Michelle Obama, I Love You, But Olive Garden Is Not Really Healthy

I love Michelle Obama for making it her First Lady duty to end childhood obesity with the “Let’s Move” campaign. What I do not love are some of her choices for who to endorse as “healthy.” Like the Olive Garden, the restaurant that brought us the never-ending bread basket.

Forbes is reporting today that the Olive Garden and its parent company, Darden Restaurants, Inc., have proposed a plan to encourage its younger patrons to make healthier choices, which they unveiled today. As part of their announcement, Michelle Obama made an appearance to offer her support.

The plan, which will apply to all members of the Darden family  (which includes Red Lobster, The Capitol Grille and several other chains) aims to cut calories and sodium by 10% over the first 5 years, and another 10% over the course of 20, and make fruit or veggies the standard sides.

But there’s one hitch: Olive Garden and Red Lobster already aren’t really healthy places to begin with. Can cutting calories by 10% over 10 years really help?

I consulted Olive Garden’s menu, which is available online, to add up a healthy-ish kids meal, based on the information they gave. At Olive Garden, kids can choose build their own meal, so I did just that.

My meal contained pasta (190 calories for whole-wheat linguine), sauce (just 70 calories for tomato sauce, but 330 for Alfredo), a protein (meats are the only proteins, so I chose grilled chicken for 110), a side (let’s go with the 15 calorie steamed broccoli, rather than the 200 calorie mashed potatoes that your kids will actually probably want), and a 110-calorie side of milk, which the restaurant says will be the standard. Grand total, for one of the lowest calorie kids’ meals at Olive Garden?

495 calories, if all the kid eats is dinner, and if the chef measures the portions exactly.

After a 10% reduction, that’s still about 445 calories. Which is definitely not an unhealthy meal—it’s balanced, contains enough protein without being too sodium-heavy, and meets the caloric needs of the kid.

However, if a child decides on Alfredo sauce, or chooses sausage instead of chicken, or opts for ravioli instead of pasta, the meal could creep up toward 700 or even 800 calories–more than half of what an average child needs. And of course, all of this is leaving out the thing that makes the Olive Garden such a dietary death trap: the free bread and salad, which, if the parents are eating, the kids will definitely want to eat, too.

It’s great that Ms. Obama’s initiative is spurring change in restaurant chains, which are often popular dining establishments for families, regardless of health benefits they may or may not offer. And it’s particularly positive if it means that parents will be more aware of the choices available for keeping their kids healthy.

Even still, the difference between making not-very-healthy food into vaguely-less healthy food isn’t the same as making it actually wholesome. And it doesn’t necessarily make it something worth endorsing.

I applaud Darden’s attempts, but I’m just not ready to label Olive Garden as a “healthy” yet.

Image: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

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