Footlong Cheeseburger

Restaurant: Tested at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s; Price: $4.50 with lettuce and tomato, $4 without; Calories: 850; Fat grams: 45; Sodium milligrams: 2,490 (Carl's Jr. / January 28, 2011)

The government is telling Americans to eat less.

The fast-food industry didn't get the memo.

Even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out its latest nutritional advice this week — urging people to "enjoy your food, but eat less" — fast-food chains are cooking up some of their biggest offerings ever.

"The bottom line is we're in the business of making money, and we make money off of what we sell," said Beth Mansfield, spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's chains. "If we wanted to listen to the food police and sell nuts and berries and tofu burgers, we wouldn't make any money and we'd be out of business."

Some new items are so high in calories that they make old-fashioned fast-food burgers seem almost healthful.

"Remember when the Big Mac was considered the bad burger?" asked Jane Hurley, nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And now it's the diet alternative to some of these items."

A Big Mac without cheese has 540 calories, according to McDonald's Corp., twice as many as in one of the company's smallish regular hamburgers. By comparison, the company's new Angus Bacon Cheese Wrap has 790.

Here are other recent or proposed items:

• All-American Jack from Jack in the Box Inc. To debut during the Super Bowl, the sandwich will feature two jumbo beef patties and two kinds of cheese, with 840 calories. Make it a meal for $4.99 and the count goes up to 1,400.

• Taco Bell Corp.'s Beefy Crunch Burrito meal: ground beef, rice, nacho cheese sauce, sour cream and spicy Fritos wrapped in a tortilla, plus cinnamon twists on the side and a medium soft drink, for a total of 1,390 calories. Now available.

• Carl's Jr.'s Footlong Cheeseburger: Three cheeseburgers laid end to end on a 12-inch roll was a hit when the chain tested it at four Orange County restaurants last year. It has 850 calories and is under consideration to be a regular offering.

Burger King Holding Inc.'s Stuffed Steakhouse: a third of a pound of beef stuffed with jalapenos and cheese, at 600 calories. Fries and a drink make it 1,200 calories. Now available.

Some fast-food outlets have been offering more low-calorie choices too: McDonald's is selling oatmeal all day, Carl's Jr. recently tested a turkey burger, and many outlets have salads.

But the chains' best customers — dubbed "Young Hungry Guys" by Carl's Jr. — are not prone to order salads.

Add that to a growing expectation among consumers that portions should be large while the meal itself is cheap, and the result is value combinations that can weigh in with 1,500 calories or more.

Guillermo Gutierrez, who lives in Corona, is the type of customer that fast-food restaurants depend on.

The 19-year-old sat in speckled sunlight outside a Burger King in downtown Los Angeles on a recent lunch hour, quietly tucking into a meal that had 1,590 calories, 1,820 milligrams of sodium and 67 grams of fat.

"I enjoy it," Gutierrez said, taking a sip of Sprite and glancing down at the neatly wrapped Whopper and bag of fries in front of him. "It's something different after what we eat at home. It makes eating at home not so boring."

Salads might help fast-food restaurants get past what industry experts call the "mom veto effect." But when customers get to the counter, many are still buying bacon-wrapped cheeseburgers.