Sometimes, American restaurants unveil menu items that are so gluttonous they seem to be trying to stun the senses. This was the case earlier this year with KFC's much-discussed Double Down sandwich: two pieces of bacon, two slices of cheese and "Colonel's Sauce,'' with two thick filets of fried chicken functioning as the bun.
But compared with some chain restaurants' offerings, the 540-calorie Double Down is almost health food. Many meals offered at these eateries are much worse, nutritionally speaking.
Following is a list of dishes that in just one sitting provide close to or more than the 2,000 calories recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an entire day's sustenance. They also mostly stomp all over the recommended daily intakes for sodium (no more than 2,400 milligrams), fat (65 grams) and saturated fat (20 grams) for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet.
"These chains don't promote moderation,'' Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said earlier this year when his watchdog organization gave its 2010 Xtreme Eating awards to nine "caloric heavyweight'' meals. "They practice caloric extremism, and they're helping make modern-day Americans become the most obese people ever to walk the Earth."
Jacobson also expressed surprise that restaurants haven't started to alter their menus in advance of a new law that will require chains with 20 or more outlets to disclose calorie counts to diners. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't specified when the regulations will take effect.
We asked Washington dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield to give us her take on the following caloric heavyweights.
All of the nutritional information comes from the restaurants' websites, except for the Cheesecake Factory's, which is courtesy of CSPI's Xtreme Eating awards. (The chain does not publish its nutritional information online.)
* Quiznos large tuna melt sub sandwich.
The numbers: 1,520 calories, 101 grams of fat, 21 grams of saturated fat, 2,020 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: More than a stick of butter's worth of fat.
Expert evaluation: Grabbing a tuna sandwich for lunch sure sounds like a healthful decision, but not with this jumbo-size sub. "If someone hears 'tuna' and they think they should be eating more fish, they might think that's a good choice, but the portion is way too big,'' Scritchfield says.
* Chipotle's chicken burrito, filled with rice, pinto beans, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream and guacamole, accompanied by a side of chips.
The numbers: 1,750 calories, 79.5 grams of fat, 23 grams of saturated fat, 2,750 milligrams of sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The calories in more than nine chicken soft tacos at Taco Bell.
Expert evaluation: "There are lots of ways you can make that healthier,'' Scritchfield says. "My top recommendation is not to get cheese and sour cream but instead get guacamole, because that has the heart-healthy fat and gives you the creaminess you're going for.'' You also could forgo the chips and save 570 calories.
* Applebee's New England fish and chips.
The numbers: 1,910 calories, 137 grams fat, 24 grams saturated fat, 3,150 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The fat in almost a pound of cheddar cheese.
Expert evaluation: "If you really wanted this, I'd say split it and add some veggies,'' Scritchfield says. "And do not touch the salt shaker; it already has more than a day's worth of sodium in it.''
* Chili's Big Mouth Bites, four mini-burgers topped with jalapeno ranch dressing.
The numbers: 1,930 calories, 31 grams saturated fat, 4,400 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The calories in about 25 eggs.
Expert evaluation: "These are interesting because they're sold as 'mini' burgers, but it's still a high-calorie, high-fat and high-salt meal because of what's on them,'' Scritchfield says.
* Outback Steakhouse's full rack of baby back ribs served with Aussie fries.
The numbers: 1,936 calories, 133 grams fat, 56 grams saturated fat, 2,741 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The fat grams in 20 tablespoons of salad dressing.
Expert evaluation: "There is no color on that plate: no broccoli, no garden salad. Vegetables should be half of your dinner plate, and they're absent,'' Scritchfield says. Outback diners can substitute steamed green beans or seasonal veggies for the fries and slash about 200 calories and 15 grams of fat.
The following mega-meals could be shared, but Scritchfield says it wouldn't be surprising if they sometimes are consumed by just one person: "People envision what they're served as their portion,'' she says.
* Domino's bread bowl pasta.
The numbers: One bread bowl, which Domino's nutritional information counts as two servings, contains 1,340 to 1,470 calories, 48 to 56 grams fat, 21 to 27 grams saturated fat, 65 to 115 grams fiber, 1,830 to 2,860 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The fiber in about 16 to 29 servings of oatmeal.
Expert evaluation: "If you get enough fiber, and 25 to 35 grams a day is the right amount, it helps keep digestion at a normal pace. But if you eat too much fiber, it actually gives you constipation,'' Scritchfield says.
* P.F. Chang's China Bistro's double pan-fried noodles with a combination of meats. Although this is one entree, the company counts it as four servings because it totals 36 ounces.
The numbers: 1,820 calories, 84 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 7,692 milligrams sodium.
Equivalent of eating: The sodium in 70 tablespoons of blue cheese dressing.
Expert evaluation: "If four people shared this (as their entire meal), not only would the waiter be like, 'What are you doing?' but we'd leave dissatisfied,'' Scritchfield says. "They're breaking it down so their numbers look good.''
The numbers: 2,500 calories, 85 grams saturated fat.
Equivalent of eating: The saturated fat in about 5 cups of half-and-half cream.
Expert evaluation: "Four adult men would have to share this entree in order to each stay within a day's worth of saturated fat,'' Scritchfield says.