But it's a salad!
October 13, 2011 6:26 AM   Subscribe

What restaurant foods seem/sound healthy, but are actually shockingly unhealthy?

I was beyond shocked to find out that the Quesedillla Explosion Salad at Chili's contains 1400 calories. What are other dishes/general foods sound relatively healthy, but are actually very bad for you?
posted by litnerd to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Salads with dressing on them. Also salads with cheese in/on them.

They are usually way overdressed/overcheesed.

And here's the kicker- most restaurants aren't measuring precisely for salads, so there's even more dressing fat than the menu numbers suggest.
posted by bilabial at 6:29 AM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: Muffins. They are really cake, disguised as something that's good for you. The calorie count in the average fast food muffin is similar to the calorie count in an order of fries. And the larger muffins you get from grocery stores are even worse.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:31 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

The first two clues as to the healthfulness of that menu item are the words quesadilla and explosion.
posted by emelenjr at 6:31 AM on October 13, 2011 [36 favorites]

Men's Health covers this sort of thing pretty well, e.g. Worst Salads in America.
posted by knile at 6:33 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, maybe, emelenjr, but when you think about the main ingredients on their own, it doesn't seem that bad--lettuce, grilled chicken, corn relish, beans...
posted by litnerd at 6:35 AM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: Are you familiar with Eat This, Not That? The book might be worth your while.
Also, I follow them on Twitter and a few times a day there is a link to various articles about "worst restaurant foods" in different categories. Yesterday was 10 Worst "Healthy" Foods in America.
posted by Hop123 at 6:38 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Quiche. Quiche can easily pack 1000 calories.
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 6:45 AM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: Seconding muffins. If you ever visit Au Bon Pain, they list the calories on all their baked goods. The muffins are always at least 500 calories, and everything else is somewhere between 250 and 400 calories. You'd do better to just get a cupcake for breakfast; you know you want one.

Flour tortillas can be deceptively calorie-dense, too. The burrito coverin's at Chipotle and Qdoba have more calories than the guacamole and sour cream combined.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:48 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

A one-cup serving of bibimbap contains 634 calories and 20 grams of fat. I've never seen anyone eat only one cup.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:51 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Obese co-worker has been attempting to diet, but really hasn't got a clue, and I didn't have the heart to tell her. For about a month I would see her in the morning with a giant McDonalds smoothie and a McDonalds oatmeal every day which she apparently thought were "healthy."

All smoothies are giant sugar drinks. Drinking a crap ton of sugar in the form of a smoothie isn't any healthier than sugar calories from a 20oz coca-cola. Oatmeal is great, but not so much when loaded with butter and maple syrup.
posted by j03 at 6:52 AM on October 13, 2011

fast food place smoothie = milkshake
posted by Tarumba at 6:54 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quizno's subs have about 1000 calories on average!
posted by Tarumba at 6:55 AM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: Every single item at Cheesecake Factory. For example, spinach has basically no calories. Sauteed spinach as a side dish there is 170 calories.
posted by Houstonian at 6:56 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, maybe, emelenjr, but when you think about the main ingredients on their own, it doesn't seem that bad--lettuce, grilled chicken, corn relish, beans...

Chili's has mastered some sort of obesity-generating arcane magic. Everything they sell is deceptive and horrible for your insides. As Houstonian points out, this extends to Cheesecake Factory as well, and I'd add Applebees and similar reheated-Sysco places to the list. Don't trust a chicken entree that looks the same on either side of the oven.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:59 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Arby's worst offender when I worked there was the MarketFresh Chicken Salad Sandwich. More calories (and calories-from-fat) than a large roast beef sandwich.
posted by specialagentwebb at 7:01 AM on October 13, 2011

A lot of coffee drinks. Coffee by itself has no (or almost no) calories, but lots of drinks are loaded with sugar, syrups, and other flavorings. For example - a grande 2% latte at Starbucks has 190 calories, but make it a pumpkin spice latte, and it doubles - to 380 calories.

Juices as well. Most are just liquid sugar, where you lose the healthful fiber in fruits, and generally consume more calories (takes longer to eat an apple or orange than drink a cup of juice)

Indian food too - lots of vegetables, but lots of added cream and ghee (clarified butter) will make spinach and cauliflower taste so much better!
posted by raztaj at 7:05 AM on October 13, 2011

This article on McDonald's oatmeal mentions how it contains more calories than a Snickers bar.

