June 3, 2009

Super-Size You

Maggie forwarded this story to me. It’s about the latest press release from CSPI, the people who brought you the warning against “buttered” theater popcorn and sneaky chinese food dishes:

It’s as if restaurants are on a mission to make bad food even worse,” says Jayne Hurley, a CSPI nutritionist. Fifteen years ago, restaurants entrees or appetizers might top out at 1,000 calories, and now we are finding in them in the 2,000 calories range.”

The article lists some of CSPI’s worst offenders for high calorie entrees, some reaching heights of 2800 calories.

It’s pretty amazing. The restaurants actually love this sort of news story because it allows them to make statements like this:

Mark Mears, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for The Cheesecake Factory, says, “With over 200 items on our menu, we have literally something for everyone. We have items that are very healthy, and we have some items that are more indulgent. The portions at The Cheesecake Factory have always been generous.

Essentially, it’s an opportunity for them to advertise their food selection and describe themselves as “generous” and “indulgent” — traits people look for when they’re going out to dinner.

The trend toward increasing the size of meals will likely continue. The advantages are too great for the restaurateur. Large meals are seen as “generous” and “getting your money’s worth”. It brings people in the door; increased customer traffic is a good thing. Increasing the price of a meal and increasing the size means more profit per customer. Ka-ching.

But what Mr. Mears goes on to say is also true. These larger meals are a good size for people to share, or for people to take home for a second meal.

Taking food home has obstacles. It requires willpower, many meals are not nearly as good reheated, and if you’re far from your refrigerator it isn’t always safe to carry around cooked food that is within the bacterial growth temperature danger zone.

Splitting a meal between two people requires that the restaurant takes kindly to the practice. Restaurants look at every seat as bringing in a certain amount of money. If you buy one meal for two people, they may see you as costing them money. It also means a smaller tip for the waitstaff with pretty much the same amount of work. I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable to think I’m eating in a place that may be unhappy that I’m splitting a meal. If you plan to do that, you can ask before you’re seated if there are any policies against it, or how a restaurant feels about it.

It’s a little disingenuous for restaurant folks to say “you can just split a meal” — if that is an approved activity, they could mention it on the menu or offer half-sized meals. Again, they don’t want to offer those meals because they are not as profitable.

Regardless, if you care about your health, you probably ought to split your restaurant meals or make a habit of taking food home. Even 1,000 calories is a lot for one meal, considering you eat three meals a day. The secret to restaurant food, most of the time, is a generous use of butter. Butter makes things delicious and sends your calories skyrocketing. This means that if you’re trying to watch your weight, eating out is nearly out of the question unless you are extremely vigilant in your choices (with restaurants and with the dishes you order) and in your willpower.

Bonus: This article has a number of tips on restaurant eating. Most of them are common sense, but still good to keep in mind.

Posted by James at June 3, 2009 10:26 AM
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I'm amazed, now that we're dieting (I've lost 6.5 lbs, yay!), how little food we actually require. I am eating TINY portions, and half-way through the meal thinking, "there's more"? This is not to say I'm not hungry quite a lot, but I have gotten used to eating a lot less and it isn't difficult.

What I'm concerned about is our trip to D.C., because restaurant portions are easily four times as large, easily, as what I usually eat and as you say, loaded with butter. "Healthy" options are often un-appetizing and they don't need to be; it's frustrating. (e.g. Chili's "steamed vegetables," that they put some yucky cheese on. Why do people need cheese dumped on something to make it good? Can't they add something for flavor without cheesy fat?) I hope they're kind about letting us split meals and ordering appetizers for meals. Otherwise I might be eating one meal a day!!

Posted by: Maggie at June 3, 2009 11:10 AM

I noticed a few months ago that many places seemed to abandon the health-consciousness of the last few years in favor of bigger portions and more indulgent foods. My guess is it has to do with the psychology of the recession. Folks are depressed and stressed out, they want comfort food not rabbit food. They're already pinching pennies, they don't want to have to feel like they're sacrificing when they do go out to eat. Every dollar counts, you might as well get the most food for your dollar. Et cetera.

Plus, as you mentioned, even without a price increase, it doesn't really cost the restaurant that much more to give you a bigger piece of cake, a bigger burger, or more fries.

Posted by: David Grenier at June 3, 2009 12:24 PM

God I hate these stories. FRIED macaroni and cheese has a lot of calories and fat?? (a big Borat inspired) WHAT!!! Well duh. If people are stupid enough to order these things then they deserve the heart disease they are asking for.

I actually don't find eating out to be that hard but then I don't eat at many chain restaurants and my diet often forces me to eat things sans sauce or have just a salad. I find that, in general, the better the restaurant the more reasonable the portions and healthier the food. Granted I don't have to worry about feeding kids at the same time so that probably gives me more choices.

I find when traveling I almost never eat lunch. Breakfasts tend to be so much bigger than i need that I'm fine through dinner and then I just get an entree. No appetizer, no dessert. Or maybe a soup and salad. Also it's generally only a few days so it shouldn't kill you one way or another. I also tend to be a little more active on vacation so that probably helps too. We generally spend almost every day of vacation walking/hiking/biking.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at June 3, 2009 1:04 PM

As a celiac sufferer, I think it's safe to say that you are a lot more conscious than most people about diet.

It's not entirely fair to expect people to know how much the Olive Garden Tour of Italy plus salad and bread sticks adds up to in calories. 2100 calories is outrageous.

I sat in a coffee shop today and watched a huge fellow suck down a large coffee drink that was half full of cream. I bet he didn't even consider that part of the food he ate today, but it had more calories in it than any of the meals I've eaten in the last 2 weeks.

It's more ignorance than stupidity. If you're saying it should be common sense, then I agree. All too often, such sense is not common. I welcome the occasional reminder from CSPI, but I don't think many people are listening.

As far as what David said about comfort food and the recession, it's too true. Food helps with stress in the short term. Additionally, the less money people have the harder it is to eat healthy. Fresh, less-processed foods often take longer to prepare and cost more than highly-processed convenience foods.

In calories-per-dollar, you can't beat Twinkies, Big Macs, KFC, etc.

Posted by: James at June 3, 2009 4:20 PM

Er, I meant "if you were saying it SHOULD be common sense"


Posted by: James at June 3, 2009 4:21 PM

Spare me. Nobody goes to a feeding farm like the Cheesecake Factory with their health in mind. If anyone seriously believes these nasty chain restaurants that are basically hog troughs offer anything healthy--be it by ingredients or size--have them call me so I can sell them a bridge or some land in FL.

Eating out should be a treat. To me, a treat isn't eating mounds of goo dripping with fat. Eating in a real restaurant (not a chain) is a pleasure to be savored. Unlike so many Americans, I've never said to myself, "Ooh, their portions are huge--I think I'll go there."

Gluttony isn't a sin for no reason, you know.

Posted by: Patti M. at June 3, 2009 6:27 PM

And by the way, nobody stands at your table with a gun and forces you to overeat by finishing all the food brought to you.

People, you don't have to clean your plates. When you're full, stop. It took me some time to unlearn the depression-era attitude of not wasting food. Really, your heart, knees, and your body as a whole will be better if you don't stuff yourself on a routine basis.

I often ask the server if a+b will be too much, and how big the portions are. Try it!

If you can't take the uneaten food home, well, so be it. Better to leave food on your plate than to eat until you're uncomfortable (Ding ding ding! Your body is warning you to stop!).

Posted by: Patti M. at June 3, 2009 6:33 PM

Bob, you have to remember how small I am and how active I am at home. I won't be able to run the same distance in DC, if I'm able to run at all. Walking all day does not equal running five miles, trust me! (Even if I spend months doing heavy-duty yard work most of the day (like last spring, when I put in a path and filled the rest of the back yard with peastone) in addition to my running, I don't lose weight.) And since I'm eating practically nothing, it's going to be really hard to match that at a restaurant. But I'll survive. I'll just probably gain weight. Only once in my life have I managed not to gain weight on a vacation, and I've tried many times. And we'll be there a week, which is a long time to be inactive and eating out. :-( I'm not whining, it's just that everybody's body doesn't work the same. Maybe if I try your trick of no sauces and soups/salads.

Posted by: Maggie at June 3, 2009 6:51 PM

Maggie, you might try what I do before I travel. I look up the destination in Frommer's online and check out type and price so I stay within my corporate per diem, and also to ensure I'm not suddenly wandering around at 7 P.M. looking for a place I can eat. Here's the restaurant link for DC:


The write-ups often have links to the restaurants, where you can look at menus.

Posted by: Patti M. at June 3, 2009 7:21 PM

Thank you, Patti. I'll look at that. It's good to have that information in advance, as you say, because when you're really hungry, reason goes out the window!

Posted by: Maggie at June 4, 2009 10:33 AM

I also check local papers and sites for dining tips and events.

Here are a couple in D.C.:



Posted by: Patti M. at June 4, 2009 11:02 AM

Patti, we'll have to agree to disagree about DC restaurant reviews. I don't care for the Post's or Washingtonian. Something about Tom Sietsema just never sits well with me. He's bright, but I disagree with him more of then not.

As much as I hate to say it, the folks on Yelp (when there are enough reviews) get it right for average folks more often than not.

And as for portions, I sent this to my nutritionist, Doc. She's really worked well me to construct better, healthier meals. Get this: I can work in a Panera while waiting for an appointment and easily pass by My Major Bread Cravings. For me, it became a matter of learning a new way of doing things.

That's not to say I'll never eat fresh bread and good butter again. I just won't eat it twice a day in portions that are meal-sized.

Posted by: George Bounacos at June 4, 2009 3:18 PM

To give up bread completely for me would be impossible, unless my life depended on it. And for someone who loves to bake, it's like having a Panera in your house. And we always keep good butter in the house as well because... well you can't not have good butter in the house!

I bake less often on a diet, but I still bake. The last two week it's been spiced levantine flatbreads. the good thing about those is I can put them in the fridge in a bag and they last a number of days. the kids will eat them and you can cut off portions with a knife.

A baguette or sourdough boule begs to be eaten in a day. We just don't have company often enough.

Posted by: James at June 4, 2009 3:53 PM

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