Low-Carb Restaurant Review: Olive Garden

Olive Garden Restaurants

Why on earth would I want to eat at the Olive Garden Restaurant? They specialize in modern Italian food, which means pasta and bread and all sorts of foods loaded with carbs. I am very strict in following my low carb, high fat diet. That means my food contains very little or no sugar, little or no fruit and little or no starch. And I don’t stray and I don’t have cheat days.

But, like most low carb dieters, I have friends and I have family, and not all of them watch carbs and none are as strict as I am. So when my family and friends plan an outing to a place like Olive Garden, I have very few options: I could be “that guy” who insists we go somewhere else; I could go off my diet “just this one time”; I could just stay home and eat bacon all by myself.

Or I could do a little on-line recon study the menu and nutrition data and find a way to enjoy a nice meal with family and friends in a decidedly high carb restaurant. This is easier to do in some places than others and Olive Garden is one of a growing number of restaurants that actually make an effort to accommodate low carb dieters.

Olive Garden Menus

Can you eat Low-Carb at Olive Garden? Not very well.

It’s always a plus when restaurant offers accessible, easy to read on-line nutrition information, and Olive Garden does a fairly good job, but their data is incomplete. Along with the obligatory calorie count and fat content, they also provide total carbs and fiber for most menu items. But not sugar (or sugar alcohols). And their online nutrition info doesn’t cover the entire menu.

They also indicate they are willing to make substitutions (veggies for pasta, for example) for low carb dieters. Which is great, but, because their nutrition information covers only complete menu items, when you make that substitution, you can only guess at what the new carb content of your meal is. For example, their Grilled Pork Veneto has 52g Carbs; 7g fiber; 45g net carbs. But if you substitute fresh veggies for the mozzarella ravioli, you can assume you’re removing most of the carbs, but who knows? There could be hidden carbs: Sugar in the spices; bread crumbs or flour in sauces. For some dishes, they offer various combinations of entree and side, and I suppose it would be possible to calculate the new value, but this is supposed to be dinner, not algebra. With just a little more effort they could do a much better job accommodating low carb dieters and type 2 diabetics.

In our party we had one carb eater, one who restricts carb intake, two low carb dieters and one very strict low carb fanatic.

My Low-Carb Olive Garden order: Spaghetti with Italian Sausage ($15.29), hold the spaghetti.

Our waiter happily substituted veggies for pasta (they’ve got that part down), and the chef smothered the dish with marinara sauce. I have become very sensitive to sweet flavor, and carefully tasted the sauce detecting no sugar. But that’s no guarantee. When sugar is used to mask bitter or sour flavors, it can be hard to detect. The nutrition data for the menu indicates 97g carbs; 15g fiber for 82g net carbs. The standard portion comes with a lot of spaghetti so I gambled that the bulk of those carbs were in the pasta. I wouldn’t recommend that strategy for a low carb dieter. There’s no way to know how many net carbs (or simple carbs) were in the meal.

One of the other low carbers had the Parmesan Crusted Tilapia ($17.29; 42g carbs; 6g fiber; 36g net), one of the lower carb items on the menu. It comes with roasted asparagus, which she found a bit reedy. She also detected no sweetness in the meal. At 36g net carbs, this is another meal I can’t recommend for low carb dieters. (She wouldn’t order the same dish again, either).

The other low carber had the Smoked Mozzarella Chicken (84g carbs; 7g fiber; 77g net). He substituted veggies for the potatoes and said the four-cheese sauce made the dish. (This meal was a bargain, as it came from the Buy One Take One selections, which allow one to get a second entree as a carryout for the no extra charge). He enjoyed the meal and would order it again, but this is another case where I can’t recommend it. We just don’t know how many of the carbs or how much of the fiber in the nutrition data were due to the potatoes. Plus he detected a slight sweet flavor in the sauce.

The carb restricted dieter had the Stuffed Chicken Marsala ($18.29; 40g carbs; 6g fiber; 34g net) and subbed veggies for the mashed potatoes. This case is borderline. A strict low carber should probably avoid it, but a carb restricted dieter may be safe.

The carb eater also chose one of the lower carb menu items: Lobster Cannelloni With Shrimp ($19.99; 41g carbs; 4g fiber; 37g net) and had a very nice meal.

We also ordered two appetizers for the table (Grilled Chicken Spiedini, $4.99; 14g carbs; 0g fiber; 14g net) and Parmesan Roasted Asparagus, $4.99; 5g carbs; 2g fiber; 3g net). Unfortunately we couldn’t find the nutrition information for these dishes in the data sheet (link: http://www.olivegarden.com/core_content/pdfs/olive_garden_nutrition.pdf) they gave us at the table, but it was in their on-line nutrition info. I had only a small taste of each.

So, it’s always a plus when the food is good, and Olive Garden has consistently high standards for food and service. At home I may have added more spices, but they didn’t skimp on the portions and weren’t shy about cooking with butter and olive oil.
In one sense, I wasn’t fair to the Olive Garden, in that their advice on the nutrition data sheet was: “If you’re watching Carbohydrates, savor one of our grilled entrees with fresh vegetables in place of potatoes.” We didn’t do that. But, this advice has the same problems as the rest of the menu. If you make that substitution, you still don’t know what the carb content of the meal is. If you are watching carbs, you need to see how many carbs are in your meal.

I applaud Olive Garden for at least making an effort to accommodate their low carb customers. But I can’t recommend that low carb dieters choose to eat at Olive Garden, because they just didn’t go far enough. But, if you’re dragged along by friends and family, you can try to minimize the carbs in the meal, but you can’t be sure. Enjoy the meal, but especially enjoy the time with your family and friends, and be aware you may get more carbs than you want.

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