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Report-card time: 5 best, worst restaurants in America

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 cre
/ Source: Mens Health

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.”

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The best restaurant in America: Subway

Grade: A

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.

Eat This!

Buffalo Chicken Toasted Sandwich (6-inch)

420 calories

15.5 g fat (3 g saturated)

1,190 mg sodium

Not That!

Chicken and Bacon Ranch Toasted Sandwich (6-inch)

570 calories

28 g fat (10 g saturated)

1,090 mg sodium

Runner Up #1: Red Lobster

Grade: A-

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.

Eat This!

Peach-Bourbon BBQ Shrimp and Scallops

490 calories

22 g fat (4 g saturated)

1,680 mg sodium

Not That!

Pecan-Crusted Jumbo Shrimp

730 calories

25 g fat (4 g saturated)

3780 mg sodium

Runner Up #2: Chick-fil-A

Grade: 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.

Eat This!

Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich

290 calories

4 g fat (1 g saturated)

1,030 mg sodium

Not That!

Chicken Caesar Cool Wrap

460 calories

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

Grade: A-

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.

Eat This!

Orange Carrot Karma Fruit & Veggie Smoothie (Original size, 24 fl oz)

270 calories

1 g fat (0 g saturated)

57 g sugars

Not That!

Mango-a-go-go Smoothie (Original size, 24 fl oz)

400 calories

1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated)

85 g sugars

Runner Up #4: Starbucks

Grade: B+

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.

Eat This!

Chicken and Hummus Bistro Box and a Grande Cappucinno with 2 pumps of vanilla syrup

430 calories

12 g fat (3.5 g saturated)

605 mg sodium

24 g sugars

Not That!

Turkey and Swiss Sandwich and a Grande Vanilla Latte

640 calories

19 g fat (8.5 g saturated)

1,315 mg sodium

39 g sugars

The Worst Restaurant in America: Cheesecake Factory

Grade: F

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.

Eat This!

SkinnyLicious Hamburger

570 calories

10 g saturated

1,111 mg sodium

Not That!

Grilled Turkey Burger

1,200 calories

27 g saturated fat

1,544 mg sodium

#2 Worst Restaurant in America: T.G.I. Friday's

Grade: F

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.

Eat This!

Jack Daniel’s Chicken with Coleslaw and Fresh Broccoli

640 calories

Not That!

Jack Daniel’s Chicken Sandwich with Fries

1,590 calories

#3 Worst Restaurant in America: Friendly’s

Grade: D

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.

Eat This!

Sweet & Spicy Grilled Shrimp

490 calories

9 g fat (0 g saturated)

1,660 mg sodium

Not That!

Golden Fried Shrimp

1,080 calories

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

Grade: D

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.

Eat This!

Chicken Americano Soft Tacos (2)

460 calories

20 g fat (9 g saturated)

1,180 mg sodium

Not That!

Chicken, Bean, and Cheese Burrito

970 calories

35 g fat (18 g saturated)

2,230 mg sodium

#5 Worst Restaurant in America: Perkins

Grade: D

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.

Eat This!

Top Sirloin Steak Dinner with Baked Potato, Whipped Butter Blend, and Broccoli

770 calories

34 g fat (12 g saturated, 0.5 g trans)

470 mg sodium

Not That!

Down Home Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy and Broccoli

1,040 calories

65 g fat (26 g saturated, 2 g trans)

2,530 mg sodium

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