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.