10 Tips to Lighten Up Your Italian Feast

Say Ciao to Heart Health Offenders

Italian Food

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.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

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:

  • Fresher
  • 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.

Advertising Policy
  • 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:

Advertising Policy

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.

Buon appetito!

Advertising Policy
Advertising Policy