The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s latest Nutrition Action Healthletter [PDF] takes a look at wide range of menu items from these four chain restaurants, where offerings have as few as 340 calories and as many as 1,690 for a single dish. Alas, even many of the dishes under 600 calories still contain at nearly a day’s worth of sodium.
Here are some highlights, course-by-course…
•Most Calorific: Olive Garden Lasagna Fritta
It’s lasagna pieces that are then breaded and fried… then served over alfredo sauce and topped with parmesan cheese and marinara. So your appetizer course has already set you back 1,030 calories, including 21 grams of saturated fat, and 1,590mg of sodium — about a full day’s worth.
•Most Sodium-Soaked: Carabba’s Calamari
The two sauce options for calamari at Carabba’s — marinara or “spicy Italian pepper and lemon butter” — make a huge difference in terms of calories, with the latter pushing this appetizer to more than 1,500 calories. But regardless of which sauce you choose, you’re devouring a ton of sodium. The calamari with marinara sauce tops out at 1,960mg of sodium, while the lemon butter sauce goes even saltier with 2,130 mg.
•Least Harmful Option: Carraba’s Tomatoes Caprese
It’s just non-fried mozzarella, tomatoes, onions, basil and balsamic vinegar, which explains why it’s only 450 calories, and why its 340mg of sodium is only about 1/3 of what you’ll find on almost all of the other apps.
•Shrimp Is Not Necessarily a Diet Food: Maggiano’s Shrimp Scampi
You might think that shrimp, which contain minimal fat and calories, would result in a pasta dish that is relatively not unhealthy, but this dish at Maggiano’s was had the most calories (1,680) and highest sodium level (2,490mg) of any pasta dish in the survey.
“To your arteries and waistline, this dish looks like three Big Macs,” writes CSPI.
By comparison, Olive Garden’s spaghetti and meatballs — a menu item you’d probably assume would have more calories — has 700 fewer calories and 720mg less sodium than Maggiano’s shrimp dish.
•Low-Cal Doesn’t Mean Low Sodium: Olive Garden Seafood Brodetto
There are a few lower-calorie pasta dishes available at these restaurants, but many of them still have nearly a day’s worth of sodium. And then there’s this Olive Garden offering with shrimp, scallops, and tilapia; it only has 480 calories, but it also brings a whopping 2,250mg of sodium to the table.
•Anything with Trio in the Name Probably Isn’t a Health Food: Macaroni Grill Mama’s Trio
It shouldn’t surprise you that this sampler of three different dishes — Chicken Parmesan, Lasagna Bolognese, and Chicken & Mushroom Cannelloni — adds up to a hefty calorie count (1,430), but it’s the sodium that’ll get you. With 3,430mg, this plate has more than two days’ worth of the stuff!
•A Chicken Dish Takes the Calorie Crown: Maggiano’s Chicken Saltimbocca
Much like the previously mentioned “It’s shrimp, so it can’t be that bad for me” mistake, the chicken breast in this dish might lead some to think it’s not going to kill them with calories. But thanks to the inclusion of prosciutto, provolone, butter, and pasta, it adds up to 1,690 calories, 28 grams of saturated fat, and 3,370 mg sodium.
•That’s Crostada Calories: Maggiano’s Apple Crostada
Take Granny Smith apples, bake them in a buttery pastry crust, then dip them in cream and crystallized sugar… oh, and serve with caramel sauce and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. All that deliciousness adds up to 1,330 calories, 40g of saturated fat… and 23.5 teaspoons of sugar.
“Why not save some money and head to McDonald’s for five Baked Apple Pies plus a Vanilla Cone?” asks CSPI. “They’ll do about the same damage.”