by Marion Nestle
Nov 3 2007

Calories galore, American-Italian style

Center for Science in the Public Interest has just done calorie counts on meals served at Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Pretty impressive! I don’t think you need complicated arguments about fat vs. carbohydrates to explain why people gain weight when they routinely eat meals like these. While I thoroughly agree that 50 or 100 extra calories a day do not really add up to pounds a year (because metabolism compensates for small differences), we are talking here about thousands of extra calories a day. Italians in Italy don’t eat this much, or at least they didn’t used to.

  • Sheila

    Oh my goodness!! My belly hurts!
    These restaurant people must be getting paid by some heart stent or diabetes drug manufacturer to try to drum up business on the sly. These numbers are staggering.

  • A few months ago, while visiting a friend in suburban New Jersey, for the first time, I ate at a Macaroni Grill. It was just about the worst meal I’d had in a very, very long time.

    I ordered whole-wheat penne with some veggies (broccoli, mushroom) with tomato sauce, I combination I enjoy. Macaroni Grill, however, gave me very few veggies, and the entire bowl was covered with a purportedly “tomato” sauce which was the consistency of glue. Instead of a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, basil and a little olive oil, I think they used corn syrup colored red.

    My lesson – the same dish with the same name can be made in vastly different ways, so it’s important to learn what goes into it.

  • This is again where people fall to distinguish between “healthy eating” and “weight management”, not to say all ingredients are necesarily healthy

  • Jane

    Not to say that these are optimal meals by any means, but a few points come immediately to mind:

    1) Who eats at these restaurants every day? No one I know. Personally, I try to eat as many meals at home as is possible, no matter how many dishes I have to do. You never really know what ingredients are used unless you add them yourself.

    2) I’m pretty sure CSPI is using the worst possible examples from each restaurant’s menu. I’ve eaten at both a number of times and can tell you that healthy items are available at both establishments. It is quite easy to fashion a healthy meal from items on the menu with just a little tweaking (think substitutions).

    2) What do you always see coming out with people after the meal? Leftovers. Myself, I could never finish a restaurant meal if ordered as it is normally served. Even with substitutions like trading pasta/potato for veggies and eating the salad while ignoring the bread, it’s difficult to finish without having to ask for a box. I usually get lunch for the next day out of the deal, which I don’t mind a bit.

    3) I love the way they just refer to saturated fat as ‘bad fat’. Saturated fat is not the demon they claim it to be. Things like meats contain lots of nutrients and are very satisfying, which can’t be said for the pasta and bread, regardless of the fact that those two items are low-fat. Low-fat is not the same thing as nutritious.

  • Jane

    And dessert? Who has room after one of these meals, even if you don’t finish it. If you can’t even finish the meal, what the hell are you doing ordering dessert?? You’d have to be consiously trying to overeat. I’ve seen people push their unfinished dinner away, holding their belly like they’re stuffed and then order some rich dessert, and FINISH THAT! These are people who must not really care what they eat. Just because it’s offered, doesn’t mean you have to order it!

  • Anton

    I have learned to ignore the shrieking from the fanatics at the Center for ‘Science’ in the Public Interest. Mean-spririted bunch, IMHO. The bearers of gloom and doom.

  • I ignore CSPI, too. They are masters of spin for their agenda. Fair and balanced, not.

    All the same, it has been years since I frequented either of these restaurants. I wouldn’t choose either of these franchises unless it was a group event that I couldn’t avoid (I try to choose local non-franchise establishments that use fresh ingredients when I am doing the restaurant choosing).

    But if I had to “go along to get along” and eat at one of these pseudo-Italian franchises, I would probably get a big salad, with a good serving of protein on the side, with olive oil and vinegar. Maybe a side serving of steamed veggies with extra butter and grated parmesan. People need to remember that it is quite easy for many restaurants to make simple items that aren’t on menu (that’s what I do with my son instead of ordering from the processed, starchy kids’ menu). Hard to go wrong with that option. I avoid most salad dressings because they are usually made with soybean oil and God knows what else (hidden HFCS, stabilizers, etc.), and who needs all those omega 6s? Sheesh, salad dressing is fast and easy to make fresh yet hardly anyone does it anymore.

  • By the way, I’m going to Italy for the first time next summer and I am looking forward to all the great locally cured sausages, aged cheeses, seafood, and fresh produce. I may have a few tastes of fresh pasta but I was very encouraged by the great photos of the great local and seasonal low carb plates of food eaten by the Drs. Eades of Protein Power ( on their trip to Italy earlier this year. That’s Mediterranean! Not these mountains of pasta that Americans consume.

  • I always wonder why CSPI never says, “Did you know that the Olive Garden lasagna has 75 grams of carbohydrate per serving?” (That number is my estimate based on data on lasagna from Fitday; I don’t know what the actual number is.) I mean, even if you subscribe to the USDA guidelines, you’re only supposed to get 300 g of carb a day. If you also consume bread, a Coke, and dessert, you’re pushing your carb limit in one meal. How come Michael Jacobson isn’t apopleptic about that?

    Why the single-minded emphasis on saturated fat, which is required for good health and has not been shown to cause heart disease any more than seat belt extenders have been shown to cause obesity?