Eating is Xtreme as Ever at America's Chains


"Stacked, Stuffed, and Topped" is the Trend at Applebee's and Elsewhere

July 19, 2011

If this year’s winners of the Xtreme Eating Awards are any indication, the overfeeding of America seems likely to continue unabated at the nation’s chain restaurants. The dishonorees, unveiled in the current edition of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action Healthletter, include burgers topped with pork belly and fried eggs, meatballs stuffed with provolone, and grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with deep-fried mozzarella sticks.

“If Americans are feeling a little more full when lumbering out of The Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, Denny’s, and other chains, it’s not in their heads,” said CSPI nutrition director Bonnie Liebman. “It’s as if the restaurants were targeting the remaining one out of three Americans who are still normal weight in order to boost their risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer.”

One chain, Applebee’s, is openly bragging about its new “stacked, stuffed, and topped” menu. But that’s hardly the only chain stacking, stuffing, or topping already high-calorie menu items with high-cal add-ons. To put the following numbers into context, consider that a typical eater should limit themselves to about 2,000 calories, 20 grams of saturated fat, and 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

Roll out the red carpet: Five of the eight 2011 Xtreme Eating Awards include:

Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt: In the chain’s own words, it is “four fried mozzarella sticks and melted American cheese grilled between two slices of sourdough bread.” And in the chain’s own numbers, this cheesy collision, with its side of French fries and marinara sauce, has 1,260 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat (a full day’s worth), and 3,010 mg of sodium (two days’ worth). “The possibilities are wide open,” says Denny’s. “They’re wide, all right,” says Nutrition Action. Eating this meal is like eating two Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizzas.

The Cheesecake Factory Farmhouse Cheeseburger: This burger is “topped with grilled smoked pork belly cheddar cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, mayo and a fried egg.” Red Robin, Denny’s and IHOP have similarly embraced the idea of topping burgers with eggs. But to take the spotlight, this Factory-farmed burger boasts 1,530 calories and 36 grams of saturated fat topped with 3,210 milligrams of sodium. That’s assuming you just eat the burger: French fries bring an additional 460 calories and 1,460 mg of sodium. Eating this would be the equivalent of eating three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with cheese. Add another Quarter Pounder with cheese if you eat the side order of fries.

Cold Stone Creamery PB&C Shake: Even people accustomed to 1,500-calorie burgers wouldn’t expect 2,000-calorie shakes. A 24-oz. “Gotta Have It” size shake of peanut butter, chocolate ice cream, and milk has a day’s calories (2,010) and three and a half days’ worth of saturated fat (68 grams). Cold Stone’s Web site says, without a whiff of irony, “Your Health – Just as Important as Taste.” One large Cold Stone Creamery PB&C Shake is like drinking two 16-oz. T-bone steaks plus a buttered baked potato.

Applebee’s Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs With Fettuccine: Spaghetti with meatballs was never diet food. But Applebee’s stuffs provolone cheese into these meatballs and simultaneously tops the underlying fettuccine with a marinara sauce and a Parmesan cream sauce. With a piece of garlic bread, the four cups of pasta, two sauces, and cheese-injected meatballs deliver 1,520 calories, 43 grams of saturated fat (two days’ worth), and 3,700 mg of sodium (more than two days’ worth). It’s like eating two of Applebee’s 12-oz. Ribeye Steaks plus a side of Garlic Mashed Potatoes.

The Cheesecake Factory Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake: Why stop at a slice of red velvet cake when you can top it with a layer of cheesecake, top that with another layer of red velvet cake, and top that with another layer of cheesecake? And then top that with cream cheese frosting, chocolate shavings, and a small silo of whipped cream? Weighing in at three-quarters of a pound, this dessert packs 1,540 calories and 59 grams of saturated fat (three days’ worth). Eating one slice of the Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake is like eating one Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza plus two Quarter Pounders with cheese except the cake has an additional days’ worth of saturated fat.

Happily, this is likely to be the last year that these calorie counts aren’t right on the menu for all to see, according to CSPI. The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing a set of rules implementing a calorie-labeling provision included in the health care reform legislation signed into law by President Obama in March.

“Perhaps calorie labeling will usher in a new era of common sense at America’s chain restaurants, and chains will compete with each other to come up with new, healthy menu items with more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,” said Michael F. Jacobson. “I hope at some point chains will stop stuffing, stacking, and topping with cheese and meat and white flour. Instead of setting aside a few menu items called something like ‘Lean & Fit,’ why can’t menus have a small section called ‘Fatten Up!’ and keep the rest of the menu healthy?”

Nutrition Action Healthletter is the publication that previously blew the whistle on the staggering calorie and fat content of movie theater popcorn, Chinese food, steakhouses, and other restaurant fare. Subscriptions to the 850,000-circulation Healthletter, the largest of its kind in North America, are $10 for first-time subscribers.


 

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