Italian food may seem like the ultimate treat. After all, there is a reason why it’s a favorite among marathon runners or athletes who need to load up on carbohydrates prior to a big event. But can you really eat Italian and cut calories and carbs?
Ordering a healthy meal at an Italian restaurant isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Italian meals are mainly composed of an abundance of healthy ingredients like tomatoes, olive oil, herbs, vegetables, beans and lean proteins like chicken and seafood. The toughest part is controlling just how much you eat, since Italian restaurants are famous for their large portion sizes.
But if you can keep your servings under control, you can scratch that Italian itch you have and also get away with a healthier meal (and leftovers, too). Here are a few options to help, so you don’t have to scour the menu for something healthy.
A Filling Soup or Salad
According to a study published in Appetite, eating a salad before or during a meal can help you eat 11 percent fewer calories while also increasing vegetable consumption by 23 percent. In another study published in the same journal, researchers found that consuming a broth-based soup helped people eat 20 percent fewer calories during the meal.
Starting with a soup is a flavorful way to take the edge off of your hunger before a hearty pasta dish. But steer clear of creamy soups and opt for something broth-based such as minestrone. Minestrone is packed with fresh vegetables and is usually lower in calories without compromising on flavor.
If you opt for a salad, shoot for a caprese or house salad and pass on the creamy salad dressings; go for a vinaigrette which is olive oil–based and full of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Some Dallas-Fort Worth favorites, such as Penne Pomodoro, will also allow you to add on grilled chicken, shrimp or salmon to your salad to turn this starter into a healthy entrée.
If you still want to partake of some Italian bread before your meal, forgo the bread basket and order bruschetta instead. This thinly sliced, toasted bread — drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and topped with fresh tomato, garlic and oregano — is a great low-calorie start to a meal without overdoing it on bread. Patrons of Spazzio’s Italian Cantina in Arlington claim their bruschetta is a must have.
Yes, you can have pasta, but skip the creamy sauces (seeing a pattern?) and opt for something light and full of veggies. Chock full of sautéed seasonal vegetables, heart-healthy garlic, chives and lemon, pasta primavera is a great way to add on tons of flavor without adding empty calories. If you’re worried about the pasta, you can order whole wheat pasta or focus on eating all of the vegetables first with a few bites of pasta between.
Italian restaurants are also well-known for their seafood offerings. After all, Italy is part of the Mediterranean. Fresh mussels are rich in minerals and long-chain fatty acids, and they’re also low in calories. Dallas favorite Carbone’s offers up an excellent grilled market fish sitting on a bed of braised lentils and topped with salsa verde. Antonio Ristorante in Addison offers up a taste of the sea with their fettuccine al modo del mare, a broad sampling of shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels nestled in fettuccine pasta with a white wine sauce, which keeps the calorie count low without sacrificing flavor.
Smart Chicken Choices
Although chicken entrees are commonly accepted as healthier alternatives, a healthy, lean protein can easily turn unhealthy when paired with creamy sauces and starchy carbs. Instead, look for chicken dishes that come with a lot of vegetables and a light sauce or olive oil drizzle, and if you still want to satisfy that carb craving, opt for rice instead of a plate of pasta. Cappuccino Italian Bistro in Richardson offers up a plethora of healthy chicken dishes, such as their “Chicken Cappuccino,” with mushrooms, garlic, olive oil and a white wine sauce served with rice and vegetables; or their “Chicken Paillard,” a classic Tuscan dish of grilled chicken topped with a lemon and olive oil dressing and paired with tons of fresh, grilled vegetables and rice. For the pasta lovers, their “Chicken Artichoke” is full of fiber-rich artichokes alongside a bed of angel hair pasta and marinara sauce.
Light, Refreshing Desserts
Think you have to skip dessert? Think again! While you’ll definitely find rich cheesecake or tiramisu on the menu of most Italian restaurants, you’ll also find refreshing granitas, a light fruit or coffee-infused Italian ice, and Macedonia, an Italian fruit salad made with seasonal fruit, mint and a squirt of lemon juice. If you’re having trouble locating these on the menu, a fruit sorbet is a great alternative, and for the coffee lovers, a 12-ounce cappuccino made with non-fat milk will only run you about 90 calories.
A To-Go Box!
Italian restaurants are notorious for large servings or family-style offerings, which can make it easy to overeat. Luckily, no matter where you choose to eat, there will always be takeout boxes. Asking for a to-go box as soon as your food is delivered and putting half of your entrée in the box before you start eating is an easy way to ensure you won’t overindulge, and the best part is you immediately have lunch for the next day!
A meal out at your favorite Italian restaurant doesn’t have to break your diet or health goals. By making simple swaps, you can enjoy traditional Italian flavors and cooking styles while staying within your goals.
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