Nutrition Action Healthletter
Jan/Feb 1997 — U.S. Edition

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What's At Steak?

Steak as entertainment.

People don't just go out for steak because they love the flavor of a juicy porterhouse or prime rib.

They go to sit in a Western saloon where the floor is strewn with peanuts and the servers occasionally burst into dance (Lone Star). They go to soak in the country and western atmosphere and admire the hunting trophies on the walls (LongHorn). They go to a wilderness trading post to watch the moose, buffalo, and trees talk (Bugaboo Creek).

People are stampeding to mid-priced, casual steak houses. At Outback, the industry leader with an Australian ranch decor, sales grew by more than 50 percent in 1995.

How much damage does a visit to the ranch do to your arteries and waistline.' We analyzed 15 dishes from popular casual steak houses.

Our results: Steak can be a decent meal or a disaster. But the worst food you can buy at a steak house isn't steak. It's the appetizers.

Appetizers are big at mid-priced steak houses (we didn't look at budget chains like Sizzler or Ponderosa or at pricier places like Morton's or Ruth's Chris Steak House). They're big sellers ... and big, period.

Even if you split it with a friend, an order of cheese fries with ranch dressing has more fat than an untrimmed 16-ounce prime rib. And just half a battered, deep-fried whole ("Bloomin"') onion with dipping sauce is as bad as an untrimmed 20-ounce porterhouse. The bottom line: Choose carefully.

Ditto for the side dishes. Order your steak with a Caesar salad and a baked potato with butter and you'll get four to six times more fat than you'd get in a house (mixed or green) salad with "lite" or fat-free dressing and a baked potato with a tablespoon of sour cream.

Of course, you've got to watch what steak you order, too. Don't mosey into a steak house unless you know which steaks are the leanest. Sirloin and filet mignon put all the others to shame. Everything else we tested explains how steak got its reputation as a heartbreaker.

Choose a New York strip or T-bone, for example, and there goes your artery-clogging fat allowance for the day, if you trim all the fat off the outside. A trimmed porterhouse or prime rib swallows almost two days' worth of "bad" fat. Eat them as they come and each will cost you even more ... and that's before you dig in to your side dishes.

The healthiest entree you can buy at a steak house is still the barbecue chicken breast or the grilled fish. And eating red meat frequently -- even lean red meat -- may raise your risk of colon and prostate cancers.

But if you love steak, an occasional visit to the trading post, ranch, or saloon doesn't have to do in your diet. ff you're willing to pick and choose among the steaks and side dishes, you can walk out of the restaurant with only half a day's artery-clogging fat and 800-or-so calories.

Here's the lowdown on the 15 dishes that we analyzed.

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


Eat just half -- and no dipping sauce -- and you'll use up nearly a day's worth of fat and artery-clogging fat, more than half a day's sodium, plus more than 800 calories. It's like whetting your fat appetite with two Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizzas. Half a serving of dipping sauce means almost another pizza.

To Make It Better: You can't.

Eat the whole thing and you'll hit 3,000 calories, three days' worth of fat, and more than four days' worth of artery-clogging fat. Share it with a friend-or even two or three-and the numbers are still outrageous.

Cheese fries are worse than any of the steak platters we analyzed. Heck, cheese fries are worse than anything we've ever analyzed. That includes a plate of fettuccine Alfredo, or even a large bucket of movie-theater popcorn popped in highly-saturated coconut oil and topped with "butter."

To Make It Better: You must be joking.


The calories drop to 550 if you skip the potato and try the vegetable of the day -- usually seasoned broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. But watch out. "Not-so-smart" sides -- like a Caesar salad plus a baked potato with butter -- will triple the fat and double the calories.

To Make It Better: To cut back on the sodium, use just a tablespoon or two of the barbecue sauce that's sometimes served on the side.

Add "smart" sides and you'll use up "just" half a day's sat fat. It's not chicken breast, but it could be a lot worse. Caesar salad and a baked potato with butter triple the fat to a day's worth.

To Make it Better: Trim if you want. But most sirloin has too little fat to do much harm.

You can get by with just 800 calories if you stick with "smart" sides. Get a Caesar salad and a potato with butter and you're up to 1,100 calories.

To Make It Better: Skip the bacon that Lone Star and some other restaurants wrap around their filets.

Think of each six-ounce untrimmed chop-most restaurants serve two-as the fat equivalent of a McDonald's Quarter Pounder. Add a Caesar salad and a baked potato with butter and it's like eating two large orders of french fries with those burgers. Cutting all the fat off the edges of two chops brings their artery-clogging fat down from three-quarters to half a day's worth.

To Make It Better: Eat only one trimmed chop (take the other home) and "smart" sides to cut the fat by more than half.

Getting three-quarters of your day's artery-clogging fat in one entree-that's with no sides-leaves your heart out on a limb.

To Make It Better: Skip the fatty dill-sour-cream sauce that Outback serves with its rib eye.

You get almost a day's worth of artery-clogging fat before you even look at the sides, smart or otherwise. And that's trimmed. New York strip is fatty ... and restaurants serve three-quarters of a pound of it. That's three recommended servings.

To Make It Better: Take half home for a steak sandwich tomorrow.

Order it with a Caesar salad and a baked potato with butter and you've just Fed Ex'ed your arteries two days' worth of gunk.

To Make It Better: To get no more fat than a sirloin, you'd have to share it with two others.

To Make It Better: Forget it. A porterhouse is a "steak through your heart."

Add a Caesar salad and baked potato with butter to even a trimmed prime rib and they may need to wheel you out of the restaurant, 1,700 calories heavier, and with over half the meal's 104 grams of fat as wallpaper for the arteries that nourish your heart.

To Make It Better: If you eat just half, trimmed, and add "smart" sides, you'll get "only" 38 grams of fat.

Juliann Goldman and Ingrid Van Tuinen coordinated the study. Daved Alexander helped purchase the food.

How We Got Our Numbers

We bought takeout portions of 15 popular appetizers, entrees, and side dishes at 26 steak houses in Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Las Vegas, and Washington, DC. We made a composite from nine samples of each item (equal portions of nine restaurants' sirloin steaks were mixed together, for example) and analyzed the composites for calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. We then calculated numbers for each platter by adding together the lab results for its a la carte components.

We went to some of the largest casual steak houses: Damon's, Lone Star, LongHorn, Outback, Steak and Ale, Stuart Anderson's, and Tony Roma's, as well as some smaller chains and independents.

We ordered all meat entrees cooked "medium." And while we analyzed all the meat untrimmed, since that's the way it was served, we also calculated numbers for trimmed steaks and chops. To get them, we followed one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's protocols for trimming steak.

We asked laboratory technicians to cut off-with scalpels-all the fat around the edges of-but not inside-the meat. Some people also trim the fat that's inside their steaks. On the other hand, most people aren't as careful as technicians.

So, on balance, our trimming probably approximates how much fat is left on meat that people trim when they eat in restaurants (or at home). If you trim every speck of fat off the outside and inside of a steak, you'll get less fat than our "trimmed" numbers.

The Great Steakout

Within each category, dishes are ranked from best to worst-that is, from least to most artery-clogging fat (saturated plus trans). Foods that we analyzed are in bold. Steaks and chops are ranked based on their "trimmed" numbers (in purple). The weight in parentheses after each entree (except prime rib) is before cooking. (Note: Menus may have changed since the fall of 1996, when the dishes were purchased.)

To view the Steakout chart.

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