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It’s Got Cheesecake Right in the Name!

Since obesity has somehow become our unofficial theme this morning, I’d be remiss not to mention Ezra Klein‘s observations about trying to eat healthy at Cheesecake Factory.

On first glance, I would have figure the salmon for the lightest entree, followed by the chicken piccata, the carbonara, and the crispy beef. Not so. The salmon weighs in at 1,673 calories — which is to say, a bit more than 75 percent of the food an adult male should eat in a day. The piccata is a comparably slim 1,385 calories. The crispy beef is 1,528 calories. And the carbonara? 2,191. The answer might be that someone looking for a healthful meal shouldn’t go to the Cheesecake Factory. But insofar as you’re already there, or your family wants to go there, making a good decision isn’t a particularly straightforward proposition.This is why the obesity crisis is such a tough issue: Calories are delicious. The Cheesecake Factory isn’t doing anything wrong, either ethically or culinarily. Human beings are wired to prefer abundance, salt, fat, sugar, and value. The Cheesecake Factory is giving people the whole package. Changing people’s eating habits so that type two diabetes don’t become the new chubby would be easy if the food was actually repulsive or the value was bad or it was all, in some other way, a trick. But it’s not. The food is enjoyable. The value is incredible. The cost is long-term, and remembering that we might get diabetes down the road is pretty hard when eons of evolutionary wiring are telling us to eat this stuff now now now now it’s right here now now!

People go to the Cheesecake Factory because they like being there, not because they’re being deceived. The only catch is that they really don’t know how bad the food is for them. Study after study shows we wildly underestimate caloric load of our foods, and we underestimate by more as the meal becomes larger. It’s not clear that nutritional information on menus would actually change eating habits. But it would at least give people a place to start. Diners know what they like. They know how much money they’ll have to pay to purchase it. No reason they shouldn’t also know what it’s going to cost their waistline.

I’ve got no beef, crispy or otherwise, with restaurants putting nutrition information on the menu.  The problem, however, is that there’s really no way to do it unless you’re eating at the sort of place where all the menu items are shipped frozen from a central location and defrosted in a microwave.  Otherwise, each individual portion will vary considerably.   Obviously, we could print averages on the menus but they would be misleading.

Beyond that, one of the things that has long occurred to me about restaurant dining is that, because every customer must be served the same portion size (within allowances for human error) they’re naturally going to provide huge amounts of food.  If you serve a 275 pound man an amount of food that would be appropriate for a 125 pound woman, he’s going to still be hungry at the end of his meal and therefore a dissatisfied customer.  Because the marginal cost of additional food (especially pasta, potatoes, and the like) is negligible, it’s just good business to pile it on.  Naturally, everyone else will be given too much to eat and all but the most disciplined will overeat.

Two obvious ways health conscious diners can adjust are to resolve to take half the food home with them — better yet, get a “doggy bag” before starting eating and divide it right away — or to share food.  My wife and I will often order an appetizer and a single entree if we’re out and not returning immediately home.   Otherwise, I’m happy to have extra food for the next day’s lunch.

Regardless, if one combines the meal with half a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two — much less dessert — blowing through the recommended daily calorie allotment is just about guaranteed.

Of course, avoiding restaurants with the words “cheesecake” or “factory” in the name is probably the best advice for those seeking to stay slim.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Otherwise, each individual portion will vary considerably.

    Worked much in food service, James? Portion control is a science and it’s practiced at restaurants from fast food to fine dining. For middle of the road (and below) restaurants large portions convey customers the notion they’re getting a good deal in the absence of food quality, tastiness, looks, good service, or ambience.

    In my experience the biggest problem with The Cheesecake Factory isn’t the composition of the food but the ginormous portions they serve. There are plenty of things on the menu that aren’t absolutely awful from a nutritional standpoint but they’re served in brobdingnagian quantity. You can control yourself by eating less but it takes determination.

