Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? How the witch of the woods lured them into her edible candy hut and gave them piles and piles of free food—just so she could fatten them up and turn them into stew?
Well, think about that old fairy tale the next time a waiter drops a plate of “free” food on your table. For years I've been recommending the best foods to buy, and warning about menu items that might make you fat. But our newest Eat This, Not That! research reveals that some of the worst dietary sins aren’t ordered at all. They just come to your table for free!
Plenty of mischievous food peddlers are happy to give you free food—food that’s certain to fatten you up plenty, if not land you in a big black cauldron. Whether it’s “bottomless” buckets or “endless” entrees or the breadsticks and salad at Olive Garden, freebies almost always consist of high-fat, high-carbohydrate munchies that won’t fill you up—after all, the restaurant wants you to buy more food!—but will fill you out.
Of course, I wouldn’t recommend shoving the waiter into an oven; restaurants do sort of frown on that kind of thing. But I would recommend shoving these free plates to the other side of the table, before you create a dietary fairy tale of your own: “Hansel and Regrettal.”
WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD #6: Fazoli’s Garlic Breadsticks
7 g fat (1.5 g saturated)
290 mg sodium
20 g carbohydrates
These free, unlimited breadsticks are a signature part of the Fazoli’s dining experience. Folks seem to love ’em: Googling “Fazoli’s breadsticks recipe” returns more than 3,000 results. And at only 150 calories each, how bad could they be? Well, each breadstick is the caloric equivalent of more than 7 Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Kisses. Eating one is a sensible indulgence—but try to eat just one! Appetizers are often the downfall of a diet: To see my point, check out this eye-popping Eat This, Not That! list of the 10 Worst Starters in America.
WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD #5: Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits
8 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat)
350 mg sodium
16 g carbohydrates
These Red Lobster staples come free with any entrée—and you can have as many as you want. Red Lobster’s website boasts of serving “almost 1.1 million” Cheddar Bay Biscuits every day. Add two of them to your Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp and your already-sizeable meal (880 calories) balloons to the caloric equivalent of more than a half-dozen Krispie Kreme glazed donuts! That said, keep far from Cheddar Bay, and Red Lobster is actually a nutritional safe harbor: Its menu is consistently one of the best in the country among chain restaurants. I'm always keeping my eye on the very best places for you to eat, and the often surprising places where hidden calories lurk. Get the scoop every day by following me right here on Twitter! or by signing up for the FREE Eat This, Not That! newsletter.
WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD #4: Ruby Tuesday Endless Fries
18 g fat
1,389 mg sodium
50 g carbohydrates
If you order a burger at Ruby Tuesday, you automatically get fries on the side—with infinite refills. A bargain, right? Sure, for your tailor: He’ll be making a lot of extra dough letting out your pants. A single side of the chain's fries has more calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger! That means every time you ask for a refill, you’re getting an additional visit from Mayor McCheese. And Ruby Tuesday doesn’t report saturated fat levels—a warning flag for those who like to know what, exactly, they’re putting in their bodies. In fact, two of Ruby's burgers make this Eat This, Not That! treacherous list of the 15 Worst Burgers in America.
WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD #3: On the Border Chips and Salsa
22 g fat (4 g saturated)
52 g carbohydrates
460 mg sodium
Chips and salsa: Who could eat Mexican food without it? At On the Border, the answer should be you. This free starter has more calories than three White Castle sliders. That’s no way to start your meal anywhere, let alone at a restaurant where every single enchilada dish will cost you at least 1,000 calories. Good things come to those who wait: Eschewing the chips and sticking to your order will get you across this Border with less baggage around your midsection.
WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD #2: Denny's Unlimited Pancake Stack
Buttermilk Pancakes with Maple-Flavored Syrup (2 pancakes)
4 g fat (0.5 g saturated)
1,196 mg sodium
103 g carbohydrates
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. They don't say, “Eat as much as humanly possible for breakfast.” And yet you’d think that’s what Denny’s has in mind with this deal. Just two buttermilk pancakes will cost you more calories than four full servings of Breyers Smooth & Dreamy Dark Chocolate Velvet ice cream—double or triple that, and you’ve ruined your diet for the day without paying a cent. The Denny’s press release announcing this promotion brags about the “value” they’re providing Americans: Not Americans who value their bodies! (If you're one of those folks, get easy, effective advice about foods to avoid--and the smart swaps you should go for instead to make the belly fat fall off--with the latest Eat This, Not That! 2011 book.)
Bonus Tip: Lose weight fast. Build muscle. Get out of debt. Whatever your resolution for 2011, here's your plan.
THE #1 WORST "FREE" RESTAURANT FOOD: Olive Garden Bottomless Salad and Breadsticks
Garden-Fresh Salad (1 serving with dressing)
26 g fat (4.5 g saturated)
1,930 mg sodium
22 g carbohydrates
Breadstick (1 with garlic butter spread)
2 g fat (0 g saturated)
400 mg sodium
28 g carbohydrates
Olive Garden wins the battle of the fattening freebies by a mile. The minute you sit down, you’re staring at bowls of bottomless breadsticks and “garden” salad. Bottomless, however, doesn’t describe what you’ll look like if you spend too much time grazing in the Garden. Just one serving of each will give you 25 percent of your day’s caloric intake, before you’ve taken your first bite of your actual meal. But wait: Aren’t salads “healthy”? Not in this Garden: The free salad alone has almost a full day’s worth of sodium. Unfortunately, Olive Garden is far from the only restaurant that’s really a dietary minefield. Check out this comprehensive slideshow of the 20 Worst Restaurant Foods in America.