Image: Colossal Burger
Nutrition Action Newsletter
Ruby Tuesday's Colossal Burger packs about as many calories as five McDonald's Quarter Pounders.
By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 3/5/2007 7:17:54 PM ET 2007-03-06T00:17:54

Everyone likes to splurge a little when they go to a restaurant, but new research suggests some of those indulgences may be packing way more calories — and, if you aren’t careful, pounds — than you think.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research group that advocates good nutrition, highlighted menu items from popular chain restaurants that in some cases have as many calories in just one plateful as some people should eat in an entire day.

The research comes as Americans are eating out more and more, and experts are growing increasingly concerned about obesity-related health concerns. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is hoping that publicizing such nutritional information will prompt more companies to offer calorie counts and other nutrition data, so customers can better evaluate what they plan to eat.

"I would never dream of telling someone what to order in a restaurant, but people can't make informed choices without basic nutrition information," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the group.

The examples included Ruby Tuesday’s Colossal Burger, which weighs in at around 1,940 calories and includes 141 grams of fat. That doesn't even include the fries on the side. Another entree from Ruby Tuesday, the Fresh Chicken and Broccoli Pasta, has 2,060 calories and 128 grams of fat, thanks in part to a parmesan cream sauce and layer of melted cheese.

Other chains are serving up serious splurges as well. On The Border’s Double-Stacked Club Quesadilla has 1,860 calories and 52 grams of saturated fat, the study said.

Entrees aren't the only menu items that pose a serious hazard to your waistline. An order of Uno Chicago Grill’s Pizza Skins — a so-called appetizer — has about 2,050 calories and 48 grams of saturated fat, the study said. And for dessert, a slice of Chris’ Outrageous Chocolate Cake at The Cheesecake Factory has 1,380 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that people eat between 1,600 and 2,800 calories per day, depending on age, gender and other factors. The USDA also recommends that people get between 53 and 93 grams of fat.

Of course, most restaurants also offer less bulge-inducing options. Richard Johnson, senior vice president for Ruby Tuesday, noted that his chain also features lower-calorie menu items, including grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, a salad bar and other healthier fare.

Video: Mega-burger for mega-bucks “We think it’s interesting that they chose two of the items on the menu that are probably the highest-calorie items,” he said of the Center for Science in the Public Interest report.

While massive calorie counts such as these can be shocking, there are some positive signs for people who are trying to watch their weight while eating out. Sue Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said she is seeing more healthy choices on menus. She also has noticed that some higher-end restaurants are scaling back portion sizes.

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Customers — take control
Moores said customers also can takes steps to control how much food they eat, even if they want to splurge on a less healthy treat.

For example, Moores said she sees more people splitting large entrees. Customers also shouldn’t be shy about asking their servers if they would be willing to serve a smaller portion, leave off a decadent sauce or pack up half the meal in a to-go bag ahead of time.

“It really is just [about] becoming an advocate for yourself,” she said.

Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said it also sometimes be difficult to tell which items are the healthiest. She noted even trained nutritionists sometimes can't accurately say how many calories are in an item they get at a restaurant. Also, the calorie count in what seems like a similar item — such as a chicken sandwich — can vary wildly depending on how it is prepared.

Moores also would like to see more restaurants highlighting nutritional information on menus, although she said one problem is that many people may not know how many calories they should be eating, let alone how many grams of fat are excessive.

Don't ask, don't tell
It may also be true that people don’t want to think about calories when they head out for a meal. Johnson, of Ruby Tuesday, said his company experimented with offering nutritional information on its menus a couple of years ago, but pulled back after receiving feedback from customers that they didn’t want it.

Customers also often choose to eat items that are more indulgent. For example, while there has been some increased interest in Ruby Tuesday’s healthier food items over the years, Johnson said the chain’s hamburger — though not the colossal one — has always been the most popular item on the menu.

That’s evidence of why Moores, the nutritionist, doesn’t necessarily fault the restaurant industry for offering big servings of unhealthy food.

“Do [restaurants] own the obesity problem? No,” she said. “They’re serving what customers want.”

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