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  2. Ben says:

    Your statement applies much less at mom-and-pop (or really any non-chain) restaurants, Dave. At those types of places, everything from the portion size to the recipe for items can very quite a bit from plate to plate. And those are the places that will get hit the hardest by any sort of requirement for nutritional info. Because getting that sort of info for your food requires lab tests costing thousands and thousands of dollars. And the costs continue to mount every time to change the recipe or introduce a new item.

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  3. JKB says:

    First off, once you’ve listed carbonara as a possible healthy choice, you’ve lost all credibility in discussing healthy eating. To think a pasta dish based on eggs, cheese and cream is going to be in the healthy light eating category shows a complete lack of understanding.

    Yes, it is sad that people have more than enough to eat when they go out. Restaurants have a vested interest in having satisfied customers so they carbo-load their menu. I think arguing that people shouldn’t get value for their money is a losing proposition but it hasn’t stopped the nannystaters on energy or healthcare. Maybe ration cards that limit dining out to once every two weeks.

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  4. PD Shaw says:

    I would like to use the full weight and authority of the U.S. government to require prices on all menus, backed by the army, navy, air force and marines if need be.

    Otherwise, I’m reminded of the debate about putting alcohol content on beer. Half will use the information one way, the other half will use it in the opposite.

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  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Somehow we have lost sight of the fact people don’t eat out every night. It’s a special occurrence when we actually throw away consideration of things like cost, calories, and health benefits. We will next see criticism of the Thanksgiving feast because we loosen the belt a notch? Too much cholesterol in those Easter eggs? Nitrates in the Fourth of July hotdogs?

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  6. davod says:

    Reads like a marketing campaign for tort lawyers.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    Portion control is a science and it’s practiced at restaurants from fast food to fine dining.

    Oh, I’m sure that’s the case at a chain like Cheesecake Factory. But, even if the sizes of the portions are essentially identical, one would think random variation would still leave big differences in calories, fat, and whatnot. Not every bite or ladelful is identical, after all.

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  8. Eric Florack says:

    Plunk, as usual, has this one. I’ll expand his thought:

    People don’t go to places like that to stay thin… they go to celebrate or at least do something out of the oridinary. Something special. To indulge themselves or their date, their family, what have you. A feast, for lack of a better description. Forgive me but calorie counting doesn’t strike me as a feast, a celebration, or something special. Makes almost as much sense as creating a law demanding a Super-Snake Mustang get 45mpg. The result isn’t a supersnake, but a super worm, if that. It runs afoul of the whole purpose of the vehicle.

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  9. Eric Florack says:

    I should point out that Klien’s discomfort with that scenario speaks volumes to the nanny state mindset. OK, even he admits to finding the palce enjoyable, but by God he’ll be the first to tell you how bad it is for you to enjoy yourself.

    And wonder, often as not, aloud, if there isn’t something the government should do about such enjoyments.

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  10. Rick Almeida says:

    But, even if the sizes of the portions are essentially identical, one would think random variation would still leave big differences in calories, fat, and whatnot.

    James, while you don’t seem to cook much, you had at least basic stat in your grad training, so this seems an odd thing to say. “essentially identical” portion sizes nonetheless have “big differences” because of “random variation”? Central limit theorem?

    2 5 ounce portions of salmon would still have big differences in fat/calories/whatnot?

    I don’t know if you ever worked in a restaurant, but I think you would be surprised at just how identical individual servings of a menu item are in professionally-run restaurants. Purveyors also have a vested interest in maintaining consistency in their products, to the extent possible.

    Mom & pop joints run by amateurs might have portions that vary considerably, but anyone who’s ever been a prep cook can tell you just how standardized professional menu portions are.

    Heck, a good chef can spot a steak that’s 1/2 an ounce heavier than it should be from 50 feet away. :)

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  11. DC Loser says:

    This topic used to be of slight if no interest to me, but I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year. Now, I have to watch what I eat very carefully, and a trip to a restaurant becomes an excruciating experience in self control, denial, and guilt. I’ve avoided places like CF for the exact reasons of their massive portions and temptation to finish it all. It’s especially hard when I travel on business and have to eat out. I mostly go for low carb items like salads (oil and vinegar dressing) or those little tiny steaks (non-filet mignon) that kids eat.

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  12. Furhead says:

    Worked much in food service, James? Portion control is a science and it’s practiced at restaurants from fast food to fine dining.

    Well I have worked in food service, albeit in the distant past. And it depends. The teenagers throwing fries onto your plate or into the cardboard container add plenty of random variation, as do the servers slopping dressing onto your salad.

    Somehow we have lost sight of the fact people don’t eat out every night.

    Most middle-class people I know tend to eat out at least once a week. Getting two or three times your calorie intake for that day alone will eventually lead to the bulge. But hell yeah you’ve got to enjoy yourself once in awhile, otherwise you’ll go crazy!

    Obviously I don’t think the government should control portion sizes, but I see little wrong with having nutritional information – one can ignore it at one’s peril. Plus I would like to know the geographical location from which the food came (this goes for grocery-store-bought food as well). I am okay with the government helping to improve food safety in this manner, because I can’t personally inspect China’s food manufacturing processes.

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  13. I eat out probably 5 nights a week. (I hate my kitchen. I’m renting now and the g-ddamned cooktop . . . but that’s another story.) I was also a restaurant critic, a restaurant manager and a waiter.

    Certainly a reasonable approximation of nutrition numbers could be applied to 95% of menus. At the middle and low ends those numbers would be within a couple of percentage points of reality, regardless of slight variations.

    At the elite restaurants they’d be equally accurate: Charlie Trotter or Grant Achatz or Alain Ducasse don’t “guess” how much of this ingredient or that goes into a dish. A guy like Achatz can tell you many molecules are in a dish. This isn’t Clemenza making pasta for Sonny and the boys.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    2 5 ounce portions of salmon would still have big differences in fat/calories/whatnot?

    I don’t know if you ever worked in a restaurant, but I think you would be surprised at just how identical individual servings of a menu item are in professionally-run restaurants.

    I’m not thinking so much the size of the steak or burger or fish but of the sauce on the pasta and the amount of cheese in the salad the like. You’d think some customers would wind up up with slightly more chicken or slightly more cheese or slightly more tomato or whathaveyou even in an essentially equal serving volume. But maybe not.

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  15. PD Shaw says:

    Of course, avoiding restaurants with the words “cheesecake” or “factory” in the name is probably the best advice for those seeking to stay slim.

    Also the words “All You Can Eat Buffet”

    The last time I stumbled into one of those, I thought I was in the pre-filming of a Jenny Craig ad. How do we provide caloric info there?

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  16. Ben says:

    Obviously I don’t think the government should control portion sizes, but I see little wrong with having nutritional information – one can ignore it at one’s peril. Plus I would like to know the geographical location from which the food came (this goes for grocery-store-bought food as well). I am okay with the government helping to improve food safety in this manner, because I can’t personally inspect China’s food manufacturing processes.

    Yes, nutritional information would be handy, and as someone who is currently on a diet, it would personally be very useful for me. However, requiring it could be disastrous for mom-and-pop restaurants because of the cost of having to have every single menu item lab tested to get those stats.

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  17. JKB says:

    Really, people think all steaks are created equal? Every measured portion of beef or salmon has the same fat content, the same marbling, the same thickness of fat cap? Every supplier has the exact same portioning processes so changing suppliers won’t be a problem.

    Here’s the tips: Eat less. If it is covered in sauce, it isn’t low calorie. If it tastes good, it isn’t low calorie.

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  18. Dave Schuler says:

    I worked for five years in a restaurant and have had many different sorts of food service businesses as clients over the years. Believe me, even mom and pop places do portion control. That’s why sugar, salt, catsup, and so on are pre-packaged. The difference between one ounce of butter and two ounces of butter may be the difference between showing a profit and showing a loss.

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  19. Matthew Stinson says:

    Klein should probably stick to cooking Chinese at home 😉

    If I believed in creating new and unwieldy bureaucracies I’d suggest offering restaurants tax benefits for reducing their portions and calories, which, of course, would require a Calorie Counting Czar. I bet Obama’s already thought of this one.

