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Less can be more when it comes to protein

SHAPE November 2015

Chefs apply more innovation to veggies, grains as protein portions continue to shrink.

For years protein has been regarded as the star of the show when it comes to dining out, with Americans voicing the message “bigger is better” where portion size is concerned.

More recently, though, consumers and restaurateurs alike have begun to reconsider the wisdom of that message as health concerns reshape the dining-out experience. Where protein — and lots of it — was previously regarded as the undisputed center-of-the-plate king, today “right-sized” portions of meat, poultry and seafood are increasingly relinquishing space in the meal to inventive vegetable and grain preparations.

“It used to be all about the protein piece,” says Isabel Maples, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People looked at the protein and valued that — the entire menu revolved around protein. Today, we're seeing less of a meat portion … and chefs are celebrating vegetables or starches or whole grains. And they're making them taste good.”

To be sure, the consumer's growing interest in more healthful dining is helping to drive the shift toward smaller protein portions. “Two out of three American's are overweight,” Maples says. At the same time, she adds, millennials — who tend to dine out more frequently than previous generations — are more interested in eating healthfully.

“We all know that 30 or 40 years ago diners looked for indulgence when they ate out,” Maples says. “Now we eat out more frequently and restaurants play a bigger role in calorie intake.”

The food supply itself has changed significantly over the last 40 years, according to the USDA in its Dietary Guidelines for 2010. Foods available for consumption have increased in all major food categories.

Meanwhile, the USDA reports, many portion sizes also have increased. Not surprisingly, research has found that when bigger portion sizes are served, people are inclined to consume more calories.

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation's 2014 Food and Health Survey, 26 percent of respondents say they believe the most effective weight-management strategy is to eat smaller portions — just below the 27 percent who advocate stepping up the amount of physical activity.

In response to changes in the U.S. diet, the USDA retired its famous dietary pyramid in 2010, replacing it with MyPlate. The new dietary icon recommends that half the plate should be fruits and vegetables and only a quarter should be protein.

As a result of these changes, an increasing number of chefs and restaurateurs are adjusting their portion size and plate makeup. For example, where the average portion size for chicken used to range from 6 ounces to 8 ounces at high-end restaurants, 4 ounces is more the norm these days — or about the size of a deck of cards.

“We're seeing more restaurants cut back on protein while emphasizing high-fiber grains and healthy vegetables,” says John Poyourow, assistant professor and registered dietitian in the Department of Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Chefs, in fact, are finding ways to compensate for the shrinking protein component. One method is to make vegetables more appealing by preparing them in creative and flavorful ways. “A restaurant can no longer just serve steamed vegetables,” Poyourow says. “You have to understand the different cooking techniques like grilling or braising, and think about how they can elevate a plate to a higher level.”

He cites as an example a dish offered in a restaurant that is served with beets prepared three ways — beet greens blanched and lightly dressed with a vinaigrette, candy cane beets roasted whole and served sliced as a garnish, and dark red beets roasted and served with an orange maple dressing. He adds that chefs can keep the customer's interest by varying the plate with seasonal vegetables. “Customers have come to expect seasonality,” he says.

In addition, certain vegetables like cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts have even become trendy, spurring chefs to develop innovative, flavorful preparations for them. “That never used to be the case with vegetables,” Maples says.

Offering interesting high-fiber grains like quinoa, bulgur wheat, couscous, spelt, amaranth and farro is another healthful way to vary a plate and compensate for smaller protein portions. Americans, in general, don't get enough fiber in their diets, says Maples. “People usually only get about 10 grams of fiber a day,” she says. “They should get between 20 and 35 grams a day. Fiber is nutritious and it fills you up.”

Scaling back the size of the protein component in a meal also can help save a cost-conscious restaurateur money. “Protein is expensive these days,” Poyourow says, “and reducing protein portion size can help reduce food cost.”

But while many chefs and operators are reducing the amount of protein on the plate, that isn't the case with all restaurants. “There's a big disconnect between higher-end and chain restaurants,” Poyourow says. In fact, he says, some operators still market their brand by emphasizing large portions, citing a regional quick-service chain that has devised a highly successful series of TV commercials featuring svelte female celebrities and models biting into oversized hamburgers.

“We have both kinds of consumers in this country — the ones who care about health and those who don't,” Poyourow says.

Nevertheless, many experts agree this country is undergoing a sea change when it comes to how we dine out. According to the National Restaurant Association's 2016 What's Hot Culinary Forecast, 61 percent of the nearly 1,600 chefs and members of the American Culinary Federation polled say they believe that half portions and smaller portions would be hot food trends in 2016.

People want to feel satisfied when they finish a restaurant meal, Maples says, but they don't want to feel stuffed, and balancing the plate with less protein and more grains, fruits and vegetables is a smart way to achieve that. “It can be a lot more exciting than what you might get at home,” she says.



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