Reduced-Calorie Restaurant Foods are Possible, Chefs Say

October 18, 2010

Restaurants could play an important role in helping to reduce the growing obesity epidemic by creating reduced-calorie meals, according to Penn State researchers. The researchers surveyed chefs, restaurant owners, and culinary executives from across the country in order to assess their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.

In the survey, 72 percent of the 432 respondents said they could easily trim off 10 to 20 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 minor change could lead to a major impact on the obesity epidemic.

“Reducing intake by as little as 100 calories per day can amount to a significant weight loss over a year,” says Liane Roe, research nutritionist in Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences and co-author of the team’s findings, which were published in the journal Obesity.

Roe and co-author Dr. Barbara Rolls, holder of the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutrition, found that many chefs were not familiar with the calorie content of the meals they served—7 percent were not at all familiar and 49 percent were somewhat familiar. Says Roe, “If a large number of chefs don’t know the calorie content of their food, they will be limited in their ability to modify what they serve to guests.”

Chefs in the study were much more willing to create new reduced-calorie foods rather than to modify existing meals. Rolls explains that chefs might not want to modify their signature meals for fear of losing sales or affecting their restaurant’s reputation. But calling out a food’s elevated health status is not a necessity—“silent change goes on all the time in the food industry,” Rolls says.

In the study, chefs rated their perceptions of obstacles to increasing healthy food offerings in restaurants. Low consumer demand was the major concern (32 percent of chefs cited this), 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.

When asked about the most effective method for reducing calories in meals, chefs favored reducing portion sizes over reducing “calories per bite” (i.e., reducing fat or adding fruits or vegetables). However, 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 says 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 has shown in past research that people typically eat the same volume of food over a one- or two-day period. By adding water-rich foods that are low in calories per bite (such as fruits and vegetables), people can maintain the total weight they eat while reducing the calorie count. Some of her past research shows that people don’t notice calorie reductions of up to 30 percent.

Recent studies show that people are increasing the frequency with which they are eating out. Other studies show that people eating out frequently are more likely to be overweight. By better understanding the attitudes of chefs, Rolls, Roe, and their team at Penn State hope to improve upon methods for making meals healthier and promote those methods among restaurants.

“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,” says Rolls. “We’re all responsible for what we eat, but restaurants can make it easier for us.”

Chefs surveyed in this research served a variety of roles within the culinary field, including corporate chefs, restaurant chefs, culinary educators, and kitchen managers. Research was conducted at six meetings of either the American Culinary Federation or the Research Chefs Association during the spring and summer of 2008.

Other co-authors on the paper include Dr. Julie Obbagy, a graduate of Penn State now at the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; Dr. Margaret Condrasky, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Clemson University; and Dr. Julia Sharp, Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, Clemson University.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Editors: Barbara Rolls can be reached at bjr4@psu.edu and Liane Roe can be reached at lsr7@psu.edu. For additional information, contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.