Fast food and chain restaurants have evolved significantly over the last few years. Burgers, fries and sodas are still the status quo for many diners, but those who seek healthier foods have plenty of options, from fruit and yogurt parfaits and baked potatoes, to apples cut like fries and grilled chicken. Trans fats have been reduced and eliminated; lowfat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables grace the menus at even the most ubiquitous roadside eateries; and more companies are disclosing nutritional information.
Despite those changes, fast foods menus remain dichotomous: Healthy choices reside next to triple-stacked burgers and extra large fries.
We've rounded up 11 of the worst foods we've seen this year.
Stay far, far away from the foods listed below, and instead select from the plentiful healthy choices at each of the restaurants included in this article.
Starbucks Signature Hot Chocolates
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know you need your caffeine fix. And yes, we know, Starbucks is delicious. But these Signature Hot Chocolates are drinkable desserts, plain and simple.
The no-frills version has 430 calories, which has more than three times as many calories as a grande skinny Caffè Latte and almost twice as many calories as a skinny Caffè Mocha. (You save a few calories by getting iced hot chocolate, but in the middle of winter, who wants to drink that oxymoron?)
Hazelnut Signature Hot Chocolate (no whip)*
22 g fat
14 g saturated fat
Salted Caramel Signature Hot Chocolate (no whip)*
24 g fat
14 g saturated fat
Signature Hot Chocolate (no whip)*
20 g fat
12 g saturated fat
(*calculated for a grande with 2% milk; add 70-80 calories and 7-8 g fat for the whipped cream, and save 30-40 calories and 3-4 g fat by asking for nonfat milk)
Wendy's Gourmet Mushroom Swiss Burger
Wendy's worked hard to class itself up in 2008, giving its namesake a tuxedo in ads and stressing the freshness and "gourmet" items on its menu. The home of the fresh-never-frozen-burger earned a respectable B rating on its restaurant report card, thanks to a variety of salads and healthy side items such as yogurt, chili, baked potatoes and mandarin oranges. After last year's Baconator, we thought Wendy's had learned its lesson.
Then Wendy's came out with this:
"A 1/4 lb. of fresh, hot 'n juicy beef, topped with natural Swiss cheese, sautéed Portabella mushroom blend, hickory smoked bacon, a savory peppercorn sauce, crisp lettuce and red, ripe tomato."
Gourmet and gourmand aren't synonymous, Wendy's. This burger would be better named the "Glutton Mushroom Swiss Burger." A regular 1/4 pound hamburger has 170 fewer calories and 16 fewer grams of fat! Stick with the chili and a baked potato if you want to watch your girlish figure, Wendy!
36 g fat
14 g saturated fat
1.5 g trans fat
110 mg cholesterol
1,090 mg sodium
37 g carbs
2 g fiber
35 g protein
Burger King Mushroom Swiss Steakhouse Burger
Wendy's, we take back what we said. Yours is not the worst mushroom Swiss burger to show up on fast food menus this year. That award goes to Burger King, which relied on Simon & Garfunkel style warbling ballads to sell its upgraded burger:
"Flame-grilled Angus beef, tender mushrooms, warm, melted Swiss cheese,* crispy onions, golden corn dusted bun. (*Processed and pasteurized cheese)"
Burger King doesn't mess around with lettuce and tomato on this burger and nixes the bacon, too. I'm not really sure where those extra 220 calories come from, but they're certainly not helping you reach your five a day vegetable and fruit quota!
Maybe, instead of naming each of these burgers to our list, we should have just named "Mushroom-Swiss fast food burgers" the worst food trend of 2008.
48 g fat
18 g saturated fat
2 g trans fat
130 mg cholesterol
1,950 mg sodium
54 g carbs
4 g fiber
41 g protein
Romano's Macaroni Grill
Seared Sea Scallops salad
Why bother even calling this a salad? Could we ask restaurants to have a calorie and fat limit for the salad section? I'd like to be able to order salads without worrying I'm consuming an entire day's worth of protein and fat. Judging from the Macaroni Grill menu, it's impossible to create a salad with more than lettuce and dressing for under 500 calories. Macaroni Grill flunked the Men's Health restaurant review.
"Seared sea scallops, tender leaves of spinach, arugula, feta cheese, crispy prosciutto, toasted walnuts and Parmesan crisps with light citrus dressing."
Psst… vegetables and lean protein taste good. You don’t need to douse them in fat for us to eat them. (Don't you just love that it comes with a "light" citrus dressing? Nothing in this salad is light, judging from the nutritional info!)
94 g fat
27 g saturated fat
2,740 mg sodium
42 g carbs
76 g protein
6 g fiber
Butterscotch Rocks Pancakes at IHOP
That IHOP doesn't provide nutritional info should be enough reason to skip breakfast. Most of the foods gracing the pages of its large glossy menu are desserts masquerading as breakfast and have more toppings than a banana split!
We shook our heads at the "stuffed" French toast, dropped our jaws at the coffee cake pancakes and finally threw down our forks at the Butterscotch Rocks pancakes:
"Four fluffy buttermilk pancakes filled with pecans, granola and butterscotch chips, then topped with whipped topping and drizzled with caramel sauce."
Needless to say, these pancakes didn't find their way onto the "IHOP for Me" healthier section of the menu. This dish seems to be the winner of a "how many sweet-and-sugary-toppings-can-we-cram-onto-a-stack-of-pancakes" contest!
We conservatively estimated the nutritional content of these pancakes based on menu description.