Also, it's all in the prep. The privately-owned restaurant I used to work at had a "veggie platter" that was one of the only true vegetarian options on the menu. What they didn't mention on the menu was that all the grilled veggies were grilled in butter. And then stored in that butter until ordered, at which point they were reheated. Delicious, yes. But probably one of the least healthy items on the menu.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:08 AM on October 13, 2011

It really depends on your definition of unhealthy. See, for me, cheese and salad dressing do not make things unhealthy (because I don't believe that fat is inherently unhealthy), but the copious amounts of sugar you find in just about everything do. See this slideshow of the "20 worst drinks in America" to see how much sugar you might be unwittingly consuming.
posted by peacheater at 7:26 AM on October 13, 2011 [8 favorites]

That article from Mark Bittman is deliberately misleading, and I'm not the first person to note this. There was a lot of backlash to that article.

Note how it doesn't actually list the calories? McDonald's oatmeal only has 250 calories per serving. Which is completely reasonable for breakfast.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:34 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, make sure that something isn't being secretly fried. We have a shrimp dish that comes over a palenta cake. When I was taught how to make it they told me to heat it on the flat top.

When other people make it and things are really busy/one of the owners orders it/they just feel like it, they throw it in the fryer and heat it that way.

I hate that because the menu doesn't say anything about any part of the dish being fried.
posted by theichibun at 7:37 AM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: I came in to say smoothies but have been pre-empted.

A lot of apparently healthy cereal bars have tons of sugar and syrup binding them together. Fruit juices are basically sugar - the good fibre from the fruit has gone. But

Regular and grande size lattes are much larger than a coffee you'll make for yourself in a normal size mug and can contain a lot of calories from the tons of milk in there especially if it's full-fat. That's even before you add the sugar, if you do.

It really all depends though. As peacheater pointed out, fat isn't inherently bad for you.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:41 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any veg in a fancy restaurant. Carrots, broccoli, green beans. It's all cooked with more butter and sugar and salt than you would think possible. Bourdain wised me up to that one-- check out his recipe for carrot vichy.
posted by supercres at 7:54 AM on October 13, 2011

When I worked at Wendy's in the late 1990s the taco salad had more calories, fat, sodium, and I think carbs than the triple cheeseburger. This of course blew my 16-year-old mind, though not as much as the guy who came in a few times a week and always ordered that triple with an "extra large frosty" (32oz of frosty; I think we charged him for two 16oz ones but he insisted on getting it in the big cup) and the largest fries you could get. The "worst healthy foods" still have nothing on "the worst combination of choices available" most places.

Oh, and fruit smoothies - it totally depends on how they're made. My mom used to do smoothies that were just frozen fruit pulverized into smoothiness. Other than the fact it had orange juice in it, it was just like eating strawberries and bananas and such whole. It's when it's made with, e.g., frozen yogurt plus juice that smoothies become unhealthy by the "no fiber"/loads of fat standard.

(Also: does anyone really think Cheesecake Factory food is healthy?)
posted by SMPA at 8:09 AM on October 13, 2011

Center for Science in the Public Interest specializes in this kind of "expose" about unhealthy food items. Right Stuff vs. Food Porn.
posted by yarly at 8:16 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm holding a healthy-looking breakfast cereal clearly marketed for adults who want to eat right, and the calories per 2/3 cup serving are more than double a 3/4 cup serving of Frosted Flakes. It also has over 10 times the fat.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:21 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Cereal can be tricky that way--again, the devil's in the details. Yes, oatmeal is healthy and nutritious BY ITSELF but the instant packets are jam-packed full of sugar. There's a high-fiber cereal that I used to LOVE (tastes like little oatmeal cookies!), but then I looked at the ingredients--it's loaded with fat and sugar.

This is why I try to make almost everything myself--it just takes too much energy to find all the crap that Big Food stuffs into healthy foods to make them test better with focus groups.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:38 AM on October 13, 2011

Granola. Great source of fiber and sometimes protein. The packaged stuff is usually loaded with sugar and fats.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:43 AM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing the 'Eat This Not That' recommendation.

They've also got an iPhone guessing-game app, which I enjoy in spite of myself.
posted by box at 8:55 AM on October 13, 2011

Oh, I somehow missed that you were talking about restaurant foods. The main issue here is that the salad is from Chili's. Likewise, nearly everything listed in Hop123's link is from a major casual dining chain. These restaurants emphasize two things in their menu design: ease of preparation (which very often involves frying and pre-packaged sauces), and getting lots of flavor out of low cost, low-quality ingredients. This means adding large amounts of cheap fats, carbs and sweetners at the expense of actual seasonings, longer prep times and decent quality meats and vegetables. Consumers have effectively been trained to expect foods of this type (in this context, "satisfying" typically means large portion sizes, high fat content, and either salty or sweet flavors), and these methods are really the only way restaurants of this type can maintain their bottom lines, given the price point and time requirements.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:56 AM on October 13, 2011

A lot of Jamba Juice's drinks are very high in calories.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:33 AM on October 13, 2011

Other than the fact it had orange juice in it, it was just like eating strawberries and bananas and such whole.

