While Italian cuisine may bring pastas and pizzas to mind, most Italians actually follow the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, packed with fruits, vegetables, beans and lean protein.
Cleveland Clinic dietitian Kate Patton, from the Section of Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation and her intern, Sara Saliba, give culinary tips to lighten up Italian classics without sacrificing flavor.
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Tip #1: Portion control
Italian portions are smaller than those served up in many U.S. chain restaurants.
Tip #2: Make a heart healthy swap
Whether dining out or cooking at home, apply these menu strategies:
- Instead of using butter or cream sauces (such as Alfredo), stick to marinara sauce (tomatoes, onions, and garlic) or marsala sauce (made with wine)
- Instead of casserole dishes comprised of cheese or meat-filled pastas, opt for a light version of pasta primavera (pasta with sautéed garden vegetables) or pasta with pesto (blend of basil, olive oil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts)
- Instead of starting your meal with a large order of fried calamari, try roasted peppers or a small bowl of minestrone soup
- Skip the creamy dressing loaded with saturated fat, try flavorful balsamic vinegar mixed with virgin olive oil for a lighter dressing with heart-healthy fats and antioxidants
- For dessert, in place of Italian pastries or gelato, indulge in a refreshing low-sugar Italian ice or a fruit salad made with sweet seasonal fruit
Tip #3: Choose fresh
In-season ingredients are:
- More nutrient dense
- More flavorful so added fat, salt and sugar are not necessary for flavoring purposes
Tip #4: Go easy on the pasta
- Limit pasta to a 1 cup portion
- Don’t cook an entire box of pasta if you are only cooking for yourself
- Use whole grain pasta when possible
- Be careful not to overcook your pasta; al dente pasta (“firm to the bite”) has a lower glycemic index, leaving you fuller and more satisfied for longer
Tip #5: Opt for olive oil
Olive oil has heart health advantages over other cooking fats:
- Better for you than a majority of regular cooking oils
- Healthier choice for cooking than butter or margarine
- Virgin olive oil is high in healthy fats (monounsaturated ) and rich in antioxidants
Tip #6: Incorporate seafood
Fish is essential to an Italian diet.
- Try to eat at least two portions of oily fish per week
- Fish oils are high in essential, heart-healthy omega-3 fats
- Shellfish are nutrient-dense
Tip #7: Don’t get saucy
Italians traditionally lightly coat their pasta with sauce.
- Use small portions of reduced-fat cheese
- Avoid tube shaped pastas such as penne and rigatoni, as they capture and absorb more sauce.
Tip #8: Celebrate
- Mealtime is a big occasion in Italy, wherein large families gather together at the dinner table to enjoy each other’s company and to appreciate the food
- Avoid prepackaged frozen dinners and other distractions in order to be conscious of what and how much you are eating. This will significantly help control portion sizes
Tip #9: Get to know gremolata
Gremolata is an Italian garnish made of raw, finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest.
- Sprinkle it on cooked fish or meat for amazing flavor without extra calories or fat
- Swap this flavorful mixture when you might normally use sugary BBQ sauce
Tip #10: Make it from scratch
Try to make a few meals from scratch per week.
- You will know exactly what is going on your plate
- Make your own meatballs and sauces from scratch to avoid the extra calories, fats, salt and sugar incorporated into store-bought sauces and frozen foods
On the menu: Healthy Italian
Select from these menu options for a flavor-packed, heart-healthy Italian meal you can make at home.
Antipasti: Antipasti is the first dish of an Italian meal, which largely consists of vegetables rather than a basket of breadsticks. Healthy antipasti dish recipes:
Primi: Translated as “first,” the primi plate typically includes a small portion of risotto or pasta. Here are two low-calorie primi risotto recipes:
If you prefer pasta over risotto, swap in whole grain pasta. Here are several delicious pasta options that are lower in saturated fat than common pasta dishes:
Secondi: Translated as “second,” the secondi plate is typically a protein-centered dish. Opt for fish if possible.
Dolci: Translated as “sweets,” healthy Italian desserts include fruit salads made of fresh fruit that is in-season.