How do restaurants traditionally known for cheese-smothered pastas, buttery breadsticks and fried seafood platters convince diners they've got healthier fare that's worth giving a try?
That's the challenge faced by large restaurant chains that include Darden Restaurants, which is stepping up efforts to emphasize lighter dining at its restaurants, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse.
Other chains are slimming down their menus as well. Romano's Macaroni Grill changed its entire menu, making each dish less than 995 calories and some much lower. Chili's added more dishes to its "guiltless grill" earlier this year.
Darden started promoting some of its restaurants' lower-fat, lower-calorie dishes on a healthy-dining website earlier this month. And it recently became the first restaurant company to join a healthy-weight coalition.
The increased focus on lighter fare is driven not only by consumer demand but skyrocketing obesity rates, more public scrutiny of calories, fat and salt in restaurant meals and the threat of increasing regulation.
The federal health-care reform bill requires large chains to soon disclose calories on menus and to provide other nutritional information on request. Experts expect restaurants to tweak their dishes as a result, so calorie counts on the menu won't be so eye-poppingly high.
Some of Darden's high-calorie dishes that have gotten criticism from public-health advocates include its "Tour of Italy" offering of lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine alfredo at 1,450 calories, and Red Lobster's Ultimate Fondue appetizer — discontinued last year — which had 1,490 calories. The Center for Science in the Public Interest cited such dishes in years past when pushing for nutritional disclosure laws.
Santa Clara County in California has banned toys from kids' meals unless they meet certain nutritional requirements, and now San Francisco may follow suit. The Food and Drug Administration has been studying a report released by the Institute of Medicine recommending federal limits on salt consumption.
Faced with so much regulation, "I think they'd rather do it voluntarily than have the government tell them to do these things," said Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel Menu Insights.
Darden, which would not comment for this article, says it has been working on long-term nutritional improvements but wouldn't provide details.
Some industry experts say that restaurants can't make dramatic overnight changes because they'll alienate many of their customers. Despite what they say to market researchers, diners often prefer the fried and fatty over the green and grilled.
Dawn Billings of Orange City, Florida, who eats dinner out about once a week, reflects the ambivalence of the American consumer.
"It's great that they're health-conscious and you have options" such as whole-grain pasta at restaurants, said Billings, 38, a psychotherapist and mother of four.
At the same time, she said, "we usually don't pay that much attention when we go out because it's a treat. We just kind of feel like that's why we are going out."
In general terms, "healthier items don't sell as well as items that are less healthful and taste better," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of foodservice research firm Technomic. "The healthier you get, the less relevant you become to the majority of the population, who prefers fried foods."
But Anita Jones-Mueller thinks people's attitudes are changing. The founder of California-based Healthy Dining sees increasing interest in eating lighter.
"People are appreciating the fresh tastes, the beautiful colors, the flavors of whole grains," she said. "Once you get hooked on eating healthy, it's really hard to turn back."
Her website, which lists dishes that meet certain fat and calorie limits, now gets 75,000 unique visitors each month. The number of restaurants listing has grown by about 25 percent over the past year and is now at 300 brands, with 60,000 individual restaurants nationwide, including Darden's, which got listed this month.
But some critics say Darden and other casual-dining restaurants still have a long way to go and that even their food labeled as low-calorie or low-fat is often high in salt.
"Good for them for even thinking about nutrition," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It doesn't show up very much in their restaurants."
Trying to move away from its fried-seafood image, Red Lobster introduced wood-fired grilling in 2008 and has prominently featured its grilled fish on menus.Fish can be good for you when it's not covered in batter or topped with creamy sauce, so experts say Red Lobster's transformation isn't a tough sell.
But "if you're talking about Olive Garden, it becomes difficult to create a healthier product and change consumer perceptions," Tristano said. "Pasta's not easy to make healthful."
Darden has one chain built around the concept of eating lighter — Seasons 52, which launched in 2003. The chain — which advertises itself as a "fresh grill and wine bar" — is growing at a rapid pace. Nothing on the menu is more than 475 calories.
Making offerings healthy without aggressively promoting that the food has less of the bad stuff is what industry executives call "stealth health." That, and adding creativity to lower-calorie items, is the future of restaurants' healthier offerings, some experts say.
"We don't want to eat blah, boring," said Jo Lichten, an Orlando dietitian and author of the book "Dining Lean.'' "We want to eat something that's flavorful.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun