Fast food restaurants get a bad reputation and for good reason — have you seen what’s in a chicken nugget? But casual dining chain restaurants often get a free pass from customers. Perhaps it’s because there are no drive-thru’s and the food doesn’t come in a paper bag, but consumers often believe that chain restaurants are a healthier option than McDonald’s or other fast food joints.
But there’s more to these restaurants than meets the eye. And while the food might sound fancier or more healthy, there are simply some chain restaurants you should never eat at.
What Is a Chain Restaurant?
While it’s easy to detect a fast food restaurant, what is a chain? For our purposes, a chain restaurant is similar to a casual dining one. These moderately priced restaurants are found throughout a variety of states and offer more of a traditional restaurant experience, where you’re encouraged to sit down, enjoy your meal and maybe even order more. Most are served by a waitstaff.
Chain restaurants have become synonymous with American culture. These are the places you see near shopping centers, at malls and on highway strips. They look a little fancier than your local takeout spot, but they offer meal deals that make dining out easier on the wallet than more upscale restaurants. Chain restaurants are good at what they do, too. A customer might turn their nose up at the mall food court, but might happily sit down and order at a casual chain restaurant.
What’s Wrong with Most Chain Restaurants? (Let Us List the Ways!)
But what is actually the problem with eating at these chain restaurants? Are they really that bad or worse than fast food restaurants? In one word: yes.
One of the main problems with chain restaurants is that they often give the illusion that they’re healthy. Most people know that if they’re stopping by a Burger King, their meal isn’t going to be a health food. But with carefully chosen, descriptive words on the menu like “fluffy,” “fire-roasted” and “hand-crafted,” an illusion of health is created.
That’s not the only problem, of course. There’s plenty to be scared with when it comes to chain restaurants:
1. GMOs. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, you can be pretty sure that the ingredients you’re eating at a chain restaurant are full of GMOs. These genetically modified organisms have been altered to withstand pesticide use (yum). Eating GMO foods has been linked to an increase in allergies, an increase in antibiotic resistance, disorders in the reproductive system and more.
The most common GMO foods are corn, soy, canola, alfalfa and sugar beets. Corn and canola oils are often used in chain restaurant cooking, and corn is often used as a filler in low-quality foods. Your chain restaurant French fries are almost certainly made with GMO oils.
2. Antibiotics. Factory-farmed animals live in terrible, squalid conditions; this Rolling Stone feature is a terrific, if horrifying, look at the conditions these animals are raised in. Animals who are depressed and living in this manner are much likelier to become sick than animals living in humane conditions. But a sick animal isn’t a useful animal. Enter antibiotics.
The World Health Organization has named antibiotics resistance an increasingly serious threat to global health. Life-changing drugs that were once effective are now powerless against bacteria that’s learned to modify itself in order to survive antibiotics.
“But I don’t take antibiotics!” you protest. Unfortunately, the meat that you’re eating at a chain restaurant was once likely treated with medication. And as the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” Some fast food restaurants are tackling antibiotics use, but this tactic isn’t spreading as fast as it should.
3. Farmed fish. Fish is often considered a healthy alternative to other meats. For example, wild-caught salmon is one of my favorite brain foods. However, that’s not what you’re getting at chain restaurants.
Farmed fish is cheaper than wild-caught varieties. In this case, you get more than what you paid for, mainly toxins and pesticides. Eating farmed fish actually contributes to overfishing and shrinks our ocean’s biodiversity. And if the factory-farmed fish includes fish like swai, which isn’t subject to the same inspection as other types of fish, you could be ingesting antibiotics, pesticides and microbes behind shellfish poisoning.
4. Gluten galore. So. much. gluten. If you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, a chain restaurant is probably not for you. That’s because even in foods that might not normally include gluten, other ingredients are added in to improve the taste and texture of inferior products. In fact, if you have any type of food allergy or intolerance, I’d steer clear of chain restaurants.
5. Excessive calories. One chain restaurant meal can easily weigh in at your entire day’s worth of calories, and that does not include a heap of veggies. But these foods aren’t going to keep you full all day. In fact, you might be hungry shortly after eating them.
