Eating out at restaurants can be enjoyable, but some chain restaurants offer less nutritious options than others. When looking for a healthy meal, it’s important to consider the calorie, fat, and sodium content of menu items. In this article, we’ll explore which major chain restaurants are the unhealthiest overall based on an analysis of their menu offerings.
Criteria for Evaluating Chain Restaurants
To determine the unhealthiest chain restaurants, we’ll look at the following factors:
- Calorie content of entrees and full meals
- Saturated fat content
- Sodium content
- Availability of nutritious side dishes and salads
- Vegetarian and vegan options
Chains that have a high average calorie count for entrees, high levels of saturated fat and sodium, and limited healthier sides and vegetarian choices will rank as the unhealthiest. We’ll explore the options at 10 of the largest U.S. chain restaurants and analyze their menus.
Top Unhealthy Chains
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its extensive menu with large portions. An analysis of the chain’s offerings shows that it ranks as the unhealthiest restaurant on our list:
- The average entree contains over 1,000 calories.
- Many entrees provide nearly a full day’s worth of sodium.
- There are limited lower-calorie, vegetarian, or vegan options.
With rich cheesecakes and decadent pasta dishes dominating the menu, it’s difficult to find a truly healthy meal at the Cheesecake Factory. Even many salads are loaded with high-calorie ingredients like fried chicken, bacon, and cheese.
Applebee’s is another chain with a menu full of high-calorie, high-sodium options. A few reasons it ranks as one of the unhealthiest restaurants include:
- The average plate has over 1,000 calories.
- Many appetizers and entrees are fried or slathered in sauces high in fat and sodium.
- Weight Watchers endorsed meals have limited appeal for vegans/vegetarians.
Applebee’s does offer some grilled chicken dishes and salads. But even these can top 1,000 calories when adding in high-fat dressings, cheese, bacon, and other extras.
Known for indulgent appetizers and burgers, TGIFridays offers some of the unhealthiest casual dining options. Consider that:
- Appetizers like loaded potato skins and mozzarella sticks pack over 1,000 calories.
- Specialty burgers with bacon and cheese provide nearly a full day’s calories and saturated fat.
- The chain uses frozen, pre-made meals heated on-site.
While TGIFridays does list some Weight Watchers endorsed meals with grilled chicken and fish options, much of the menu consists of fried foods and sauces heavy on fat, calories, and sodium.
Other Unhealthy Chains
While the Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, and TGIFridays take the top three spots, other chains also provide indulgent, unhealthy fare. Here are some additional restaurants that rank among the unhealthiest:
Olive Garden’s endless breadsticks, saucy pastas, and creamy Alfredo dishes make it a top pick for calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Giant portions mean that even salads and grilled chicken entrees contain nearly a full day’s worth of calories.
Steakhouse chains like Outback allow you to customize your meal, but signature items like Aussie Cheese Fries and Bloomin’ Onions are extremely high in calories, sodium, and artery-clogging saturated fat and trans fats from hydrogenated oils. Steaks and creamy mashed potatoes don’t help the nutritional profile.
With heavy use of oils, salt, and sauces, Chinese chains like Panda Express make the unhealthiest list. Entrees like Orange Chicken or Kung Pao Shrimp are deep fried and coated in sugar-laden sauces. Fried rice, chow meins, and salty egg rolls further drive up calories and sodium.
Known for serving breakfast all day, Denny’s offers hearty plates of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, and carb-heavy sides like hash browns and biscuits. Even lunch and dinner entrees like burgers and sandwiches come with fries and lots of added bacon, cheese, sauce, and mayo.
To make better choices when dining out, look for restaurants with a wide range of vegetarian options, lean proteins like grilled chicken or fish, lighter sauces, and plenty of vegetable side dishes. Some examples of healthier chain restaurants include:
- Panera Bread – offers vegetarian soups, salads, and sandwiches.
- Chipotle – build your own tacos, bowls, and burritos with lettuce, beans, salsa, and grilled meat.
- Subway – subs and wraps with lean meat and lots of veggie toppings.
When in doubt, opt for grilled or broiled meats instead of fried, request olive oil and vinegar instead of creamy dressings, and choose plain vegetable sides over those loaded with cheese, cream, and butter.
Lower Calorie Menu Options
If you do find yourself at one of the unhealthiest chain restaurants, aim for these lower calorie menu items:
|Better Menu Options
|Kale and Quinoa Salad, Rigatoni with Chicken
|Shrimp and Island Rice Bowl, 6 oz. Sirloin Steak
|Petite Sirloin, Veggie Burger
|Herb Grilled Salmon, Zoodles Primavera
|Victoria’s Filet (6 oz.), Herb Grilled Salmon
|Broccoli Beef, Vegetable Spring Rolls
|Fit Fare Chicken Sandwich, Veggie Skillet
Sticking to a side salad or a plain baked potato instead of fries, look for entrees under 600 calories, and avoid add-ons like cheese and bacon.
Healthiest Overall Chains
If you want to choose a restaurant that offers more nutritious fare overall, opt for chains like:
- Freshii – salads, wraps, bowls
- Sweetgreen – salads, warm bowls, sides like roasted veggies and beans
- Dig Inn – proteins with vegetable sides and sauces on the side to control portions
- First Watch – extensive menu of eggs, avo toasts, bowls, sandwiches for breakfast and lunch
These restaurants use lean proteins, load up on veggies, and offer flexible customization and vegetarian options. You’ll find far fewer fried foods and healthier preparations.
Tips for Dining Out Healthy
If you want to keep your meal under 500-700 calories when eating out, follow these tips:
- Start with salad or broth-based soup
- Avoid cheese, bacon, mayo, and creamy dressings
- Order sauces and dressings on the side
- Opt for grilled, broiled, steamed or roasted over fried
- Share high-calorie appetizers and desserts
- Request extra vegetable sides instead of starchy ones
- Take half the meal home for leftovers
Being mindful when ordering and asking for substitutions and preparation adjustments can make a big difference in the nutritional value of your meal.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, many of America’s top chain restaurants offer excessive amounts of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. The unhealthiest chains have menus dominated by fried foods, red meat, creamy sauces, buttery sides, and rich desserts. To choose a healthier meal when dining out, opt for grilled lean protein, lots of vegetables, and easy on sauces and starchy sides. Consider the overall menu when picking a restaurant, as chains like Freshii and Sweetgreen offer more balanced options focused on nutritious ingredients.