This started out as an article on whether people's dining habits have changed since the "mad cow" scare last December. It sounded like an interesting angle. After a few calls to local chefs and restaurant owners, however, I found that diners want their beef, mad cow or no mad cow. In fact, Inland Northwesterners are ordering more beef dishes when they dine out.
So what gives? The diet revolution is behind all this change. Many restaurants have altered their menus to offer diners Atkins-friendly choices. And it's not just at Subway where you'll find the low-carb items. Higher-end restaurants have changed their menus to reflect the need to watch calories, even when dining out.
It's no wonder we're watching our calorie intake. The latest statistics tell us that Americans are eating themselves to death, with two out of three adults and nine million children classified as overweight or obese. In fact, obesity may soon overtake tobacco as the nation's No. 1 preventable killer. What's the cause? Poor diet and physical inactivity. It's not surprising that Americans are grasping at the many diets available to cure this disease.
At the forefront of the diet pack is the Atkins "Nutritional Approach," which touts weight loss based on restricting carbohydrate consumption and boosting protein and fat consumption. That means staples of the American diet, like bread, potatoes, rice and pasta are, for the most part, off-limits. And we've all seen the low-carb foods -- from breads to pasta and ice cream to cookies -- that have taken over shelves in our local food stores. But what about restaurants? Are dieters cheating when they eat out?
"We have a low-carb menu now at Luigi's," says sous chef David Bible. "Our customers requested that we give them some options."
But can you really eat Italian without pasta? Bible and his crew replace pasta with saut & eacute;ed veggies or a bed or fresh spinach if guests ask for something besides pasta. They've also seen beef sales go up. So owner Marty Hogberg is introducing an Italian Piedmont beef that's tender, low-fat and double-muscled. It will be showcased this week as Steak Eduard, a New York cut served with balsamic, caramelized onions, gorgonzola cheese and fig demi-glace.
At the popular Downriver Grill, chef and owner Jonathan Sweatt also sees the dining trend in increased beef eating.
"Beef sales have gone up," Sweatt explains. He's also careful about what he offers his customers. "I get my beef from a reputable source in Portland that's certified Angus."
How about the Atkins craze?
"We're seeing more protein-only entrees without the carbs," Sweatt says. "It's a regular occurrence."
Since opening almost a year ago, Prospector's Grill has carved out a niche on the West Plains. When I asked Executive Chef Alexa Wilson whether sales of beef items on the extensive menu were up or down, there was no hesitation.
"We're selling more beef because of Atkins," Wilson reveals. "We use Australian grain-fed beef. It's the only continent that hasn't had Mad Cow."
Is she changing Prospector's menu to include Atkins-friendly choices?
"I haven't changed my menu at all," she answers. "But it's easy for guests to modify our menu to accommodate their diets."
It's true. Burgers can be ordered sans buns, sandwiches without the fresh-baked bread, entrees without the side dishes of fluffy mashed potatoes or cornbread pudding -- if you can keep yourself from drooling as the aroma wafts by from another diner's plate. There are menu items -- like the grilled meatloaf stack or charbroiled eggplant steak -- that don't have to be modified at all to suit the Atkins crowd.
But Wilson isn't so sure about this diet craze.
"Personally, I think any diet that restricts a main food group isn't healthy," she says. "But if our customers want that, we'll accommodate them."
Joan Milton, a research dietitian at Spokane's Heart Institute, echoes Wilson's concerns. "When you eliminate a whole type of food, you eliminate a lot of nutrients," Milton says. "The Atkins diet puts limits on plant foods, which help lower the risk of diseases, like cancer and heart disease."
The Atkins Approach guidelines restrict starchy vegetables as well as breads, pasta and cereal. Atkins is known as a high-protein diet, relying heavily on meat. It also allows fats, like Hollandaise sauce and whipped cream.
"Generally speaking," Milton adds, "most of the food choices on the Atkins diet are high in saturated fat. That means the LDL levels are higher, which increase the risk factors for heart disease."
We all know that losing weight is mainly a matter of taking in fewer calories. But, as Milton points out, "There's a difference between losing weight and good nutrition."
"The real problem is that people are looking for an easy way to lose weight," Milton explains. "But it's not easy. If it was, we'd all be thin."
At local Onion restaurants, Ken Belisle, managing partner of Landmark Restaurants (which owns the Onion), is trying to make it easier for customers to watch their weight when they dine out.
"We're one of the only restaurants that offers the nutritional breakdown of items on our menu," he explains. "Customers can see the calories, fat, carbohydrate and protein amounts of what they want to order."
"There's a pretty strong following with the low-carb menu items," Belisle adds. "We've developed a low-carb, low-fat burger that only has seven percent fat and is served on a low-carb bun. I love it!"
The Onion is also watching carbs with its side dishes because, as Belisle points out, "It's the fries and tarter sauce that are the killer, not the burger."
Customers can have low-carb cabbage slaw, green salad or cottage cheese and tomato as a side dish when they dine at one of the Onion locations. Belisle says they are working on other options with their side dishes to appeal to dieters, as well as low-carb entrees. A new garlic-glazed albacore tuna steak with fresh vegetables is low-carb and has become one of the more popular dishes at the Onion.
"We're striving for flavor profiles that have it all but won't kill ya," Belisle says with a laugh. "With our low-carb, low-fat burger, you can pretend that you're in the '50s again."
South Hill's Sam's on Regal has a different approach.
"We take what we have on our menu and work it around people's needs," owner Dale Fruin says. "We haven't had to create a new low-carb or low-fat menu."
Besides substituting grilled vegetables or sliced tomatoes with fresh basil and balsamic reduction for potatoes or rice, Sam's also has tasty, low-carb menu items. The hot seafood salad is one of my favorites, with its fresh salmon, scallops and bay shrimp saut & eacute;ed with shallots and zucchini. Sam's steak salad, with chilled roasted veggies and merlot vinaigrette, or blackened chicken salad, with Caribbean mango vinaigrette, won't pack on the carbs or calories either.
"We're small enough that we can be very flexible," Fruin explains. "We make specialty items for customers that meet their dietary needs. We take care of people."
And that's what it's all about. If a restaurant is really part of the hospitality industry, as it should be, then it will accommodate diners' changing needs.