Not necessarily, especially for people who have to watch their blood sugar. Blended fruit is digested absorbed much quicker than whole fruit. Even a "fruit-only" smoothie will cause a spike in blood sugar when whole fruit will not.
posted by reverend cuttle at 10:53 AM on October 13, 2011

For what it's worth, the main "Unhealthy" offenders in this thread seem to be: salt, cheese, butter, and sugar. None of these are actually unhealthy if eaten as a part of a balanced diet. Sorry for the derail, but that just irks me...
posted by TheCoug at 11:14 AM on October 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

mudpuppie beat me to it. Came in to say almost every that almost everything at Jamba Juice is essentially candy in a cup. If you can find a place that makes smoothies from actual fruit (as opposed to corn syrup injected frozen frankenfruit) you'd probably do a lot better.
posted by cnc at 3:45 PM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: In New York chains must list the amount of calories per item. I was surprised to discover that the Five Guy's french fries were more calories than a cheeseburger. I mean, I knew they were unhealthy, but more calories than the burgers?

A couple other things not related to calories:
- Most store bought baked goods contain unregulated amounts of cellulose (i.e. wood pulp)
- Most store bought muffins contain artificial fruit. It's very unlikely you're eating real blueberries in that muffin.
- All "Not from Concentrate" orange juice has likely had all the oxygen removed from it, which strips it also of any taste and many nutrients. The taste is added back later in a "flavor packet" the OJ companies do not have to disclose on their list of ingredients.
- If you are buying a steak or other meat product from a chain (e.g. Bennigan's) you are likely eating something that was cooked a long, long time ago, that your server is merely microwaving for you.
- SunnyD was introduced to British supermarkets in the nineties as "real fruit juice" with more vitamins. It became the third largest softdrink, rivaling Pepsi, until several children fell ill and the British media widely publicized it contains nearly twice the sugar in sodas.
posted by xammerboy at 4:07 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Vegetable side items can be deceptively loaded with calories. Unless the menu specifies steamed, they are most likely cooked in oil or butter. And if it's a chain restaurant, it's probably a cheap vegetable oil as opposed to olive oil. Where I work (locally owned restaurant) they cook the vegetables in something called a "butter alternative"...blech. I read the label one day and it's loaded with trans fat and calories. It's probably no worse to order a side of fries instead of a side of vegetables. Of course you can always specify to have your vegetables steamed or cooked in white wine, which is what I do. I used to work at Chili's many, many years ago and I read through the nutrition info book one day, and you would not believe how much fat and calories is in everything. It was actually a horrifying experience. Pretty much all restaurant food has two or three times the amount of calories you would think it has unless it's an item that's specifically marketed as healthy and has the calories listed.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:20 PM on October 13, 2011

Most deceptive? Probably Legal Seafood. It's fish, right? Fish is healthy!

Then they started putting the calorie counts on their menus.

My family wanted a healthy dinner. We stared at the menu, discombobulated because everything seemed to have 1,000 calories, and searched for some entree below 500.

I think this is mainly because of the size of their portions (you order salmon, you get enough for four people) even when you are not ordering fried or sauteed preparations.
posted by bad grammar at 5:29 PM on October 13, 2011


OK, maybe just most of them. I'm focusing on the surprise aspect of your question. It's been my experience that most restaurant food has more fat, sugar and salt than you would expect and in foods you don't expect them to be in. A McDonald's large chocolate milkshake has 860 mg of sodium, more than a third of the DRV. More than a large fries!

For me, it's most clear how much extra of those ingredients are in things when I try to recreate a restaurant favourite at home with less than stellar results. Shake a bunch of salt on it, or add four tablespoons of sugar, or a half pound of butter, and then--voilĂ --it tastes right.

FWIW, I don't think of sugar, salt and fat as inherently unhealthy or nefarious. The way they are added to things you would never expect to find them in, and in amounts that would make your eyes pop? That's nasty. Salt in a milkshake!
posted by looli at 6:51 PM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: I'm guessing you're already aware that things like McDonald's aren't very good for you.

One place that's I'm surprised about is Panera (PDF) . There's a lot of things there that are very reasonable options for eating out, but there are others that are absolutely through the roof. I think it just falls in the danger zone of thinking "but they have healthy food!" and getting something that's 900 calories.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:41 PM on October 13, 2011

Vegan "low fat" restaurants with stuff like polenta and pasta. Carbs do a lot more damage than fat to the human body in general (excluding trans-fats), so any sort of pasta or potato based dish, cereals, granola, muffins etc which have been mentioned are the main offenders in our culture. Low fat could even serve as a clue for food that's chock full of sugar and carbs in the form of cheap fillers - check labels carefully!
posted by sunnychef88 at 10:00 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

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