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Like the Oscars, Only For Gluttony



If movie stars dress in couture gowns for awards shows, chain restaurants load up on calories, saturated fat and sodium.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest unveiled the winners of the fourth annual “Xtreme Eating Awards” at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, recognizing — or rather, lambasting — five chain restaurant dishes for their roles in expanding America’s waistlines. 

The (un)lucky winners included Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt, which has 1,260 calories; the Cheesecake Factory Farmhouse Cheeseburger, which is topped with an egg and weighs in at 1,530 calories; Cold Stone Creamery’s PB&C Shake, a 24-oz blended drink loaded with 2,010 calories; Applebee’s Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs with Fettuccine, a pasta dish containing 1,520 calories; and the Cheesecake Factory Ultimate Red Velvet Cheesecake, which has 1,540 calories and a shocking 59 grams of saturated fat (three days worth for the average person).

While CSPI called out five dishes by name, nutrition director Bonnie Liebman says that the winners merely represent a culinary environment that offers consumers very few healthy choices. At most of the major sit-down chain restaurants, the bulk of the menu items are dishes that contain over 1,000 calories, Liebman points out.

The best one can hope for is to find a meal on the healthy portion of the menu, which is typically limited in selection. “A lot of people, especially young people, don’t remember when portion sizes used to be more reasonable,” she adds.

Portion sizes and calorie content has gotten so out of control that the dish that was once the hallmark of gluttony — McDonald’s signature Big Mac — now looks “quite dainty,” says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. The Big Mac contains 540 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat and 1040 milligrams of sodium, according to McDonald’s. Along with the 1,500-plus calories on that award-winning Cheesecake Factory burger, there are 21 grams of saturated fat and 3,010 milligrams of sodium.

There are some signs the tide is turning, Jacobson says. The Food and Drug Administration will soon require that chain restaurants include calorie information on menus. While Jacobson admits the move is “not going to cause everybody to go on a diet,” it will likely prompt restaurants to begin to offer a wider selection of healthy items, and take some of the bad content out of their highest calorie goods.

“The menus will shift somewhat in a lower calorie direction,” he says.

Interestingly, the highest calorie dish CSPI came across during its selection process wasn’t named an award recipient. At 2,570 calories, 85 grams of saturated fat and 2,980 milligrams of sodium, Morton’s Porterhouse Steak with Mashed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach is probably the most unhealthy meal CSPI found. 

It wasn’t named a winner because “at $80 a menu, it’s not just a belly buster, it’s a budget buster,” Liebman jokes.

Click here to find out more about the Xtreme Eating Awards.