Since they’re full of sugar, starch, refined carbohydrates and low-quality meats and cheeses, there’s not much staying power in these dishes. After the lethargic feeling that comes after indulging at a chain restaurant, you might feel hungry (and thirsty, thanks to all the sodium), much sooner than you’d expect.
The 10 Chain Restaurants to Avoid
So who are the worst offenders on the list? Here are the top 10 chain restaurants to avoid when you’re going out to eat.
1. Applebees. This chain restaurant specializes in overfeeding people, as quite a bit of their appetizers come in at nearly 1,000 calories. Their sweet potato fries, a food that should be relatively healthy, tops in at 1,160 calories before a main is ordered. Stay away!
2. The Cheesecake Factory. The Cheesecake Factory’s massive menu is overwhelming. The amount of cheesecakes alone is in the dozens. This chain restaurant makes an effort to appeal to health-conscious eaters with its Skinnylicious menu, where all the dishes are under 590 calories.
As long-time followers know, however, calories are only part of the story. Even this lightened-up menu is still full of refined carbs, pork and shrimp, some of the worst foods for you. And would you really go to a place named after cheesecake and not try a piece?
3. Chili’s. Another sneaky menu! A smoked chicken burrito with a quinoa blend sounds like it might be an okay option — but it’s 866 calories. A chipotle chicken bowl, another seemingly good-for-you option, comes in at 870 calories. And if you opt for the classic turkey sandwich, you’ll be enjoying 930 calories before the fries arrive.
4. Cracker Barrel. With the offerings on the menu, “homestyle” at Cracker Barrel is closer to “heart attack.” Unfortunately, it’s impossible to double-check, as Cracker Barrel’s website doesn’t offer nutrition or allergen information. A chain restaurant that’s unwilling to spill the beans on what it’s serving? Pass.
5. Denny’s. The late-night favorite is packed with processed ingredients, as evidenced by appetizers like “Red Velvet Pancake Puppies” served with cream cheese icing and bacon cheddar tots. The Slam Burger, one of the chain restaurant’s signature burgers, is topped with hash browns, eggs and bacon — to the tune of 1,010 calories. Do you really want fries with that?
6. IHOP. This chain restaurant uses cute pancake faces made of whipped cream to get kids excited by its offerings. Parents won’t be as happy. With sodium levels that reach 50 percent of an adult’s daily recommended value, packed with sugar and very little fiber, you’ll want to keep the kiddos out of here.
7. TGI Friday’s. When a chicken salad comes in at over 1,000 calories, you have to wonder if there’s a better option. The burgers are a calorie bomb; even the turkey option comes in at 960 calories. Alcoholic cocktails are also a selling point in the menu, taking the first spot in the menu, but sadly, there’s no nutrition information if you want a beverage. Plus, the only seafood on here is shrimp. No thanks.
8. Olive Garden. Bowls of white pasta, unlimited breadsticks and no way of getting calorie counts before visiting? Stick to making your own Italian feast instead.
9. P.F. Chang’s. Kudos to P.F. Chang’s for having a gluten-free menu. Two thumbs down for the insane amount of calories, fat and sodium even in these “better for you” dishes. I’m not quite sure how a gluten-free vegetarian coconut curry dish managed to reach 1,270 calories, 90 grams of fat and more sodium than you’d need in a day, but you can find it at this chain restaurant.
10. Waffle House. The main offering here is waffles. Gluten-filled, syrupy waffles topped with processed meats like bacon, sausages and more. Simply avoid.
Healthy Chain Restaurants?
Yikes! That was some list of chain restaurants you should never eat at. What’s most frightening about these chains is that even when you think you’re choosing the “right” option, it’s still loaded with unsavory ingredients.
So are there any chain restaurants doing it right? Yes! Places like Noodles & Co., Sweetgreen, Veggie Grill and Lyfe Kitchen allow you to build healthy meals with real food ingredients. These restaurants make it onto my list of best chain restaurants. But as always, the best option is cooking at home, where you can control exactly what you’re eating and even indulge in some favorites in a healthy way.