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How accurate are chain restaurant calorie counts?

“Taste the lighter side of delicious when you go Olive Garden,” an ad says. But when we analyzed one of the restaurant’s new Lighter Fare dishes, it had more calories and fat than claimed in the company’s online stats. 

Now that calories and fat content are widely listed on websites (and calories are listed on many menus), we chose 17 items from 12 casual restaurants and fast-food chains and compared their claimed nutrition with reality. And we weighed each serving. We tested the same items from three restaurants in each chain.  

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The good news is that most dishes told the truth. Olive Garden’s Lasagna Primavera with Grilled Chicken was one of only two dishes with calories or fat content higher than the restaurant’s website said at all three locations. The claim: 420 calories and 15 grams of fat. The reality: 508 to 585 calories and 25 to 32 grams of fat. (Since this story published, Olive Garden informed Consumer Reports that its website had contained incorrect nutrition information. The lasagna dish, according to Olive Garden, has 530 calories and 20 grams of fat.)

Another item with more fat in our tests than advertised online was Outback’s Chicken on the Barbie. Other dishes were either on target (on average) or had fewer calories or less fat than claimed.

Still, nutrition varied widely at some locations. Case in point: Denny’s Fit Slam, claimed to have 390 calories and 12 grams of fat. We found those approximate levels in two restaurants. At a third, the Fit Slam had 494 calories and 19 grams of fat.

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That’s because serving sizes ran the gamut. In three Olive Garden restaurants, Fettuccine Alfredo weighed roughly 14 to 22 ounces. Portion sizes also varied widely at Applebee’s, Denny’s, and Red Lobster.

Bottom line. Nutrition numbers from chain restaurants were generally accurate in our tests. But watch out: The Cheesecake Factory’s 36-ounce (more than 2 pounds) meatloaf dinner had up to 2,016 calories (the maximum number most people should have in a day) and up to 132 grams of fat (about twice as much). And that’s before any cheesecake.

A breakdown of actual caloric data from popular chain restaurants. 

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