Your favorite fast food restaurant is often like your favorite city: Visit some neighborhoods and you live the high life. Visit others and you’re just plain asking for trouble. And that’s where Eat This, Not That! comes in: We’ve analyzed and graded 66 different chain restaurants—fast food and sit-down—to determine which ones have healthy options, and which could turn out to be diet disasters.
What we found will surprise you. Specifically, some of the fast food joints you’ve come to think of as terrible for you actually ranked alright—McDonald’s scored a B+, for example, so the Micky D’s drive-thru just might be your fast-lane to weight loss. Something even more shocking, though: more than half of the sit-down restaurants we graded ended up with our lowest scores!
To separate the commendable from the deplorable, we calculated the total number of calories per entrée. This gave us a snapshot of how each restaurant compared in average serving size—a key indicator of unhealthy portion distortion. Then we rewarded establishments with fruit and vegetable side-dish choices, as well as offering whole-wheat bread. Finally, we penalized places for excessive amounts of trans fats and menus that tempt you with fat-laden desserts. Hey, if the neighborhood is crowded with shady characters, sooner or later, one of them will jump you.
Here’s our restaurant report card for some of the unhealthiest restaurants in America. It’ll help you stay on the safer side of town.
We thought we'd see some improvements after we identified Baskin's Heath Shake as the Worst Drink on the Planet. All they did was lower it from 2,300 to 1,900 calories, leaving an almost equally egregious drinkable disaster to set back unsuspecting sippers. It’s typical of the menu there; B-R’s soft serve is among the most caloric in the country, the smoothies contain more sugar than fruit, and most of what Baskin sticks into a cup winds up with more fat than what'll end up on your plate at a steakhouse buffet. Check out our complete list of the 20 Unhealthiest Drinks in America to see the other liquid offenders. If you learn how to make smart choices when you sip, you can lose a few pounds a month—without giving up your favorite foods, or ever dieting again.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: With frozen yogurt, sherbet, and no-sugar-added ice cream, Baskin's lighter menu is the one bright spot. Just be sure to ask for your ice cream in a sugar or cake cone—the waffle cone will swaddle your treat in an extra 160 calories.
Most fast-food restaurants today are making at least some attempt to offset their bulging burgers and deep-fried sides with healthier options such as lean sandwiches or yogurt parfaits. But Carl's Jr. is swimming against the nutritional tide, trying to attract those with hearty appetites and less concern about fat, salt and calories. The lightest item on the breakfast menu, for instance, is the Hash Brown Nuggets—but even they have 21 grams of fat, and 5.5 of them are trans fats. (As a rule, you should try to get 2 grams or fewer of the stuff in an entire day!) The burgers are worse, and there's not a side on the menu that hasn't been given a long, bubbling bath in their trans-fatty frying oil.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Find another place to grab lunch. Failing that, you should settle on either the Charbroiled Chicken Salad with Low-Fat Balsamic Dressing or the Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich—the only sandwich on the menu with fewer than 400 calories.
Too bad the adult menu at Denny's doesn't adhere to the same standard as the kids' menu. The famous Slam breakfasts all top 800 calories, and the burgers are even worse. The Double Cheeseburger is one of the worst in the country, with 116 grams of fat, 7 of which are trans fats! (This explains why it made our list of the worst burgers in America (and what you should eat instead). Make sure you try to avoid it (and all others on the list) whenever possible.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: The Fit Fare menu gathers together all the best options on the menu. Outside of that, stick to the sirloin, grilled chicken, or soups. For breakfast, order a Veggie Cheese Omelet or create your own meal from a la carte options such as fruit, oatmeal, toast, and eggs.
Dairy Queen’s taste for excess rivals that of other fast-food failures such as Carl's Jr. and Hardees. But unlike Carl's, DQ offers an avalanche of ice cream creations to follow up its sodium-spiked, trans-fatty foods. Here's a look at one hypothetical meal: a Bacon Cheddar GrillBurger with Onion Rings and a Small Snickers Blizzard is a staggering 1,740-calorie meal with 2,640 mg sodium and 83 grams of fat—2 grams of which are trans fats.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Play solid defense. Skip elaborate burgers, fried sides, and specialty ice cream concoctions entirely. Order a Grilled Chicken Sandwich or an Original Burger, and if you must have a treat, stick to a small soft-serve or a small sundae.
The chain earned its fame from a hearty selection of hamburgers. The problem: They average 75 grams of fat a piece—more than enough to exceed the USDA's recommended limit for the day. Even the veggie and turkey burgers have more than 850 calories! The chain rounds out its menu with a selection of appetizers that hover around 1,000 calories (supposedly to be split 4-ways), a smattering of high-impact entrées like potpie and ribs, and a sloppy selection of salads that is just as bad.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Solace lies in the three Ss: steak, seafood, and sides. Sirloins, salmon, and shrimp all make for relatively innocuous eating, especially when paired with one of Ruby Tuesday's half dozen healthy sides such as mashed cauliflower and baby green beans. Other than that, impersonate Mick Jagger and think about occasionally saying goodbye to Ruby Tuesday!
