A few nights ago, on a family vacation in semi-rural Pennsylvania, I agreed that the time was right for a straightforward, kid-friendly, while-the-sun-was-still-high-in-the-sky dinner at…Olive Garden. I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, so I grew up nearly oblivious to chain restaurants (“Original Ray’s Pizza” doesn’t count).
Of all the chains, Olive Garden seemed a safe bet: not completely off-the-charts junk food (McDonald’s / Burger King / White Castle), not aspiring to be something that likely will turn out badly (Red Lobster). Pasta is pasta, right?
I thought the food tasted pretty terrible, but that’s not really important…people differ on these sorts of things. What I found shocking was that, had I finished what I ordered (one dish), I would have consumed nearly 2,000 calories. This is a day’s worth of calories in a single meal.
Here’s the analysis of what arrived (I ate about half)
- Braised beef with tortellini: 1,020 calories
- Zuppa Toscana: 369 calories (177 from fat) – soup / salad included with main dish
- Bread sticks: 280 calories for 2 sticks
- Two Stella Artois beers: 270 calories
- Total = 1,939 calories
This is without ordering an appetizer or a dessert, so I ordered moderately (though in fairness I didn’t look for low-cal options).
Search Google for “obesity epidemic” and you’ll get 713,000 hits. Check out the CDC’s animation on increase in obesity – in 1986, all states in the US had less than 14% obesity rate; in 2007, nearly all states have more than a 25% obesity rate; and the diabetes rate has doubled in the last 10 years. And the over-abundance of cheap food with huge portions at every meal is, in my opinion, a big part of the problem.
We’ve become a wealthy enough nation and an efficient enough food producer that calories are cheap and we end up paying for the experience and the branding and the story. The food is mostly an incidental cost so why not jack up what’s delivered so people feel like they’re getting a “good value?”
I find this terrifying, and worry that preventable medical ailments are slowly killing us and will suck up an increasing portion of our GDP for healthcare costs. Our prosperity is undermining our good health and well-being. And it’s not just here: India, which suffers from some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world with 46% of children under the age of 3 malnourished, now has the most diabetics of any country in the world with more than 40 million diabetics – 11% of the urban population. It’s sobering.
If we can’t right this ship and change our food consumption behavior, two decades from now I predict we will see food labeling guidelines and regulations as strict as what we see on cigarettes and tobacco today.