The Worst “Free” Restaurant Foods in America
150 calories, 7 g fat (1.5 g saturated), 290 mg sodium, 20 g carbohydrates
These free, unlimited breadsticks are the foundation of any visit to Fazoli’s. They’re also the foundation of a blood sugar spike and carbohydrate coma. If you casually nibble these throughout the course of a meal, you could easily put three of them away. In that case, you’ve just taken in 450 calories—an entire meal on top of your 800-calorie Chicken Carbonara. Eat any more than that and you’ll end up doughier than Fazoli’s oven. Breadsticks are like appetizers in that we rarely recognize their full fat-making impact.
150 calories, 8 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 16 g carbohydrates
Red Lobster’s iconic biscuits are complimentary with any entrée, and as long as you keep eating, your server will keep bringing. Red Lobster’s website boasts that 395 million are doled out every year—that’s more than one biscuit for every man, woman, and child in America. And if you eat just two alongside your Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut Shrimp, your meal balloons to the caloric equivalent of more than a half-dozen Krispie Kreme glazed doughuts. What’s especially sad about this is that Red Lobster is among the healthiest restaurant chains in the country, so these biscuits are a stain on an otherwise decent menu.
150 calories, 17 g fat (3 g saturated), 310 mg sodium
Between the fatty toppings and oversized crusts, pizza faces many nutritional obstacles. What it doesn’t need is a ramakin of oil to go alongside every order, yet Papa John’s will happily hand over this “garlic” sauce with every pizza it serves. Every calorie in this sauce comes from fat, and we’re not talking olive oil here. The first two ingredients are fully and partially hydrogenated oils. Add to that 14 other difficult-to-pronounce ingredients and you have one nefarious dipping sauce.
235 calories, 2 g fat (0 g saturated), 72 mg sodium
Let’s be fair: This isn’t terrible bread. It has 3 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein. What is terrible is that it comes alongside every salad, and Cosi’s salads don’t need the extra 235 calories. Say you order a standard Cobb salad. That’s 713 calories, a big meal, but you can offset it with a smaller dinner. Now add to that a side of Flatbread and suddenly you’re at 948 calories. A lunch that size makes it difficult to stay within your caloric means for the day. The point is, you don’t need the extra calories to make a full meal. There’s no harm in politely declining.
#4: WORST “FREE” BREAKFAST: Denny’s Unlimited Pancake Stack, Buttermilk Pancakes with Maple-Flavored Syrup (2 pancakes)
473 calories, 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 1,196 mg sodium, 103 g carbohydrates
While I fully endorse eating breakfast—after all, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the average waistline of breakfast eaters is nearly 2 inches smaller than those who skip—this breakfast is far more likely to increase your waist. Just two buttermilk pancakes will cost you more calories than four full servings of Breyers Smooth & Dreamy Dark Chocolate Velvet ice cream. And if you go for double or triple that, you’ve ruined your diet for the day without paying one extra dime. Denny’s PR material boasts about the “value” of this meal, but if you’re among those who value your body, steer clear of this endless stack of pancakes.
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350 calories, 26 g fat (4.5 g saturated), 1,930 mg sodium, 22 g carbohydrates
Olive Garden’s salad may be the most concerning of all free foods. Loading up on greens seems like a smart way to blunt your appetite before the pasta hits the table, but as it turns out, eating a couple bowls of this salad will saddle you with a full 700 calories—more than you should be eating over the entire course of your meal. What’s more, Olive Garden hands out free breadsticks, and at 150 calories apiece, they make it very easy to rack up nearly 1,000 calories before your meal arrives. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this salad is the sodium. Each bowl has more than most people should consume in an entire day. The good news? You can cut out about 75 percent of that sodium by eschewing the dressing in favor of oil and vinegar.
860 calories, 45 g fat (18 g saturated), 71 g sugars
Friendly’s has a philosophy that every meal should end with ice cream, so when your child orders a lunch or dinner, the dessert comes free. And these are no small desserts—8 of the 10 exceed 400 calories. The worst among them is the Peanut Butter Cup Friend-Z, a small bucket of hot fudge sauce and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups churned into soft serve ice cream. The Friend-Z has four times more calories than an actual package of Reese’s. So say your child orders a crispy chicken Wrap It Up Wrap with Waffle Fries, and for a beverage (which is also free) she orders strawberry milk. Meal total so far: 1,770 calories. You’re hesitant to order dessert, but what the heck. It’s free, right? So you tack on a Friend-Z. The grand total for your child’s meal is 2,630 calories. That’s about 1,000 more than an active 8-year-old needs in an entire day, and it’s a foundation for habits that could lead to a lifetime struggle with food and body weight.
1,110 calories, 64.5 g fat (38.5 g saturated), 845 mg sodium
Here’s the deal: You pay for the first bowl, and every subsequent bowl is on Olive Garden. Eat as many as you like. Think of it as trough-style eating—the same thing farmers rely on to fatten up livestock. But not even livestock take in such heavy loads of fat. Thanks to the unrestrained use of oil, butter, cheese, and cream, each bowl of this pasta harbors nearly two full day’s worth of saturated fat. Let’s do the math. Say you wolf down two-and-a-half bowls before you wave the white napkin of defeat. You’ve just taken in enough saturated fat to meet the daily limit for a full table of five.
Now get this: For an extra $2.95, you can top each of these bowls with Italian sausage. Now your two-and-a-half bowl binge weighs in at 3,475 calories (nearly twice what most people need in a day), 4,313 milligrams sodium (three times the amount most people need in a day), and 116.5 grams saturated fat (nearly six times your daily limit). Hope you packed some bigger pants, because you’re going to need them.