Last summer, three friends and I decided to do the Big Foot triathlon, located in beautiful Geneva Lake, Wisconsin. After checking into our hotel, we decided we would ‘carbo-load,’ a triathlon (and marathon) race tradition, of eating pasta and other carbohydrate laden meals the night before, to give us energy for the next morning’s race. Not knowing the area well, we stopped at an Olive Garden restaurant, located just down the road from our hotel.
As we waited for seats, one of my friends – who is allergic to wheat and gluten products – asked if there was a gluten free menu she could look at. What we received was the food and nutrition fact sheet that US restaurants are required to provide. I still have that fact sheet, in my office amongst books entitled Fat Land, and The Obesity Myth. I kept it, because as we read the list looking for something my friend could eat, we were dumbfounded. The restaurant’s two featured entrees, the stuffed rigatoni (either with chicken or sausage) contained over 1000 calories for a single serving (1050 for the chicken, and a whopping 1350 for the sausage). This was for one item of food, and if you considered that most Olive Garden customers usually consume the free bread sticks (which was not on the fact sheet), a soft-drink (100 calories, assuming non-diet), and possibly a dessert (none of which were less than 300 calories), ordering a featured meal at the Olive Garden tipped the scale at over 1400 calories! For perspective, health officials in the US government recommend that adult males 18 – 30 years of age consume about 2200 calories a day. After a meal at the Olive Garden, you have less than 800 calories left for the entire day – or about one Venti Mocha and Taragon Chicken sandwich at Starbucks.
As I sat in the restaurant, consciously picking through my Ceasar Salad with Chicken (850 calories, not including the dressing), I kept reading through the information guide. Quite frankly, one reason for the extreme calorie content of the Olive Garden’s meals is due to their portion size. And this results in huge calories: The average Classic Entree at Olive Garden has 1045 calories per serving. If you thought ordering a chicken entree would be better – I mean, chicken is the lean meat! – think again. The average is 1031 calories. To be really healthy at the Olive Garden, order a seafood entrée: An average of 780 calories per serving (the best, calorie wise, is the Seafood Brodetto – 480 calories).
I must be fair – I am leaving out the entrees that Olive Garden labels as their healthy & low-fat fares (noted with an olive leaf), which range from 430 calories per serving (the Linguine alla marinara) to 840 calories (the Capallini Pomodoro). But how many people come to the Olive Garden thinking, “tonight baby, I’m thinking light and low-fat.” You go to the Olive Garden for pasta – hefty, filling, saucy, pasta.
I also noticed that it was not just the servings at the Olive Garden that were big – so were the customers. In fact, Greg Critser, the noted science and medicine author of Fat Land, tells a story from the 1980s when an Olive Garden customer phoned Ron MaGrauder – the restaurant chain’s then president – to complain that he was too large to sit in the booth and seats at his local Olive Garden. MaGruder responded as any responsible company president would – he order new over-sized seats so that each of the 256 Olive Garden restaurants in the United States could have three. Customers get what they want.
And apparently, we want our food big, and our bodies big too.