The Three-Thousand-Calorie Meal You Didn't Know You Ate

I recently had dinner at Chili's. (To steal a line from Bill Hicks, "I'm not proud of it, but I was hungry.")

Although it isn't the best restaurant in the world, there are many good things to say about Chili's. So, let me begin by listing a few qualities I genuinely appreciate as a Chili's customer. First, I almost never have to wait a long time to get a table, and it's not necessarily because Chili's is unpopular. More likely, there are enough Chili's restaurants, and their subsidiary restaurants, On the Border, in a given geographic region to service their clientele without making us wait. Second, Chili's restaurants aren't merely ubiquitous, they are often located in attractive locations within close proximity of other establishments I want to be near: movie theaters, shopping centers, and so on. I don't have to make two separate trips -- one to go shopping, and one to get dinner, for example -- because Chili's is always nearby wherever else I want to be. Third, their loyalty program regularly provides valuable coupons that help my family minimize costs and maximize value. Fourth, they are an unabashedly kid-friendly restaurant chain that has always been welcoming of my daughter, starting from infancy and continuing to the present day. Finally, there is enough variety on their menu that, no matter how I feel, I can almost always find something I want to eat at Chili's, and so can the rest of the family. I've been there for casual and impromptu outings, date nights, daddy-daughter dates, celebrations, happy hours, and so on.

Considering all of the above, it's no surprise that Chili's has been as commercially successful as it has been.

With that out of the way, let's make one thing absolutely clear: Chili's will never be a health food restaurant. During my most recent visit, I paid close attention to the calorie count on all the menu items. I have to do this in order to properly manage my blood sugar, because a meal's total calories is one of the things that plays a role in my blood glucose control. (All other things being equal, a higher calorie count means a higher postprandial blood glucose level.) With very few exceptions, all of the main menu items were more than 1,000 calories apiece. There is a calorie-conscious section of the menu, featuring items that are about 400 calories each, but 400 calories is a little on the low extreme for me.

It's not that Chili's coats all of their food in cheese, bacon, and/or barbecue sauce (although there sure is a lot of that going on at Chili's, too). Some of the calorie counts are downright inexplicable. I cannot understand how, for example, half a dozen buffalo wings could amount to 1,000 calories. I'm under no illusions about the health status of buffalo wings, but six pieces of bone-in wings involve a lot of inedible mass in the form of bone and cartilage, and less than a serving of real chicken meat. This would suggest that Chili's' chefs have somehow found a way to more than double the caloric content of chicken.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Chili's' salads are over a thousand calories, too. A bowl of lettuce and vegetables, no matter how large, should never add up to 1,000 calories. That's just… odd. I understand that salad dressing is a calorie-dense food, but there is about 50 calories in an entire head of iceberg lettuce, which means that Chili's adds 950 calories' worth of condiments to their salads. Suppose, for the sake of argument, the salad comes with 400 calories' worth of chicken on top; then, that's 50 calories for the lettuce and a remainder of 550 calories of salad dressing. Compare this to a serving of a best-selling brand of ranch dressing here in America: two tablespoons of which amounts to 130 calories. This seems to suggest that Chili's uses half a cup of salad dressing on its salads.


Well, in light of all these 1,000-calorie foods, I opted for one of the lowest-calorie items on the standard menu: a 10-ounce sirloin steak. I repeat, ten ounces of pan-seared sirloin steak with an enormous pat of butter on top and a cup of cheese-and-bacon drenched mashed potatoes is one of the lowest-calorie items on the standard menu.

The truth is, my steak was tasty, even if it was slathered in garlic butter and pan-seared in probable vegetable oil. And I was able to find a menu option that worked for me both in terms of overall nutrition and blood-glucose control. So I really shouldn't be complaining.

Still, it's important to be aware of what we're putting into our bodies. I had to do some careful menu analysis to find something that worked for me. The average diner, especially in my area, will be more inclined to choose something that looks tasty and rich, add a beer or two, perhaps an appetizer, and finish it off with dessert. If so, that person could very easily consume more than 2,000 calories in a single sitting; perhaps even 3,000 calories.

When we talk about America's "obesity epidemic," it exists in the context of inexpensive, highly convenient, family-friendly restaurants that serve 3,000-calorie meals.


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