Light & Healthy Italian Cuisine

Was eating healthier one of your New Year’s resolutions once again this year? If so, then consider adding more Italian meals to your diet. Although many folks today still believe Italian cuisine involves heavy dishes packed with cheese and cream based sauces, the truth is that a Mediterranean diet is a very healthy one. It is well known that the Mediterranean diet has many significant health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and many types of cancer.

An Italian diet contains an abundance of grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits, all of which we know are good for us. Seafood also plays an essential part in the diet, and portion sizes, of meat in particular, are smaller. The most significant factor however, is probably that the fat used in Italian cooking is mostly monounsaturated, from olive oil, rather than saturated fats.

The Mediterranean diet has long been one of the healthiest diets known to man, but it is not fair to call this just a “diet” or even a way of eating because it truly is a way of life. For thousands of years, people living along the Mediterranean coast have indulged in a high-fiber diet of fruits and vegetables that includes quality fats, proteins, whole grains, and even sometimes a glass of locally made wine.

This healthy way of eating has received a worldwide reputation for disease prevention and even weight management. Considered by many nutrition experts to be one of the most heart-healthy ways of eating there is, the base of the Mediterranean diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and built upon plant-based foods and healthy fats. Unfortunately, many Italian American restaurants have “Americanized” many traditional healthy recipes from Italy by adding layers of heavy cheese and high-calorie sauces. You can easily avoid these unhealthy dishes and instead make healthier choices.

If these facts still don’t convince you an Italian diet is a healthy choice, here are a few additional tips for making even better choices when eating Italian:

* Most antipasti dishes are pretty low fat, but try and choose the best of the bunch. Avoid meats, cheeses, and fried foods, and instead pick the grilled vegetables, vegetable-based soups or seafood options. One of my favorite appetizers is to serve crisp, raw vegetables with an herb-flavored olive oil dipping sauce.

* If you are concerned about pasta choices, pick a sauce where vegetables or seafood are the main ingredients. At home, if you want to make your favorite pasta dish healthier, substitute whole grain pasta for the traditional refined white flour variety. There are a large variety of whole grain pasta varieties available to purchase at this time. Also, keep your pasta portion size moderate. I calculate a hundred grams or about three and a half ounces per person. Cooking your pasta “al dente” is also crucial as it reduces increases the time it takes to digest which helps to burn more calories. I like to top my pasta dishes with grated Pecorino Romano cheese instead of Parmesan cheese as it has a fuller flavor making it possible to use less cheese.

* Try low fat or fat-free ricotta and other low-fat cheeses in your kitchen. They may take a little getting used to, so start with the reduced fat choices, and then switch to fat-free after a few weeks.

* Soups are always a great healthy, hearty way to fill you up, and if you choose correctly by selecting soups full of vegetables, beans, and grains, you will be getting your daily fill of fiber, protein, and vitamins. Substitute a hearty vegetable and grain-based soup in place of a meat entree a couple of times a week to add nutrition and decrease calories.

* Pizza is always a concern when you are trying to maintain or lose weight. Unfortunately here in North America, folks are eating pizza with two to three times more cheese than it should contain, pizza with cheese stuffed crusts, pizza covered with layers of high-calorie toppings, and pizza covered in gooey, high-calorie white sauces. Instead, choose either a thin crust pizza or a whole grain one. Add some fresh mozzarella sparingly, and top with grilled vegetables along with a sprinkling of high flavor items such as chopped Kalamata olives and capers. One of my favorite pizza selections involves cooking the pizza crust just brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano before baking, and then once it is out of the oven I top with sliced ripe tomatoes, arugula, and a couple of very thin slices of prosciutto.

* Always try to avoid any recipe or menu item that has the word creamy in its description. This will often mean it has either cream added to it or was developed from a béchamel sauce which has butter as its base. That goes the same for the word fried describing any menu item. You know these dishes are going to be ones heavy in both fat and calories, and if you are hoping to lose weight, or even if you just want to make healthier choices this new year, it is best to stay away from these dishes.

* When preparing vegetables, avoid frying, and instead try grilling or roasting. Both of these alternative methods caramelize the vegetables, bringing out the natural flavors. If you choose a delicious extra virgin olive oil, you will only need a minimal amount when cooking to add flavor. Add a little additional chicken or vegetable broth when sautéing vegetables, and you won’t even notice the loss of the oil. I make great a delicious Eggplant Parmesan dish that is low in fat by grilling the eggplant slices instead of frying them and substituting low-fat cheeses.

* Making correct entrée choices can cut a considerable amount of calories from your meals. Try choosing grilled or roasted fish and poultry over beef. Keep your portions small, and add whole grains and vegetables to round out the meal. You do not have to completely give up steak if you love it. Instead, slice it thin and serve over a bed of crisp arugula, then lightly drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle it with coarse sea salt. I serve four-ounce portions of grilled steak this way, and it is not only delicious but very satisfying.

* If you have to have dessert, pick a fruit-based one without heavy sauces. A couple of low-fat favorites of mine are ripe peaches soaked in red wine, or grilled pineapple slices served with a scoop of frozen yogurt.

You can see that although Italian foods are in essence right for you, with a little thought, you can pick the very best choices. Remember, they even say that a glass of red wine a day can be beneficial to your health!

Buon Appetito!
Deborah Mele 


  1. Beautiful article, Deborah

    I must add that, for me, the most difficult thing is to build a well conceived weekly menu, taking into accounts all my needs: it must be healthy, varied, tasty and not too hard to prepare. But I’m working on it!
    Any suggestions?

    Thanks, Luca

    1. Luca, I would suggest using some of the tip sin the article. Also, stay away from white flour and sugar and try to incorporate more whole grain breads and pasta into your diet. We avoid red meat and only eat it a couple of times a month and use poultry and seafood as our protein choices. If you do all this, and try to add a fe healthy vegetables and fruit options into your menu you will indeed be enjoying a healthy, varied diet. Italian food does not have to be complicated to prepare as you can see from many of my recipes!

      1. Thank you so much, Deborah!
        We already cut sugar, and we reduced the intake of meat (but I looooove pork…), substituting it with fish. And vegetables/fruit has been added. I just went from eating a couple bananas a week to at least one fruit every day!
        Now I’ll try to apply your advice on whole grain bread, but I’m a little dubious about whole grain pasta. However I’ll surely try it.

        Thanks again, Luca

        PS As you can see from my less then decent English, I’m Italian. I hope my message is at least understandable. 🙂

  2. I really love Italian food and I love that I can still get healthy options while still enjoying the food. I love Italian salads and healthy pastas like whole grain. Since I started eating better, I have had to give up a few food options, but Italian isn’t one of them!

  3. It’s good to know that a diet of authentic Italian food can help to reduce the risk of heart disease. My brother is paranoid about getting heart disease at a young age, and he’s always wanted to eat some good Italian food. I’ll pass this information along to him for his consideration.

  4. I liked that you mentioned you can consider picking a sauce where vegetables or seafood is the main ingredient. My husband and I are looking at the health benefits of Italian foods. I will let him know how Italian food can help you to maintain a healthy lifestyle and see if we can try it out.

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