Check, Please

Many Single Entrées at U.S. Chain Restaurants Serve Up Masses of Calories, Fat, and Sodium

by Helen Wu, Roland Sturm

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Check, Please

Many single entrées at U.S. chain restaurants serve up masses of calories, fat, and sodium. Just how bad is a full meal?

Most Americans eat out at least once a week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So they might be dismayed to learn that 96 percent of the entrées from more than 200 chain restaurants contain more calories, fat, and sodium than should be consumed in one sitting. (This finding applies to any adult who eats three roughly nutritionally equivalent meals a day and hopes to stay within U.S. dietary guidelines for a daily 2,000-calorie diet.) Equally distressing? The fact that items consumed before and after entrées—such as specialty drinks, appetizers, sides, and desserts—substantially increase the counts. Using the average nutritional values calculated by RAND researchers for each item type, our fictional four-course meal illustrates just how easy it is to consume many times more nutrients than most of us need.

Hi, folks, I’m Joe, and I’ll be your server today! Can I start you off with something refreshing to drink, like our triple-berry-blast smoothie?

Average Specialty Nonalcoholic Beverage
Calories418
Total Fat13g
Saturated Fat8g
Trans Fat0g
Sodium209mg
Total Carb.69g
Protein8g

And how about an appetizer? Maybe our loaded Southwest-style nachos with pepper jack, avocado, and sour cream?

Average Appetizer
Calories813
Total Fat48g
Saturated Fat16g
Trans Fat1g
Sodium2,023mg
Total Carb.60g
Protein35g

Our Mighty Big Burger with a side of fries is an excellent choice, especially if you brought your appetite!

Average Entrée with One Side
Calories934
Total Fat45g
Saturated Fat16g
Trans Fat0g
Sodium2,053mg
Total Carb.86g
Protein42g

Who saved room for dessert? Our apple cinnamon caramel pie with vanilla bean ice cream is out of this world!

Average Dessert
Calories429
Total Fat19g
Saturated Fat10g
Trans Fat0g
Sodium302mg
Total Carb.59g
Protein8g

Our four-course meal overshoots the target for one adult meal many times over

  • 4 times the calories
  • 5 times the total fat
  • 6 times the sodium
  • 7 times the saturated fat

Nutrition Facts

 Our Four-Course MealPer-Meal TargetOur Meal as a percentage of Target
Calories2,594667389%
Total Fat125g26g481%
Saturated Fat50g7g714%
Trans Fat1g
Sodium4,587mg767mg598%
Total Carb.274g43g637%
Protein93g15g–19g489%–620%

Infographic: Erin-Elizabeth Johnson and Carol Earnest

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