Some foods are so bad for you, they qualify as a nutritionist's nightmare.
WebMD asked several registered dietitians and other food experts to nominate their favorite "food horrors". Their submissions ranged from empty-calorie foods masquerading as nutritious, to outlandish concoctions that tip the scales with obscene amounts of fat and calories. Have any of them ever lurked around your plate?
1. Frightful Fried Foods
From a nutritional standpoint, some of the scariest foods are the deep-fat fried concoctions you can find at carnivals and state fairs.
Americans have tossed everything from turkeys to Twinkies in the fryer, but have you ever heard of deep-fried cola? Debuting at the Texas state fair -- and winning the creativity honor at the Big Tex Choice Awards contest -- was this deep-fried, Coca-Cola flavored batter, drizzled with cola fountain syrup, and topped with whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and a cherry.
2. Scary Steakhouse Specialty
Nutritional nightmares are readily available at many of your favorite neighborhood restaurants. Christine Palumbo, RD, nominated the deep-fried onion appetizer popular at some chain steakhouses.
One such appetizer, Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin' Onion, has more than 800 calories, 58 grams of fat and 22 grams of saturated fat, plus 1,520 milligrams of sodium. These numbers don't include the dipping sauce, which is also loaded with fat, calories, and sodium.
3. Monstrously Misleading
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a New York University nutrition professor and author of What to Eat, takes issue with not-very-nutritious foods that are labeled or advertised with healthy-sounding terms. She nominates "kids' fruit snacks that have no fruit whatsoever and are basically candy in disguise" as one potentially misleading food.
4. Big, Bigger, Biggest Burgers
There appears to be no end to the amount of calories and fat you can fit onto a bun.
Hardee's has the Monster Thickburger, boasting 1,420 calories, 107 grams (g) of fat, 45 g of saturated fat, and 2,740 milligrams (mg) of sodium. Carl's Jr. takes it a step further with the Double Six Burger, featuring two burger patties and three slices of cheese -- weighing in at 1,520 calories, 111 g fat, 47 g saturated fat, and 2,760 mg sodium.
Burger King is not far behind with its BK Stacker, loaded with four burgers, four slices of cheese, and 8 strips of bacon, coming in at 1,000 calories, 30 g saturated fat, and 1,800 mg sodium.
And the list doesn't end at fast-food chains. Ever hear of the "Hamdog"? This culinary creation from the former Mulligan's Tavern near Atlanta starts with a hot dog padded with cheese and half pound of ground beef. That's dropped in the fryer, then loaded onto a hoagie roll and topped with chili, bacon, onions and a fried egg. Mulligan's was also famous as the home of the "Luther Burger," a giant bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut for a bun.
Someone call the food police!
Of course, "most people know when they order one of these that it is not good for them," says Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist for the watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest.
If you are thinking of your health, try ordering a plain burger with sauce on the side, along with a side salad.
The bottom line is that we should eat no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (equal to about 1 teaspoon). If you're salt-sensitive (that is, if your blood pressure is highly affected by salt), the number drops to 1,500 mg.
5. Appalling Appetizers
Dietitian Cynthia Sass, RD, nominated TGI Friday's "sizzling triple meat fundido -- a combination of cheese, pepperoni, bacon, and sausage served with breadsticks." While nutritional information for this appetizer was not available on the restaurant's web site, the fat-laden ingredients ensure that the fundido is a nutritional no-no.
6. Calorie-Laden Cakes
As if cheesecake were not high enough in fat and calories, the Cheesecake Factory adds chocolate candy, cookies, mousse, ganache, flourless chocolate cake crust, and other equally caloric extras to the rich dessert, says Jayne Hurley, RD. Even if you're just ordering a plain slice, cheesecake will set you back 630 calories.
Looking for a little nosh with your coffee? Starbucks Old Fashioned Crumb cake looks innocent enough, but that little square packs 670 calories.
7. Diet-Demolishing Drinks
The real problem with high-calorie drinks is that they go down easily, and don't tend to fill you up.
"Coffee drinks and smoothies don't set off bells and whistles to alert you to the calorie load," says Hurley. "Starbucks' white chocolate mocha is a Quarter-Pounder in a cup; any Frappuccino Blended Crème has 490-580 calories; and a venti Java Chip Frappuccino has the equivalent of 11 creamers and 20 packets of sugar.
To reduce the calories in your favorite coffee drink, order a small size, make it "skinny" (with low fat milk), and skip the whipped cream.
8. Mammoth Mall Munchies
Most people know when they order a gigantic burger that it is not good for them. But what really scares Hurley are the not-so-obviously fattening foods that people snack on at the mall.
"The highly aromatic cinnamon used in a Cinnabon (810 calories) or the smell of Mrs. Field's milk chocolate macadamia cookie (320 calories) tempts mall goers into thinking nothing of eating a snack that has half a day's calories or fat," she says.
Bring along a 100-calorie pack of crackers, some trail mix, or raw veggies to help you resist the tantalizing aromas of such high-calorie mall treats.
9. Dining-Out Diet Disasters
"Fifteen years ago, when I first started evaluating restaurant food, I was blown away by the 1,500 calories in a serving of Fettuccine Alfredo, but the trend has gotten worse, not better," says Hurley.
Fried macaroni and cheese and cheese fries were other nominees in the category of frightening foods found on restaurant menus.
10. Stupendous Servings
It's not just fast-food meals that have been super-sized in the last couple of decades.
"Muffins, bagels, salads, sandwiches, pasta servings -- almost everything is much larger today than it used to be or needs to be," says Hurley. "You can expect most restaurant appetizers, entrees, and desserts to each weigh in around 1,000 calories."
Here's a sure-fire way to start your day off on the wrong dietary foot: the enormous omelet sandwich at Burger King. This fork-free meal is loaded with two slices of cheese, three slices of bacon, two eggs, and a sausage patty on a giant bun, totaling 730 calories and 47 g fat.
Do Food Horrors Really Matter?
Yes, dietitians say, there are some truly frightening foods out there. But do they really matter to the average American's diet?
Michelle May, MD, author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work, thinks that once a person indulges in a decadent dessert or monster burger, it triggers the "'I've already blown my diet, so why bother?" mentality.
Beyond that, May believes, the real horror may be the American mind-set about food.
"We were raised to clean our plates so we could be rewarded with dessert, which further enhances our desire to eat sweets and eat meals without recognition of fullness," she says.
Further, consider that many of the most frighteningly fattening foods are sold in restaurants. Americans now spend 48% of their food dollars in restaurants, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. And the most popular restaurant food eaten by both men and women is the hamburger, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
Hurley thinks most people would think twice about ordering food and drinks that they realize are "hideously high in fat and calories." She'd like to see nutrition information about restaurant foods become more readily available, and believes this would encourage restaurateurs to offer more healthful options.
"Let's give consumers the choice and educate them with the nutritional information of restaurant foods at the point of purchase, not the web site," she recommends.
Published Oct. 27, 2006.
SOURCES: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005". Burger King web site. Carl's Jr. web site. TGI Friday's web site. Mrs. Fields web site. USDA: "Let's Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience", and "Nutrition (EIB-19), October 2006". Press release, NPD group, Sept. 5, 2006. Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Cynthia Sass, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, nutrition professor, New York University; author, What to Eat. Christine Palumbo, MBA, RD, food columnist, Allure magazine; nutrition consultant. Michelle May, MD, author, Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work.