A few years ago, it occurred to me that the restaurant industry felt no responsibility for the health of its patrons. The obesity rate was rising and people were eating out with increasing frequency, yet restaurants kept developing new and novel ways to inject more calories and sodium into everyday foods. They stuffed pizza crusts with molten cheese, hollowed out bread loaves to make bowls for cream-based soups, and amplified the size of their cheeseburgers to make space for more bacon, onion rings, and sugar-based sauces. I decided then that I'd do my small part as an author and magazine editor to instill some degree of accountability.
I began by collecting data on calories, fat, and sodium. I looked at side dishes and appetizers, drink options and desserts. I took note of which restaurants still relied on trans fats and which ones provided healthy options for calorie-conscious customers. I was shocked to discover the abysmal state of the industry. In 2010, when Eat This, Not That! released its first-ever Restaurant Report Card, a third of the restaurants landed in the D or F range — and not one chain earned an A. Since then, I've followed the industry closely. I've criticized when criticism was appropriate and praised when the improvements were made. And this year, I'm happy to report, the improvements were many.
In 2011, we’ve seen a flurry of new low-calorie items, and the restaurant industry is becoming increasingly more transparent about nutrition. (IHOP was the latest to disclose its nutritional information, and it did so immediately after we published our last Report Card.) But while healthy changes are coming, the progress is slow, and many — if not most — restaurants still make it far too easy to unknowingly wreck your diet with a thousand or more calories and multiple days' worth of fat and sodium. The industry as a whole is improving, but it still has a long way to go. Below are the absolute best and worst restaurants from this year's Restaurant Report Card. For the complete list of grades, pick up a copy of the brand-new “Eat This, Not That! 2012.”
The best restaurant in America: Subway
Congrats to Subway for being the first chain to ever receive an A on the Eat This, Not That! Restaurant Report Card. This year, Subway announced a limited-time plan to carry avocado, and all the heart-healthy fats found within, in every one of its 24,200 U.S. stores. According to the company, roughly half the stores decided to keep it on the menu once the short-term offer was over. That's huge, but not nearly as huge as the chain’s other initiative. This year, Subway cut sodium by 15 percent in its regular sandwiches and 28 percent in its Fresh Fit sandwiches. If Subway weren't already America's healthiest restaurant chain, it certainly is now.
Buffalo Chicken Toasted Sandwich (6-inch)
15.5 g fat (3 g saturated)
1,190 mg sodium
Chicken and Bacon Ranch Toasted Sandwich (6-inch)
28 g fat (10 g saturated)
1,090 mg sodium
Runner Up #1: Red Lobster
Red Lobster is a nutritional superstar compared to the other sit-down restaurant chains. The daily cast of rotating fish is the centerpiece of a menu long on low-calorie, high-protein entrees and reasonable sides. The chain might even earn an A next year, if it manages to put down the salt shaker.
Peach-Bourbon BBQ Shrimp and Scallops
22 g fat (4 g saturated)
1,680 mg sodium
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Pecan-Crusted Jumbo Shrimp
25 g fat (4 g saturated)
3780 mg sodium
Runner Up #2: Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A ranks among the best of the country’s major fast-food establishments, thanks to a line of low-calorie chicken sandwiches and an impressive roster of healthy sides. The Chargrilled Chicken Sandwiches average only 335 calories apiece, and no sandwich has more than 600 calories. Sure, the chain specializes in fried chicken, but every cut is cooked in 100 percent peanut oil, which contains twice as many monounsaturated fats as typical vegetable oil.
Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich
4 g fat (1 g saturated)
1,030 mg sodium
Chicken Caesar Cool Wrap
15 g fat (6 g saturated)
1,510 mg sodium
Trouble with chicken: Would you believe a sandwich called Chicken and Avocado Club could harbor more than 1,700 calories? Well it does! Find out who serves it, along with the other must-avoid chicken dishes, by checking out The Worst Chicken Dishes in America.
Runner Up #3: Jamba Juice
Jamba Juice makes more than a few faux-fruit blends — beverages unnecessarily weighted down with sherbet, sorbet, and other added sugars — but its menu has a ton of real-deal smoothies as well. The chain recently added an incredible new line of Fruit & Veggie smoothies, as well as new additions to its low-calorie food menu. All in all, Jamba still sits squarely atop of the nutritional totem pole.