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  20. Ezra Klein — Vangaurd of the New Puritans.

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  21. UlyssesUnbound says:

    A lot of my peace corps friends just arrived home from their 2-year tour. All about 50 – 75 pounds lighter. Hell even just as an Americorps on a restricted food budget, I’ve lost a good 30 pounds. I love that in America too many calories is such a problem. That’s not a snarky comment. I truly do love it.

    When much of the world, and many of our own citizens, can’t afford to meet the recommended calories, others can’t seem to avoid meeting them.

    In a very weird way it makes me feel blessed.

    Not an insightful comment on my part…

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  22. Trumwill says:

    However, requiring it could be disastrous for mom-and-pop restaurants because of the cost of having to have every single menu item lab tested to get those stats.

    Most of the laws I’ve heard about only apply to chains. I’ve heard complaints from conservatives that it has nothing to do with “health” and more to do with crass snobbery. But you hit the nail on the head as to why non-chains get an exemption.

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  23. Trumwill says:

    People don’t go to places like that to stay thin… they go to celebrate or at least do something out of the oridinary.

    That may describe you, but it does not describe a lot of diners. My wife and I ate out all the time. And of course put on weight, of course. Eating out is a really easy habit to get into. When we moved up here, we stopped eating out so much. But it took relocating to an entirely different city to break us out of our bad habits. Nutritional posting, however, might have reinforced the point and gotten us to eat out less frequently

    Our current city posts nutritional content. A lot of people that were against the idea have changed their mind. Before, they thought “like anybody thinks eating a Big Mac is healthy!” but afterwards were thinking things like “I knew it was bad, but didn’t know it was that bad” and “Who knew there was such a difference between food at Jack-in-the-Box and McDonald’s?”

    On a sidenote, the measurements for Jack and McDonald’s have closed considerably over the last couple months. This could be an argument for (Jack had to make their sandwiches healthier!) or against (they’re juking the stats!).

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  24. PD Shaw says:

    Why don’t we talk about class then?

    Obesity is inversely assoicated with household income. The whole notion that calorie reporting from a chain located only in high end retail areas is odd. Its the quintisential merlot democrat complaining about his choices and then reflecting them on a society that is entirely alien.

    It’s not the lack of information about calories, it’s the lack of knowledge how to cook. It’s not our love of food, it’s the convenience of fast food when you’re tired at the end of the day. It’s also the cost and expense of fresh produce, which one can partly blame on government agriculture subsidies.

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  25. PD Shaw says:

    Trumwill, the average American has been to a fast food restaurant 11 times in the last 30 days (that’s up from 7 times just a few years ago). It’s interesting that you’ve observed some changes in perception from caloric reporting, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be convinced that it’s healthy to eat at a fast food place almost every day.

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  26. Mike P says:

    Somehow we have lost sight of the fact people don’t eat out every night.

    That’s really dependent on who you are, where you live, and what kind of lifestyle your job allows you to have. I know people in NYC who probably have never used the kitchens in their cramped apartments. They eat out all the time, mostly because they know they’d be wasting groceries if they purchased them. Diners in NYC have the pluses of restaurants staying open much later and a wide variety of delivery options available to them, so much so that the prices, generally speaking, aren’t prohibitive.

    Some of this also rests on your definition of eating out. Is it merely going to Burger King or is it a formal, sit down, white tablecloth experience (or Applebees)?

    Also, we’re restricting this to chains, not Mom and Pop joints or nice, stand alone one-offs. So, if you walk into say, Per Se, in NYC, you’re not going to see calories next to the mind blowing prices.

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  27. Trumwill says:

    PD,

    If you’re really careful, you can eat at fast food places regularly and probably do alright. But it negates the things that drive people to fast food to begin with: cost (less unhealthy items are rarely on the dollar menu) and convenience (you have to seek out the healthy items and verify their healthiness). So we’re in basic agreement.

