If you don't pay attention to calories when deciding how much of something to eat, you might want to know that the chefs serving it to you don't either.
A survey of 300 restaurant chefs around the country reveals that taste, looks and customer expectations are what matter when they determine portion size. Only one in six said the calorie content was very important and half said it didn't matter at all.
While it may make diners happy to get piles of pasta and mountains of meat, they'll pay the price in pounds, said doctors at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society, where the survey was presented Saturday.
Chefs agreed that big servings encourage people to eat too much, but said it's up to the diner to decide how much to consume — and how much to take in a doggie bag.
Portion sizes have bloated during the last few decades, a trend that worries doctors because two-thirds of Americans eat at least one meal a week at restaurants, which increasingly offer a dizzying array of diverse and fattening cuisine.
"As you increase portion sizes or the variety of meals served, people are going to consume more calories," said Thomas Wadden, president of the Obesity Society and director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
He had no part in the study, which was led by Barbara Rolls, an obesity researcher at Pennsylvania State University. She and others gave questionnaires to chefs attending culinary meetings last year. More than 400 responded, and 300 who gave complete answers formed the final sample.
Two-thirds were executive chefs at fine or casual dining restaurants, and the rest were assistant or kitchen chefs. Most had worked at least 20 years, and three-fourths had a degree in culinary arts.
Chefs said these factors strongly influence portion size: food presentation (70 percent), cost (65 percent) and customer expectations (52 percent). Only 16 percent said calories were a big influence.
"Most of them thought they were serving regular-sized portions," Rolls said, but four out of five gave more than the recommended 2 ounces for pasta and 3 ounces for strip steak. If they were worried about competitor restaurants, they served more pasta and steak and used bigger plates, researchers found.
Portions are a touchy subject for many restaurants and some chains outright refused to discuss it.
But at Cheesecake Factory Inc., "we're known for our generous portions" and the value they offer, said Howard Gordon, a senior vice president of the chain whose signature dish is dozens of varieties of cheesecake, the ultimate sin dessert.
"There is a 'wow' factor in the way that it looks," he said of the food. The chain doesn't provide information on calories and customers ask for it "very, very rarely," he said.
"I've rarely seen a person eat a whole slice of cheesecake. They share," and a whopping 80 percent take doggie bags from their meals, Gordon said. "It's a splurge."
Steps from Boston's Hynes Convention Center where the obesity meeting was being held, Eric Bogardus, executive chef at Vox Populi, a trendy American bistro-style restaurant, uses a sort of contentment index when setting portions.
"When I look at a dish, the first thing I think about is, is this going to be the right portion to make somebody happy when they leave ... content without feeling full or hungry," he said.
Too-large portions "corner people" into eating too much of one dish, he said, so he keeps his on the small side. But he doesn't hesitate to adjust when he feels a dish demands it, like serving half a duck instead of the duck breast that most restaurants serve.
"In general that's quite a bit of meat," Bogardus said. "But to me, if you're going to have a duck, you have to have a leg. That's where the flavor is."
Chefs, after all, are cooks — not diet coaches.