Orange Carrot Karma Fruit & Veggie Smoothie (Original size, 24 fl oz)
1 g fat (0 g saturated)
57 g sugars
Mango-a-go-go Smoothie (Original size, 24 fl oz)
1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated)
85 g sugars
Runner Up #4: Starbucks
The sugar-loaded lattes and frozen drinks aren't always kind to your waistline, but a solid line of breakfast and lunch sandwiches buttressed by oatmeal and parfait make Starbucks a reliable place to tame a growling stomach. Add to that a new line of low-calorie, protein-studded Bistro Boxes and you have one of the most reliable low-calorie, on-the-go lunch spots in the country. And if you decide you need a caffeine fix, just remember to keep it simple. As a general rule, the longer the name, the more sugar contained within.
Chicken and Hummus Bistro Box and a Grande Cappucinno with 2 pumps of vanilla syrup
12 g fat (3.5 g saturated)
605 mg sodium
24 g sugars
Turkey and Swiss Sandwich and a Grande Vanilla Latte
19 g fat (8.5 g saturated)
1,315 mg sodium
39 g sugars
The Worst Restaurant in America: Cheesecake Factory
With more calories than a county fair concession stand and more sodium than a salt flat, the menu at the Cheesecake Factory is in desperate need of an overhaul. The chain did unveil its new SkinnyLicious Menu this year, but unfortunately it's still secretive about the items on its regular menu. Thanks to transparency laws in places like New York and California, however, we were able to peek behind the fatty curtain. What we saw: Dozens of items with about 2,000 calories per dish. Stick to the SkinnyLicious menu or find a new place to eat.
10 g saturated
1,111 mg sodium
Grilled Turkey Burger
27 g saturated fat
1,544 mg sodium
#2 Worst Restaurant in America: T.G.I. Friday's
We salute Friday’s for its smaller-portions menu; the option to order reduced-size servings ought to be the new model, dethroning the bigger-is-better principle that dominates chain restaurants. But Friday’s still refuses to provide nutrition info, and our research shows why: The menu is awash in atrocious appetizers, frightening salads, and entrées with embarrassingly high calorie counts.
Jack Daniel’s Chicken with Coleslaw and Fresh Broccoli
Jack Daniel’s Chicken Sandwich with Fries
#3 Worst Restaurant in America: Friendly’s
For the health-conscious eater, there’s nothing particularly friendly about this joint. Breakfast is a sordid affair of fat and refined carbohydrates, while lunch and dinner are headlined by a roster of high-calorie sandwiches, salads, and chicken dishes. Even the Under 555 Calories menu, the only bastion of decent eating, is temporary. The best thing we can say about Friendly’s is that they have OK sides.
Sweet & Spicy Grilled Shrimp
9 g fat (0 g saturated)
1,660 mg sodium
Golden Fried Shrimp
51 g fat (18 g saturated)
3,830 mg sodium
Breakfast blunders: Want to start your morning with a full day's worth of calories? Of course not! So don't even think of touching the 20 Worst Breakfasts in America.
#4 Worst Restaurant in America: Baja Fresh
It’s nice that Baja makes all of its menu items fresh on-site, but why can’t it make a simple chicken burrito for less than 600 calories? And what’s up with all of the “naturally occurring” trans fats in their quesadillas and nachos? The only safe options are the tacos, the torta, or a salad topped with salsa verde and served without the elephantine tortilla bowl.
Chicken Americano Soft Tacos (2)
20 g fat (9 g saturated)
1,180 mg sodium
Chicken, Bean, and Cheese Burrito
35 g fat (18 g saturated)
2,230 mg sodium
#5 Worst Restaurant in America: Perkins
Of the more than 90 dishes at Perkins, only five qualify for its Calorie Counter menu. Besides that, you’ll find entrées with more than 4,000 milligrams of sodium, pasta plates with more than 100 grams of fat, and an all-day omelet menu that averages more than 1,500 calories per order. Even the Grilled Salmon with broccoli, a dish that seems impossible to screw up, packs 1,150 calories. Currently, the chain has stores in 34 states. Hopefully, it slims down its menu before expanding to the other 16.
Top Sirloin Steak Dinner with Baked Potato, Whipped Butter Blend, and Broccoli
34 g fat (12 g saturated, 0.5 g trans)
470 mg sodium
Down Home Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy and Broccoli
65 g fat (26 g saturated, 2 g trans)
2,530 mg sodium
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