    But the attitude changes are two-fold. It’s not just choosing McDonald’s over Jack in the Box. It’s eating less when you go there, which while not healthy isn’t as unhealthy. I’m no an uneducated and I ate a whopping $1,200 calorie breakfast for a year. Now I eat fast food breakfasts once a week (and with a smaller helping). The signs aren’t to credit for all of that, but the reinforcing of how bad that stuff is (even though I always knew it was bad, it’s simply different when there is a number value assigned).

    Of course, I’m not an uneducated individual. And I’m married to an MD. So what works for me and my friends, who are usually educated and sometimes also MDs or married to them, may not work for people outside my demographic. Fair enough. But I don’t think that negates any value to the law. Obesity may correlate inversely with education and wealth, but it’s far from absolute. I guess I’m not seeing the downside here.

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  28. anjin-san says:

    Somehow we have lost sight of the fact people don’t eat out every night. It’s a special occurrence when we actually throw away consideration of things like cost, calories, and health benefits.

    Thats a generalization, and an inaccurate one to boot. I may eat out as many as 10 times a week depending on how busy I am. I love to cook & am pretty good at it, but the time and energy often are not there. I would prefer not to have unhealthy garbage place in front of me when I go out.

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  29. chuck says:

    my guess is that large size portions permit restaurant owners to charge more for the item, and make more profit, even though they are probably selling you more than you can/should/planned to eat. (Doggie bags can preserve that value for the consumer, but that is beside the point when the restaurant owner is making these decisions.)

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  30. alkali says:

    Chain restaurants are buying good quality food but not the super-premium items that make food costs significant at restaurants like Peter Luger. Their biggest expenses are real estate and labor, not food costs. You could buy a huge amount of potatoes for what it costs to rent a square foot of premium shopping mall space for one month. So they have every reason to sell “wow”-size portions, for the same reason that movie theaters sell popcorn and soda in ginormous sizes. Adding another two scoops of mashed potatoes that cost you 17 cents allows you to raise the menu price by a dollar.

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  31. CTModerate says:

    I’m always writing about calorie content in restaurant and processed foods, and why the corporate food industry makes food so fattening on my blog. My blog is here: (http://losingweightafter45isabitch.blogspot.com/)

    I am all for calorie labeling even if it’s just a caloric “range.” It was damn hard to lose 40 pounds and I really want to keep it off. Because I’m a small woman I can only eat approximately 1,700 calories a day without gaining weight. So I’d really like to make sure I’m not blowing my entire caloric “wad” for the day just by ordering salmon with miso glaze.

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  32. […] Plus, as James Joyner pointed out in his response to Ezra: If you serve a 275 pound man an amount of food that would be appropriate for a 125 pound woman, he’s going to still be hungry at the end of his meal and therefore a dissatisfied customer.  Because the marginal cost of additional food (especially pasta, potatoes, and the like) is negligible, it’s just good business to pile it on. […]

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  33. David Conrad says:

    So what if it’s only an average? That would still be useful information. You’d know the ballpark estimate of the kcals in the dish, at least. I think you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, there.

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  34. James Joyner says:

    So what if it’s only an average? That would still be useful information. You’d know the ballpark estimate of the kcals in the dish, at least. I think you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, there.

    I’d be happy with an average. We live in a litigious society, however, and I could foresee lawsuit and government pressure on restaurants owing to some plates having more fat and calories than the others.

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  35. […] James Joyner: Beyond that, one of the things that has long occurred to me about restaurant dining is that, because every customer must be served the same portion size (within allowances for human error) they’re naturally going to provide huge amounts of food.  If you serve a 275 pound man an amount of food that would be appropriate for a 125 pound woman, he’s going to still be hungry at the end of his meal and therefore a dissatisfied customer.  Because the marginal cost of additional food (especially pasta, potatoes, and the like) is negligible, it’s just good business to pile it on.  Naturally, everyone else will be given too much to eat and all but the most disciplined will overeat. […]

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  36. […] Another columnist, James Joyner further discusses the Klein piece here: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/its_got_cheesecake_right_in_the_name/. […]

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  37. […] Cheesecake Factory – How to Eat Right When Everything on the Menu … […]

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