The 5 Worst Chain Restaurant Meals and 5 Better Options
Last Updated: Jan 30, 2017
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You’re hungry but don’t have the energy or patience to cook something at home, so you head out to let someone else do the cooking. You’re not alone: restaurants account for up to one out of every four calories we eat on any given day. But nutrition is about more than just calories. It’s time to take a closer look at some of the nation’s biggest chains and name names on the worst offenders and smart alternatives.
WORST: THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY’S MISO SALMON
We don’t have the official word on the damage done by many of the dishes at the Cheesecake Factory, as nutritional information isn't readily available on their website. We know from previously available nutrition data that it’s not a pretty picture, with many dishes regularly exceeding 1,000 calories -- and even 2,000 calories. The miso salmon may seem like a healthy choice, yet it clocks in at more than 1,180 calories, provides 60 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake (940 out of 1,500 milligrams) and contains two entire days’ worth of saturated fat (32 grams). This dish makes the “worst” list not only on its nutritional (de)merits, but also because of its potential to trick a customer into thinking they’re making a healthy choice.
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Courtesy of The Cheesecake Factory
BETTER: THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY’S SKINNYLICIOUS® GRILLED SALMON WITH ASSORTED FRESH VEGETABLES
Believe it or not, there are calorie-controlled options at the Cheesecake Factory. Their Skinnylicious® menu is touted for providing rich flavors for fewer than 590 calories. They don’t provide any additional nutritional information on these dishes, but a salmon and vegetable entree that comes in under 600 calories is probably a safe bet for decent nutrition. It’s good to know they offer healthier options, but it doesn’t negate that most of their menu items are sky-high with calories. If you have a choice, there are better venues for your health. Nicole Ring, RD, vice president of nutrition strategy for Healthy Dining, says California Pizza Kitchen has several dietitian-recommended items on HealthyDiningFinder.com. She adds, “Pizza can be healthy when ordered with whole-wheat crust and loaded with veggies and lean proteins.” Nutrition expert Melissa Halas-Liang, M.A., RD, CDE, says her favorite national chain is Chipotle. “I love the vegetarian bowl, and my husband loves the chicken veggie bowl.” She appreciates their kids’ options too because “they’re healthy and just the right size.”
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WORST: APPLEBEE’S PECAN-CRUSTED CHICKEN SALAD
This salad proves that conventional wisdom has its faults. That is to say salad isn’t always a healthy choice. To be fair, salads have the potential to be the healthiest thing on the menu, just not in this case. “It’s really important to read the nutrition information because even foods that appear healthy on the menu can be surprisingly high in calories, fat and sodium,” says Patricia Bannan, M.S., RDN, author of “Eat Right When Time Is Tight.” At 1,340 calories, this Applebee’s salad also surpasses daily sodium maximums (2,630 milligrams) and has a whopping 16 grams of saturated fat. It also has 64 grams of sugar -- the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 and 38 grams of added sugar per day for women and men, respectively. There are some positive nutrients -- 14 grams of fiber and 46 grams of protein -- but in this case the good does not outweigh the bad.
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BETTER: APPLEBEE’S GRILLED CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD (HALF-PORTION)
It’s challenging to find waistline-friendly dishes at Applebee’s. In fact, after reviewing their nutritional information, Patricia Bannan, M.S., RDN, says, “It is probably one of the worst chains when it comes to nutrition.” But for better or for worse, Applebee’s cannot be ignored: It is number one in casual dining and is regularly ranked as one of America’s top 10 chains. That makes it all the more important to arm yourself with a few healthy choices. This half-size salad is full-flavored and still provides an ample portion. At 400 calories, 24 grams of protein, three grams of fiber and just three grams of sugar, it’s your best bet for an entree salad at Applebee’s. It won’t be winning any nutritional awards with its six grams of saturated fat and 1,055 milligrams of sodium, but taking a look at the whole picture, it’s a great alternative.
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WORST: OLIVE GARDEN’S ROTINI PRIMAVERA WITH GRILLED CHICKEN
While this dish is made up of reasonable components, it’s the huge portions and the hidden fat that put it on the “worst” list. It earns an especially egregious position on this list because a diner could all too easily be fooled into thinking they’d made a healthy choice. The combination of gluten-sensitive pasta with a vegetable sauce and chicken looks a lot like a smart dinner choice, however, it adds up to a surprising 1,160 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat. Surprisingly, the vast majority of the total and saturated fat comes from the primavera sauce. “Sometimes looks can be deceiving in a restaurant,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, author of “Plant-Powered for Life.” “A lot of times healthy foods can have a huge amount of calories due to preparation styles, such as frying, sautéing with large amounts of oils, baking with layers of cheese and the addition of fatty sauces.”
