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Archive for November 1st, 2007

When is Italian not Mediterranean?

Posted by metaphorical on 1 November 2007

When it’s Italian cuisine, American-style.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful in the world. But when you Americanize it, you make it deadly.

Let’s first look at two quick things. First, the Mediterranean diet, as described by the American Heart Association:

    • * high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds

      * olive oil is an important monounsaturated fat source

      * dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat is eaten

      * eggs are consumed zero to four times a week

      * wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts

  • The Association says,

    Mediterranean-style diets are often close to our dietary recommendations, but they don’t follow them exactly. In general, the diets of Mediterranean peoples contain a relatively high percentage of calories from fat. This is thought to contribute to the increasing obesity in these countries, which is becoming a concern.

    So the second thing is that regardless of diet, we’re advised not to eat too many calories. According to the NIH, for men, the recommended daily requirement ranges from about 2000-3000, depending on age and how “active” you are; for women, 1600-2400.

    Let’s keep these in mind when we look at Italian cuisine, American-style, as revealed in a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As their own press release notes, they are “the nutrition watchdogs who famously called fettuccine Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate” when they first looked at Italian food in 1994.”

    CSPI looked at two large chains of Italian restaurants, Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill. I think I’ve never eaten at an Olive Garden, but I can attest that Macaroni Grill is a great value, it serves large portions of tasty food at relatively modest – as Italian food in the Northeast goes – prices.

    What CSPI found, though, was that those large portions contain an enormous number of calories, not just because of their size, but because of the meat and dairy they are loaded with. The organization’s nutrition director, Bonnie F. Liebman, says, “the heaping portions of meat, cheese, pasta, and cream sauces served up at Italian-style American chain restaurants are about as far from the ideal Mediterranean diet as you can get.”

    Let’s look at some numbers, first for a rather simple meal:

    Olive Garden’s Spaghetti & Meatballs

    You can expect 1,260 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat (19 grams). That’s equal to the calories in three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders. If that seems like a lot to swallow, it’s half what you’d get in Macaroni Grill’s version.

    Macaroni Grill’s Spaghetti & Meatballs with meat sauce.

    The following nutrition numbers are not typos: Romano’s rendition of this classic dish provides more than an entire day’s calories (2,430) and nearly three days’ worth of saturated fat—an astonishing 57 grams. If you like meat, you could eat two Macaroni Grill Tuscan Rib-Eye steak dinners and inflict less damage. Or you could eat six Quarter Pounders for the same effect on your waistline.

    The Macaroni Grill’s Fettuccine Alfredo “lives up to the “heart attack on a plate” reputation with 1,130 calories and 53 grams of saturated fat—more than 21⁄2 days’ worth. (Olive Garden’s version had a few more calories but “only” 1.5 days’ worth of bad fat.) ?

    CSPI sums up the dining experience this way:

    Consider a hypothetical couple who dines at Romano’s Macaroni Grill: They share the calamari and the complimentary peasant bread. He orders the Penne Rustica; she the Chicken and Shrimp Scaloppine. They split the tiramisu. The damage? They’ve each had more than three days’ worth of saturated fat and sodium. And they’ve each had on the order of 2,800 calories—about a day-and-a-half’s worth. And those aren’t even the unhealthiest choices on the menu.

    The problem is two-fold. By putting this food in front of people, the restaurants encourage people to eat unhealthfully. And by hiding behind the facade of Italian food, people are likely to think they are eating a healthier meal than they would at McDonalds. They’d be wrong. As much as I would like to rail against fast food, the problem lies with the consumer. The average American meal is a disaster, whether it’s eaten at McDonalds or not.

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