Believe it or not, you can eat well and still be health-conscious when dining at an Italian restaurant. Four Sharp dietitians share their tips and tricks for satisfying that comfort food craving without busting your calorie budget.
Barbara Bauer, program manager of clinical nutrition at Sharp Coronado Hospital
Skip the garlic bread
For me, an Italian meal is not complete without pasta and sauce. To offset my initial hunger, I start my meal with a salad with the dressing on the side, and skip the garlic bread. When the pasta entree arrives, I am able to indulge in a moderate serving and go home with leftovers, feeling satisfied but not stuffed. Being careful about portion size is a great way to maintain a healthy diet without feeling deprived.
At home, I skip the pasta and make zucchini ribbons by using a spiral cutter. I add tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, artichokes, bell peppers, onion, cheese and my favorite pasta sauce. I don't miss the pasta because the dish has so much flavor.
Angelea Bruce, certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Sharp HealthCare
Many popular dishes offered at Italian restaurants are ones that are traditionally reserved for holidays and special occasions in Italy — and they tend to be very high in fat and calories. Fortunately, you can still find plenty of healthy and tasty options on most Italian menus.
I love to start my meal with a cup of pasta e fagioli or minestrone soup, both of which are broth-based and typically loaded with beans and vegetables. If I'm not in the mood for soup, then I order a small dinner salad with oil and vinegar on the side, or share an appetizer of bruschetta.
Because Italy is surrounded by the sea on three sides, nearly every Italian restaurant offers one or more seafood dishes. Grilled fish is a go-to for me. It is often prepared with olives, capers and a variety of vegetables — and even cannellini beans — making it super flavorful and satisfying.
Many Italian dishes rely heavily on vegetables, legumes, herbs and olive oil, which supply generous doses of beneficial fiber, phytochemicals and healthy fats. Studies have also shown that lycopene — an antioxidant phytochemical that is readily available in cooked tomato products — appears to protect against several types of cancer, as well as possibly lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Absorption of lycopene is conveniently enhanced when eaten with a little fat, such as olive oil.
Kendra Busalacchi, registered dietitian with Sharp Grossmont Hospital
Portion before you eat
When I eat at an Italian restaurant, I usually start with a minestrone soup or a caprese salad. Caprese salad provides a good dose of antioxidants from the tomatoes, and healthy fats from the olive oil.
I do love pasta, but I make sure to choose either a tomato sauce or an olive oil-based sauce instead of a high-fat cream sauce. The majority of pasta dishes can be close to two portions; by starting your meal with a salad or soup, you are sure to get a portion of pasta for lunch the next day. Ask for a to-go box right away, in order to portion out the meal before you begin eating.
Stephanie Metzner, registered dietitian and program manager at Sharp Rees-Stealy
Choose lean proteins
When I go to an Italian restaurant, I choose cioppino, a broth-based vegetable soup with fresh seafood, to get lean protein. If you want some carbohydrates with a soup like this, you can always indulge in a portioned piece of bread to soak up the broth.
Cooking Italian at home? Try these lighter options from Sharp Health News: