Most chefs don't know how many calories are in the dishes they prepare.   7 percent were not at all familiar and 49 percent were only somewhat familiar.   Taste is what people pay for at $50 a sitting, not a nanny, yet restaurants could play an important role in helping to reduce the growing obesity epidemic by creating reduced-calorie meals, according to Penn State researchers. 

They surveyed chefs, restaurant owners, and culinary executives from across the country to assess their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.   In the survey, 72 percent of the 432 respondents said they could trim off 10 percent of the calories in meals without customers noticing differences in taste, and 21 percent said they could trim off at least 25 percent of the calories. This small change could lead to a major impact on the obesity epidemic - though obviously eating less in restaurants or charging less and serving smaller portions would work much better.

Chefs in the study were much more willing to create new reduced-calorie foods rather than modifying existing meals.  Chefs might not want to modify their signature dishes for fear of losing sales or affecting their restaurant's reputation and it highlights a common idea chefs have about restaurant food: that promoting a dish as healthy is the "kiss of death."

But spotlighting a food's elevated health status is not a necessity, says Barbara Rolls, holder of the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutrition.  "Silent change goes on all the time in the food industry."
In the study, chefs rated their perceptions of obstacles to increasing healthy food in restaurants. Low consumer demand was the major concern  (32 percent) followed by the need for staff skills and training (24 percent) and high ingredient cost (18 percent). The majority of chefs, 71 percent, indicated that the success of a low-calorie meal hinged primarily on taste, though likely 100% would have said the success of any meal hinged on taste if the question method made more sense.

When asked about the most effective method for reducing calories in meals, chefs favored reducing portion sizes over "reducing calories per bite" - reducing fat or adding fruits or vegetables - but when when asked to pick specific strategies for reducing calories for two popular meals, beef stew and apple pie a la mode, chefs most often chose methods of reducing fat.   Rolls said this seeming inconsistency most likely shows a knowledge gap in the culinary field; the chefs surveyed may not fully understand the terminology of "reducing calories per bite."

Rolls said her past research stated that people typically eat the same volume of food over a one- or two-day period so by adding water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables that are low in calories per bite, people can maintain the total weight they eat while reducing the calorie count. 

Not only would substituting fruits and vegetables reduce calories in meals, but it might improve nutrient intake.   A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that fruit intake among Americans has fallen within the last ten years, though vegetable intake has remained steady. However, the majority of Americans are not eating the recommended amounts of fruits or vegetables, the CDC study suggested.

"It's important to figure out how to reduce the calorie content in meals in a way that keeps food just as enjoyable at the same price," said Rolls. "We're all responsible for what we eat, but restaurants can make it easier for us."

Citation: Julie E. Obbagy, Margaret D. Condrasky, Liane S. Roe, Julia L. Sharp, Barbara J. Rolls , 'Chefs' Opinions About Reducing the Calorie Content of Menu Items in Restaurants', Obesity (2010) doi:10.1038/oby.2010.188