52 g fat
A standard 4" pancake has just 80 calories and 3 grams of fat; however, IHOP's flapjacks would dwarf your homemade ones. You could eat more than a dozen regular 4-inch pancakes with a 1/4 cup of syrup and a tablespoon of butter for the same calories.
KFC Original Recipe Fully Loaded Box Meal
Nobody needs a box of food. Chances are good that if your restaurant food comes in a box, it should be shared or just avoided. KFC made our Worst Foods of 2007 list with its Chicken & Biscuit Bowl. Now, the folks that brought you a chicken dinner in a bowl bring you the "KFC Original Recipe Fully Loaded Box Meal." It comes in a Guitar Hero box, but we're slightly confused. Are you supposed to eat this while playing Guitar Hero? When I think about rocking out to a video game, I don't conjure an image of myself holding a drumstick seasoned with 11 herbs and spices.
"The KFC Original Recipe Fully Loaded Box Meal brings all your favorites together for an over-the-top concert of flavor. Each box is jammed with two Original Recipe Strips pressure-cooked in the Colonel's famous 11 herbs and spices, plus an Original Recipe Snacker, your choice of a drumstick or thigh, 2 individual homestyle sides, a famous KFC freshly-made biscuit and 32 oz drink. Man that's a lot of food!"
1,320 calories (calculated with barbecue baked beans, cole slaw, a drumstick and a Pepsi)
43 g fat
8 g saturated fat
3.5 g trans fat
100 mg cholesterol
2,740 mg sodium
196 g carbs
40 g protein
13 g fiber
Taco Bell Fully Loaded Nachos
If there were 10 Diet Commandments, somewhere on that list would be this sage piece of advice: Thou shalt never eat the receptacle in which thy food is served. Nothing healthy comes in a carbohydrate bowl! Taco Bell has taken the edible food vessel one step further. Their "Fully Loaded Nachos," which are already a big pile of greasy chips with "double the seasoned beef, fiesta salsa, guacamole, hearty beans, three cheese blend and nacho cheese sauce," are served in a giant fried tortilla. Nachos served in a nacho. Na-cho best idea, Taco Bell.
Parent company Yum! had been making tremendous progress on the healthful fast food front, by touting its Fresco menu at Taco Bell, adding lighter items at Long John Silver's and volunteering to post nutritional info. This, along with that whole "Fourth Meal" campaign, is a giant step back across the border, Taco Bell!
83 g fat
17 g saturated fat
4.5 g trans fat
70 mg cholesterol
2,190 mg sodium
15 g fiber
34 g protein
Olive Garden Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara
Carbonara pasta is essentially bacon-and-egg pasta. Delicious, yes. Healthy, no. The simple dish is traditionally made with "egg, pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), black pepper, and parmesan or pecorino" cheese. Olive Garden's version "combines chicken and shrimp with bucatini pasta in a pancetta and parmesan cream sauce." It's then "baked and topped with seasoned breadcrumbs."
UPDATE: Olive Garden now lists nutrition info! (Score one for the Olive Garden! Thank you!) However, we now know that this pasta has 1,440 calories, 88 g and 3,000 mg sodium!
Maybe someday Italian food in America will no longer be drowning in butter, cream and cheese. Plenty of traditional dishes contain those rich ingredients, but Italians have learned a word that's been lost in translation: moderazione, or moderation.
Jack in the Box Egg Nog Shake
Jack must have been knocked in his noggin before he came up with this eggnog shake. Egg nog, that delicious yet caloric holiday beverage chock full of eggs, sugar and cream, is blended with ice cream for a seasonal treat. That's almost an entire day's calories in a glass. You could eat four Jack in the Box hamburgers with cheese for about the same calories and 23 fewer grams of fat. Pretty hard to swallow, isn't it?
1,450 calories (large shake)
68 g of fat
24 g of saturated fat
3 g trans fat
Quizno's Prime Rib Cheesesteak
"It’s the sandwich your mouth always wanted," says Quizno's. It's the sandwich your heart always feared, we say. This beefed-up cheesesteak boasts "prime rib, Swiss, sautéed onions, mayo" on toasted bread. Let's return to the list of Diet Commandments for a moment. #4:Thou shalt not eat anything thy can't fit in thy mouth. No one needs to eat sandwiches so big you must unhinge your jaw like a snake to consume. Pass them by, Dagwood, unless you want to eat an entire day's worth of sodium and saturated fat in one meal.
88 g fat
21 g saturated fat
2,675 mg sodium
(Small: 640 calories, 37 g fat, 8.5 g saturated fat)
Chili's Texas Cheese Fries with Jalapeno Ranch dressing
Whose idea was cheese fries? They're delicious, sure, but really, did we need to top deep-fried potatoes with greasy melted cheese and bacon and dip them in dressed-up mayonnaise? No, we did not. Now they're a staple at chain restaurants, who try to one-up each other with signature ranch dressings, extra toppings and, ultimately, more fat.
Chili's boasts: "homestyle fries topped with melted cheese, jalapeños, applewood smoked bacon & jalapeño-ranch dipping sauce."
These fries lost the contest for the worst cheese fries in America (that dishonor went to Outback Steakhouse's cheese fries), but it was a tight race.
One hundred and sixty grams of fat. One-six-zero. 160! (Oh, and you'll get 1 1/2 days' worth of sodium in one meal!)
160 g fat
73 g saturated fat
73 g carbs
85 g protein
8 g fiber
3,730 mg sodium
Eating away from home--even when you're on the run--doesn't mean eating unhealthfully. We've got 11 ways you can slim down your fast food order.
Have you tried these foods? Do you intend to try them? Know of a food that should be on our list?