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Italian food is part of the Mediterranean cuisine, which is said to be one of the healthiest diets in the world.1

 

If you’re wondering how a cuisine that gives us pizza can be healthy, here’s the answer: as with any other cuisine, it ultimately boils down to making the right choices when it comes to calories and nutrition.

 

Read on to find out how to choose the healthiest Italian food!

 

 

Starters and/or Sides

 

Italian cuisine uses a lot of dark leafy greens and tomatoes, making a soup or a salad an excellent starter or side. Leafy greens have nutrient-rich pigments like carotenoids and glucosinolates, while tomatoes have a carotenoid called lycopene that protects your skin from within, fighting free radicals caused by the sun’s UV rays.

 

If you aren’t a “salad person”, a plate of bruschetta will give you good dose of tomatoes as well. If you have the option, ask for whole grain bread, to get some fibre out of your meal. Another good thing about this starter is the fact that it contains garlic, which offers a bunch of health benefits, especially for the heart.

This wouldn’t apply to garlic bread, however, because the garlic there needs to be heated during preparation, which could destroy some of its nutrients.

 

Mains

 

Grains –

 

Penne, Fettuccini, Spaghetti, Fusilli etc. are all forms of grains. Like couscous, many of these pastas are made from semolina (sooji) flour from durum wheat, which is high in protein and gluten (which isn’t to be feared by those who don’t have a gluten allergy or intolerance).2

 

Alternatively, pick the whole grain option for a heart-healthy pasta, in which the fibre lowers the bad cholesterol in blood. A whole grain base is also available for pizza lovers looking to get more nutrition per calorie (even better, go for a thin crust).3

 

Stuffings & Toppings –

 

The ground meat or pureed vegetables in stuffed pastas, like Ravioli and Tortellini, present a good opportunity to boost your protein. We often see these stuffed with mushrooms, a vegetarian source for vitamin D, amongst other benefits.4

 

By virtue of its coastal geographic location, the Italian diet is abundant in seafood. Often loaded with mussels, squid and prawns, seafood pasta can provide you with protein and healthy fats like omega-3 in about 250-300 calories.

 

Certain shellfish can be high in sodium, though, so avoid it if you have blood pressure problems or are allergic to seafood; choose lean meats like chicken.

 

Sauces –

 

A not-too-creamy pasta sauce is the best option, given the amount of calories they usually have. Made of olive oil, basil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, pesto has a pleasing texture and is full of nutrients, including healthy fats.5, 6

 

Pastas sauces can frequently have wines mixed in them; these have flavonoids and resveratrol, which are other antioxidants from plants. A glass of red wine brewing with these free-radical defusers complements an Italian meal well.7, 8

 

Cheese –

 

Italian cuisine is practically incomplete without cheese being part of the sauce or a condiment. Fortunately, it is a very rich source of nutrients. For example, calcium and vitamin K2 are essential for bone health.9, 10 It also has conjugated linoleic acid that appears to have several health benefits (including anti-cancer effects), and may promote weight loss in small quantities.11, 12

 

That being said, cheese is high in calories, so it’s important to have the right amount of the right cheese.

 

Because of all the variation, one can only follow general guidelines when it comes to picking a healthy cheese. Fresh cheeses like cream cheese and cottage cheese have a higher carbohydrate-content than aged varieties.13

 

A half-cup serving of Ricotta cheese contains 14 grams of protein and a fourth of your daily calcium needs. Low in sodium, Parmesan cheese is also very high in protein. Fortunately, both are consistent in Italian food.14

 

Whatever cheese you choose, stick to about half a cup.

 

 

Additional Tips

 

If you’re trying to cut down on cheese as a topping, crushed almonds can be a great substitute because of their flavour and their high content of vitamin E and flavonoids.15, 16

 

Adding spices to your mains can be a great way to enhance their flavour and increase nutrients without calories. Freshly ground black pepper and red chilli peppers (in the form of chilli flakes and perperoncino) are regular condiments in Italian restaurants. These have fascinating health benefits; for example, black pepper can increase the amount of nutrients the body absorbs from food.17, 18

 

One study showed that following an Italian diet increases the levels of carotenoids, vitamin A and vitamin E in the blood, and results in less signs of inflammation. This could be why Italians statistically have a reduced risk of heart problems, metabolic disorders, certain cancers and other age-related degenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s disease).1

 

Italian food can be as healthy as it prides itself to be – as long as we choose our dishes wisely!

 

 

References:

 

1.         Azzini E, et al. Nutr J 2011, 10: 125.

2.         Watson RR, et al. Wheat and Rice in Disease Prevention and Health: Benefits, risks and mechanisms of whole grains in health promotion. Elsevier Science, 2014.

3.         Jonnalagadda SS, et al. The Journal of Nutrition 2011, 141(5): 1011S-1022S.

4.         Cheung PCK. Nutrition Bulletin 2010, 35(4): 292-299.

5.         Lucas L, et al. Curr Pharm Des 2011, 17(8): 754-768.

6.         Terés S, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2008, 105(37): 13811-13816.

7.         Frémont L. Life Sciences 2000, 66(8): 663-673.

8.         Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2009, 2(5): 270-278.

9.         Beulens JW, et al. Br J Nutr 2013, 110(8): 1357-1368.

10.       Cashman KD. Br J Nutr 2002, 87 Suppl 2: S169-177.

11.       Lin H, et al. J Dairy Sci 1995, 78(11): 2358-2365.

12.       Gaullier JM, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2004, 79(6): 1118-1125.

13.       USDA. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27. Beltsville, Maryland, USA: United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service; 2015.

14.       Beech C. Yes, You Can Still Eat Cheese And Be Healthy. Here’s How. The Huffington Post. 2014.

15.       Milbury PE, et al. J Agric Food Chem 2006, 54(14): 5027-5033.

16.       Mandalari G, et al. Food Chemistry 2010, 122(4): 1083-1088.

17.       Ahmad N, et al. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 2012, 2(3, Supplement): S1945-S1953.

18.       Reyes-Escogido Mde L, et al. Molecules 2011, 16(2): 1253-1270.

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