those "safe" options, watch out.

The food may be no worse than many dishes served at more-upscale restaurants, but "no worse" is cold comfort. Don't forget: '50s food helped make the '60s the heart attack decade of the century.

Here's the lowdown on the 13 main dishes and side dishes we analyzed. We went to some of the largest family-style restaurant chains: 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.)

Within each category we've ranked the dishes from best to worst-that is, from least to most artery-clogging fat (saturated plus trans).


To make it better: No need to.
A small bonus: Pot roast often comes with half a cup of carrots, celery, and onion. Add mashed potatoes with gravy and a side of vegetables and you're well on your way to a day's worth-five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the sides also boost the sodium from an admirably low 570 mg to 1,310 mg.

To make it better: No need to.
As for fat, the whole meal is like getting chicken marsala with a side of spaghetti at an Italian restaurant or a turkey sandwich with mustard, or even mayo, is less fatty.)

To make it better: You could substitute salad or fresh fruit for the stuffing (but then it wouldn't be turkey with stuffing).
Still, a main dish that uses up three-quarters of a day's artery-clogging fat is nothing to write home about. With an order of fries, the calories climb to 1,100 and the heart-damaging fat tops a day's worth.

To make it better: Head to a chain like Carrows, which serves a meatless, delicious Gardenburger as one of its "Fit Favorites" meals.
To make it better: You can't. Order a roast beef sandwich instead.
To make it better: You can't. Order a grilled chicken dinner instead.
To make it better: You can't. Order just about anything instead.
To make it better: Get low-cal dressing on the side and use just a couple of tablespoons. Ask for extra turkey and hold the cheese.
To make it better: You can't. If you want meat, get pot roast instead.

An order of fries brings the total to two days' worth of heart-damaging fat. A vanilla milk shake ups the ante to three. Congratulations. Your 2,000 calorie lunch has the fat of two 16 ounce T-bone steaks.

To make it better: You can't.

To make it better: To cut the fat in half and the sodium to almost zip, get a plain baked potato and add a tablespoon of sour cream.
To make it better: Order fresh fruit instead. Second best is fat-free frozen yogurt or sherbet. Friendly's and a few other chains offer them.
To make it better: Head to Friendly's and ask for a Guilt Free Frozen Yogurt Shake or a Sherbet Cooler.
UNHAPPY DAYS food chart

Juliann Goldman and Trish Treanor coordinated the study. Nutrition Action sleuths helped purchase the food.

[Press Release on '50's Restaurant Food]
Nutrition Action Healthletter