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BETTER: OLIVE GARDEN’S HERB GRILLED SALMON
Patricia Bannan, M.S., RDN, recommends checking out the “Italian Lighter Fare” options on the Olive Garden menu. The Herb Grilled Salmon is 460 calories. The dish’s eight grams of saturated fat and 570 milligrams of sodium are not for the health purist, but they’re actually reasonable for a dinner entree at a restaurant. By comparison, another dish on the same lighter-fare menu (Garlic Rosemary Chicken) may be 540 calories, but it has an outrageous 1,630 milligrams of sodium, which shows the need to look at more than just calories. If you want to keep it in the family but trade up to a healthier venue, the same group that owns Olive Garden also owns Seasons 52, the chain that limits calories, doesn’t fry anything and never uses butter. Menus change seasonally, and every item is less than 475 calories.
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WORST: SUBWAY’S CHICKEN BACON RANCH 6-INCH SUB
Subway benefits from a health halo. To be fair, they have done a good job providing nutrition information, and they have a dietitian on staff. Their athlete spokespersons help with the halo too. “Many chains are seeing the value in providing transparency for their guests when it comes to nutrition and ingredient disclosure,” says Nicole Ring, RD. The downside is that it can be easy to get lulled in to a false sense of security. Next time you’re at this top chain, be cautious of the Chicken Bacon sub. It packs in more than 600 calories and it has about half the day’s saturated fat (10 grams) and sodium (1,290 milligrams) in just a six-inch sandwich. And when it’s rounded out with a bag of chips and soda, you’ve added another 500 calories or so, bringing the total count over 1,000 calories.
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BETTER: SUBWAY’S BLACK FOREST HAM 6-INCH SUB
Subway features 12 different subs with six grams of fat or less, ranging from 150 to 370 calories, and none total more than 1.5 grams of saturated fat per sub. Any of these would be a reasonable choice for lunch. The Black Forest Ham sub provides savory flavors at a reasonable 290 calories with just one gram of saturated fat, 800 milligrams of sodium, five grams of fiber, 18 grams of protein and eight grams of sugar. The sodium is a little on the high side, but not so high it couldn’t be balanced by the rest of the day’s choices.
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WORST: CHILI’S TEXAS CHEESE FRIES (FULL ORDER)
Imagine beginning your dining experience by sharing an appetizer with friends. Sounds like a nice way to start a meal, but even split amongst four people, Chili’s Texas Cheese Fries will add more than 400 calories to your meal before you even order your entree, let alone a beverage or dessert. The entire appetizer is 1,710 calories, with 49 grams of saturated fat (245 percent of the Daily Value) and 4,810 milligrams of sodium, more than 200 percent of the Daily Value. Again, even split four ways, this is no way to start a meal: That’s 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat and 1,202 milligrams of sodium per person.
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BETTER: CHILI’S SPICED PANKO ONION RINGS
If you’re with a group at Chili’s that’s hankering to order something fried for the table, steer them towards the onion rings. Shared evenly four ways, the appetizer adds about 240 calories, two grams of saturated fat and 400 milligrams of sodium to your meal. Better yet, order a fresh salad as a starter for the table. Split four ways, the Grilled Chicken Salad adds about 110 calories to the overall meal, as well as a serving of vegetables. This salad is on the “Lighter Choices” menu as an entree, but there’s no reason you can’t order it as a shared appetizer. If you limit starters to the appetizer menu, there simply wouldn’t be a smart option. The “Lighter Choices” menu is also a good area of the menu to look for your main entree.
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LOOKING AHEAD TOWARD HEALTH
Though it seems like we have a long way to go with some of the most popular chains in America, health and sustainability are restaurant trends that seem here to stay. Joy Dubost, senior director of nutrition at the National Restaurant Association, says that healthy kids’ meals, natural ingredients and minimally processed foods are some of this year’s top trends. According to a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision, chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments will be required to provide diners with nutrition information on menu and menu boards starting Dec. 1, 2016.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
The restaurants highlighted here were chosen for their potential impact on public health given their strong presence in the United States. Have you eaten at any of the restaurants mentioned in the past six months? Were you surprised by any of the “worst” items? How will this information change the way you order next time you eat at a restaurant? Are you looking forward to or dreading the day calorie counts will be required nationwide? Or are you already seeking out the healthiest away-from-home food you can find. And, if so, what’s your favorite chain with healthy options?
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