From burgers to baby back ribs, Chili's serves up some of the saltiest and fattiest fare on fast-food row. In fact, with 3,810 mg of sodium and 122 grams of fat, Chili's Smokehouse Bacon Triple Cheese Big Mouth Burger earns the distinction as being one of the worst burgers in America. The Guiltless Grill menu is Chili's attempt to offer healthier options, but with only eight items and an average sodium count of 1,320 mg, there’s meager hope for nutritional salvation.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: There's not too much to choose from after you omit the ribs, burgers, fajitas, chicken, and salads. You're better off with a Classic Sirloin and steamed vegetables or broccoli. Another decent option is the Chicken Fajita Pita with Black Beans and Pico de Gallo. A lot of the appetizers, while delicious, are worrisome too—one from Chili’s made it on our list of Worst Appetizers in America.
Uno Chicago Grill
Uno has some serious strikes against it: The chain invented the deep-dish pizza, they encouraged gluttony with their Bigger and Better menu, and in 1997 they faced false-advertising charges for erroneously claiming that some of their pizzas were low in fat. They've cleaned up some of the more conspicuous health hazards and have increased nutritional transparency at all of their stores, but from appetizers to desserts, this menu is still riddled with belt-busting fat.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: First off, cast aside the bloated breadstick that Uno tries to sneak onto most plates. Next, choose flatbread over deep-dish pizzas—it could save you more than 1,000 calories. Beyond that, stick to soups or entree items served with Mango Salsa.
Don't let the made-fresh-daily shtick distract you; Chevy's massive portions push many of the meals beyond the 1,000-calorie threshold. The taco trader’s menu has three strikes against it: 1.) the consistently high amount of fat in its entrees (the average salad has 67 grams); 2.) the outrageous salt levels that make it difficult to find a meal with fewer than 2,000 mg of sodium (you should get around that amount in an entire day of eating); and 3.) the chain earns its poor score by failing to offer complete nutritional disclosure. It provides no information for its appetizers or quesadillas, for instance, and although it maintains it uses trans-fat free oils, there's no trans-fat data for the full entrees.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: The best items on the menu are the Homemade Tortilla Soup, with just 393 calories and a full 26 grams of protein, and the Santa Fe Chopped Salad, which has only 470 calories when you order it without cheese. If you can't resist an entrée, order it without all the fixin's—tamalito, rice, sour cream, and cheese. That should knock more than 300 calories off your meal.
On the Border
On the Border is a subsidiary of Brinker International, the same parent company that owns Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill. It should come as no surprise then that this chain is just as threatening to your health as its corporate cohorts. The overloaded menu offers appetizers with 120 grams of fat, salads with a full day's worth of sodium, and taco entrées with an horrific 960 calories—and that’s the calculation without rice and beans. Border crossing is a decidedly dangerous enterprise.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: The Border Smart Menu highlights four items with fewer than 600 calories and 25 grams of fat. Those aren't great numbers considering they average 1,800 mg of sodium apiece, but that's all you've got to work with.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill
For years now we've been on Romano's case to clean up the menu at the beloved Macaroni Grill. So far we've had no luck. This Italian grease spot serves some of the worst appetizers in the country, offers not one dinner entrée with fewer than 800 calories, and hosts no fewer than 60 menu items with more than 2,000 mg of sodium—almost an entire day’s worth of the salt! A select few menu items earn the restaurant's Sensible Fare logo—a fork with a halo over it—but unfortunately these items can still carry up to 640 calories and 25 grams of fat.
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Macaroni Grill will let you build your own dish. Ask for the marinara over a bed of the restaurant's whole-wheat penne, and then top it with grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. Just beware their salads—one of them made our list of America’s Worst Salads!
It's a surprise Baja Fresh's menu has yet to collapse under the weight of its own fatty fare. About a third of the items on the menu have more than 1,000 calories, and most of them are spiked with enough sodium to melt a polar icecap. Order the Shrimp Burrito Dos Manos Enchilado-Style, for instance, and you're looking at 5,130 mg sodium—that's more than 2 days' worth in one sitting!
SURVIVAL STRATEGY: Unless you're comfortable stuffing 110 grams of fat into your arteries, avoid the nachos at all costs. In fact, avoid almost everything on this menu. The only safe options are the tacos, or a salad topped with salsa verde and served without the belly-busting tortilla bowl.
Applebee’s, IHOP, Outback, T.G.I. Friday’s
These titans of the restaurant industry are among the last national chains that don’t offer nutritional information on their dishes. Even after years of badgering their representatives, we still hear the same old excuses: it’s too pricey, it’s too time-consuming, it’s impossible to do accurately because their food is so fresh, or we have too much variety. Our response is simple: If nearly every other chain restaurant in the country can do it, then why can’t they?
Your Survival Strategy: Write letters, make phone calls, beg, scream, and plead for these restaurants to provide nutritional information on all of their products. Here’s the contact information for each of the restaurants that refuse to fess up!
Applebees: 888-59APPLE, or send an e-mail
IHOP: 818-240-6055 (press 1 for Guest Visit issues)
Outback: Send an e-mail
T.G.I. Friday's: 800-FRIDAYS
For a comprehensive Restaurant Report Card on all of the other fast food and chain restaurants, please click here for the whole list.
You can also join the Eat This, Not That! premium Web site, which acts as a 24-hour-a-day online personal nutritionist, offering other useful tips, tricks, hints, and insights into navigating the restaurant industry’s nutritional landmines and making the best eating choices each and every time. Or, check out the regular site for other great articles—like the 20 worst foods of 2009 and the 20 most sugar-packed foods in America.
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