Cheat meals at Olive Garden don’t even feel like cheat meals because Olive Garden doesn’t really feel (or taste) like your typical fast food restaurant. We know you’re probably justifying dinner here instead of McDonald’s because it’s Italian food, and Italian is supposed to be good for you! And your assumption would be right.
In fact, when people at high cardiovascular risk switch to a Mediterranean diet — such as Italian — supplemented with olive oil, fish, fruits and vegetables, they can prevent about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. But unlike traditional Italian food, Olive Garden upends the nutritive properties of these ingredients by loading you up with extra-large servings of carbs, sodium and trans fats. These pastas pack a staggering average of 954 calories and 2,007 mg of sodium per plate — and that doesn’t include the salad and breadsticks. That amount of sodium represents 134% of your recommended daily intake!
We know that sometimes all you’re in the mood for is a hearty, satisfying helping of pasta, and there is no denying that Olive Garden has just what you’re looking for. Because certain menu items aren’t as healthy as they sound, we ranked every pasta dinner from worst to best so you can treat yourself wisely. And when you go, take a word of advice from nutritionist Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, who says the key to eating at Olive Garden is portion control. Either share a pasta dish or minimize temptation by asking your server to pack up half of your meal when you order, so it never gets to your plate. Even better, to lose weight fast, skip the OG and read these 50 Best Eat This, Not That! Tips Ever!
HOW WE RANKED THEM
After examining the nutritional profiles of each pasta dinner, we had to throw traditional calorie ranking to the curb. Anything that contained trans fat—a man-made fat now banned by the FDA because it’s been shown to diminish memory and increase the risk of heart disease, weight gain and stroke—automatically got demerits, regardless of any other redeeming nutritional qualities.
Why would there be trans fat in a pasta dish? Unfortunately, Olive Garden doesn’t list its ingredients online. That's likely because restaurant cheese is notorious for having added trans fat, and Olive Garden puts cheese in or on almost everything. Artificial trans fats are added to cheese because of their food-preserving features, resistance to separating when cooked and uniform look and behavior. Plus, processed cheese is cheap.
Next, we ranked each dish in its trans fat category by calories and sodium, which were typically linked. More sodium despite fewer calories added to the demerits. Sodium is associated with elevated blood pressure and heart disease risk, and it sabotages weight loss because sodium holds excess fluid in the body. Cutting down on sodium is one of the fastest ways to flatten your belly. When ordering, specify that you want your dish to be prepared without salt.
NOW, OLIVE GARDEN'S PASTA DINNERS, FROM WORST TO BEST…
Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara
Per serving: 1,590 calories, 114 g fat (61 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), 2,410 mg sodium, 78 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 66 g protein
Government-issued dietary guidelines for Americans recommend getting no more than 1 percent of your daily calories from trans fat, so based on a 2,000 calorie diet, that comes out to 2 grams—the same amount in this single dish. Olive Garden’s take on surf ‘n’ turf (and the furthest thing from a traditional carbonara), comes in like a wrecking ball to your waistline. Yes, this dish is high in protein, but it also contains more fat and almost as many calories as three Big Macs!
Per serving: 1,380 calories, 85 g fat (51 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), 2,810 mg sodium, 88 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 68 g protein
The only Italian part of this dish seems to be that it has the colors of the nation’s flag: green, white, and red. This grilled entree adds fresh green spinach and red sun-dried tomatoes to the mix, but cheese layered on top of a cheesy alfredo sauce is a sodium nightmare.
Per serving: 1,480 calories, 94 g fat (56 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), 1,480 mg sodium, 95 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 63 g protein
Although we typically recommend pairing a lean protein with carbs to fill you up and give you the most energy, but in this case, you should think twice before ordering the Chicken Alfredo over its meatless counterpart. Adding chicken bumps up the protein count by 37 grams, but it also layers extra calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium atop the same amount of carbs.
Per serving: 960 calories, 58 g fat (31 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), 2,360 mg sodium, 54 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 18 g sugar, 56 g protein
When nutritionist Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RDN, FAND goes to Olive Garden, she orders this dish but eats only half. “I’ll box up the remaining half for another day. A half-serving has 480 calories, 23 grams of protein, 29 grams of fat and 1,180 milligrams of sodium. While this meal isn’t necessarily low in fat, sodium or calories, it’s incredibly delicious and satisfying and doesn’t totally derail my diet.” See what 10 More Diet Experts Order at Olive Garden!
Tour of Italy
Per serving: 1,520 calories, 96 g fat (48 g saturated fat, 1.5 g trans fat), 3,250 mg sodium, 92 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 19 g sugar, 75 g protein
The Tour of Italy guides you from the leaning tower of lasagna, to the colosseum of fettuccine alfredo, to the ruins of chicken parmigiana. This trip sets you back more than two days' worth of sodium, and although this dish may be cheaper than a plane ticket, your waistline will pay the price.
Per serving: 1,150 calories, 69 g fat (41 g saturated fat, 1.5 g trans fat), 1,490 mg sodium, 92 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 40 g protein
Olive Garden's seafood riff on a classic Chicken Alfredo is the healthier choice for dinner, but we’d still be weary about diving in. This only has half a gram less trans fat than our third-worst dish, and it still has almost a day’s worth of sodium.
Per serving: 1,090 calories, 68 g fat (41 g saturated fat, 1.5 g trans fat) 910 mg sodium, 92 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 26 g protein
If Olive Garden used the alfredo recipe on their website and the standard serving of 2 oz uncooked pasta, that would save you 422 calories, 25 g fat (and the full 1.5 g trans fat), 100 mg sodium and 39 g carbs. But they don't in this super-sized entree. The chain claims their alfredo sauce is made in house throughout the day, but all the butter, parmesan cheese and heavy cream eliminate any benefits from this commitment to freshness.
Five Cheese Ziti Al Forno
Per serving: 1,220 calories, 71 g fat (36 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 2,160 mg sodium, 103 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 19 g sugar, 45 g protein
Five cheeses = five more ways trans fat can get into your meal. Somehow Olive Garden keeps it to 1 gram. That's still one more than you should have in your food, but it's better than the previous dishes. If you’re looking to indulge in the oozy goodness of ziti al forno, this blend of Italian cheeses, pasta and marinara is better off baked at home, with 2 fewer cheeses. Next time you're playing home chef, why not try one of these 20 Fat-Burning Pasta Recipes and 10 Ways to Slim Down Your Pasta Dinner!
Ravioli Di Portobello
Per serving: 820 calories, 46 g fat (24 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat) 1,150 mg sodium, 73 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 27 g protein
Because they're filled with portobello mushrooms, these ravioli are particularly rich in vitamin D and can help boost your immune system. Even though this is one of Olive Garden’s lowest-calorie pasta dishes, the presence of trans fat bumps it down in the rankings.
Sausage Stuffed Giant Rigatoni
Per serving: 1,020 calories, 60 g fat (30 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat) 2,740 mg sodium, 58 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 65 g protein
Here, giant tubes of pasta are filled with Italian sausage, then topped with more meat sauce and melted mozzarella. Besides the pasta, the other giant element in this dish is the sodium level, which is the third-highest out of all the pasta dinners. If you’re looking for a stuffed pasta dish with meat, check out our third-ranked Olive Garden pasta below.
Braised Beef & Tortelloni
Per serving: 1,270 calories, 74 g fat (26 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat), 2,300 mg sodium, 81 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 55 g protein
Though red meat like the braised beef in this dish is packed with protein, it’s also a rich source of iron—a mineral which, when consumed in excess, can increase the risk of weight gain and disease. According to a Journal of Clinical Investigation study, consuming too much iron can suppress leptin, an appetite-quelling hormone that tells the brain when we’ve eaten our fill. In short: red meat, low leptin levels, and no way to resist your appetite may cause you to overeat, and you certainly don’t want that when you’re tucking into a dish with more than 1,000 calories and 2,000 mg of sodium.
Cheese Ravioli with Marinara or Meat Sauce
Per serving: 780-860 calories, 39-46 g fat (20-24 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 2,140-2,190 mg sodium, 65-68 g carbs, 4-5 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 41-50 g protein
Like we always say, when it comes to fast food, simple is always better. This cheese ravioli is definitely high on the sodium side because of the indulgent cheeses packed into and on top of the pasta, but it remains one of the lowest dishes in calories, fat, and trans fat. The tomato-based marinara sauce is a great source of vitamin C, and the meat sauce is one of the leanest of Olive Garden’s sauce options. Stick to this classic the next time it’s time for a cheat meal. And follow these 16 Strategies for a Guilt-Free Cheat Meal!
Per serving: 930 calories, 41 g fat (8 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat) 1,060 mg sodium, 96 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 47 g protein
Shrimp scampi is one of those dishes in which Italian techniques were applied to American ingredients. That's why this scampi contains chicken tenderloins, bell peppers and red onions instead of shrimp, garlic and onion. We’re glad Olive Garden decided to go with chicken over seafood, though, because their other shrimp dishes contain 400 to 1,400 mg more sodium.
AND THE "BEST" PASTA DINNER AT OLIVE GARDEN IS…
Chicken Cacciatore & Cheese Manicotti
Per serving: 750 calories, 37 g fat (19 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1,660 mg sodium, 57 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 57 g protein
Most of Olive Garden’s chicken pastas are high in carbs and doused in heavy sauces, but this new addition to the menu gets its flavor and substance from lean, grilled meat, asiago, and ricotta cheese, along with a lighter sauce of bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. The result is one of the only two pasta dinners with fewer than 800 calories. Even though this entree is offered for a limited time only, we hope to see more of these zero-trans-fat dishes on Olive Garden’s menu in the future.