Healthy Italian Food Options: Quick Guide

Below is a continuation of the healthy eating article series from Christy Maskeroni, who is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer in NYC.

When I say “Italian Food” what pops into your mind? Pasta, bread, rich and creamy dishes, you say?  True.  But, there is also seafood, chicken, and olive oil.  Actually, if you can dodge those heavy, loaded dishes on the menu, you may find Italian one of the easier fare to make healthy when eating out.

Below are a few ways to keep the delicious Italian Cuisine a part of your healthier and lower-calorie lifestyle.

Healthy Italian Food Option Strategies:

  • Portion the pasta.
    • Many Italian restaurants list the pasta in the traditional way of a small first dish (Primi). If this is the case, you may be okay with this as your main entrée. Just choose wisely – no cream sauces, butter sauces, or heavy meat/sausage dishes.
    • If the order is a main entrée or larger, split the dish with the table OR just order your own side of pasta.
  • Fire up the grill (or oven).
    • Order the grilled fish. There are always several options. Doing this will keep it light and flavorful. Just be mindful of the portions. Remember, too much of anything is TOO MUCH.
    • Roasted is also a great option for fish or chicken. But, be mindful that roasting a dish can hold a little more fat and oil. A few tricks: try peeling back the skin on the chicken or asking for the vegetables to be roasted lightly (with less oil).
  • Start it right.The appetizer menu can go either way. If you choose well, you could end up with a deliciously satisfying and lower calorie meal.
    • Pass on:
      • Anything breaded and/or fried (fritti): fried calamari (I know, I know, a favorite of many), mozzarella sticks, fried eggplant, etc. There are PLENTY of other just-as-delicious options that won’t deter you from your goal.
      • Bread basket. I know it’s tempting. If it is the best bread EVER, then have a slice and enjoy it! (BUT, make sure you account for it) If it is something you can live without, then save it for the meal. When it comes to garlic bread, just say no all together – it’s too rich in butter and cheese and can really put you over your fat intake for the day. If you need a little extra help saying no, ask for the basket to be removed OR order a healthy appetizer or salad as soon as you sit down.
      • Cheesy dishes: mushrooms stuffed with cheese, fried cheese sticks, or a caprese salad. It is all just too much, especially in the saturated fat department.
    • Don’t pass up on:
      • Making it a meal. There are some great options to make into a meal. Try a salad to start and a grilled octopus or shrimp appetizer as your main.
      • The grilled options (griglia). These can be great starters – like grilled shrimp, grilled calamari, octopus, or grilled vegetables
      • The soups. The bean and vegetable based soups can also be a great choice. Watch the bowls with cream, meat, and sausage as they can be much heavier options. Also, keep in mind that although they can be lower calorie, they will be high in salt. Minestrone or Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and bean) are great picks
      • Salads. These are a smart option to choose if you stay mindful of the fats – dressing, cheese, and nuts.
  • Watch the dairy.
    • Many Italian dishes can be topped with cheese, filled with cheese, or layered with cheese. Some examples include eggplant or chicken or veal parmesan, lasagna, etc. Let’s try to avoid these or opt for it without. I guarantee there will be plenty of flavor without.
    • This also goes for the creamy soups, filled pastas, and sauces like fettuccini alfredo or carbonera sauces.
    • Opt for dishes made with oil instead of butter. It may not cut calories too much BUT, it will reduce the heart unhealthy saturated fat. To reduce the calories, just ask the restaurant to be light with the oil.
  • Il finale!
    • If dessert is a must, be sure to have accounted for it.
    • If it is to-die-for, then share it. This will satisfy and save you.
    • If it is a light treat, then try a nonfat cappuccino, fruit sorbet, or small biscotti.
  • Remember the basics.And if you have read any of my other Quick Guides to Eating Out, you may know this by now but, here are a few of my basic tips that can help you eat well at almost any restaurant.
    • Go lean. Choose seafood, vegetarian, or chicken over beef. It can cut fat and calories down tremendously without sacrificing flavor.
    • Watch the preparation. Avoid items that are fried, crispy, heavily sautéed, au gratin, coated, basted, or stuffed. Instead choose or ask for steamed, broiled, baked, or poached.
    • Order for two. Share dishes with your friends/family. This is a great way to sample several dishes and save you the extra calories.
    • Sip on a glass. Instead of choosing a bottle to share with your dinner companion, choose a glass. A bottle of red wine has about 25 ounces and 530 calories. So, if you do the math that is 265 for half the bottle. This isn’t going totally overboard, BUT it will add up (especially if you order another bottle!) and is at least half of the calories you need at a meal! If you order a glass with dinner, you will save yourself at least 130 additional calories and most likely more.

Healthy Italian Food Comparison

Here is a way to make the night out a well-deserved healthy one.

Instead of… Choose…
Fried Calamari (Fritti Calamari)
Average large serving = 860 calories
Grilled Calamari
Average large serving = 295 calories
Caprese Salad
Average large serving = 480 calories
Mixed Greens Salad
Average large serving = 80 calories
Chicken Parmesan
Average large serving = 940 calories
Grilled Chicken Spiedini (grilled chicken, roasted veggies, lemon olive oil)
Average large serving = 490 calories
Fettuccini Alfredo with Shrimp
Average large serving = 1110 calories
Spaghetti with Pomodoro Sauce
Average large serving = 530 calories
Lasagna Bolognese
Average large serving = 720 calories
Spaghetti with Meatballs SIDE Dish
Average serving 437calories
Average large serving = 1120 calories
Nonfat Cappuccino 12 ounces = 80 calories

** calorie content will vary from place to place
Resources:  www.macaronigrill.com; www.calorieking.com; www.myfitnesspal.com

Healthy Italian Food Meal Example

For a little perspective, here is of what a MODERATELY portioned meal might look like from each of the menus:

High Calorie Meal Low Calorie Meal
½ Bottle of wine 1 glass of wine
½ Fried Calamari Appetizer ½ Grilled Calamari Appetizer
2 Slices of Bread with Olive Oil No Bread
Fettuccini Alfredo with Shrimp Spaghetti and Meatball Side Dish
Tiramisu Nonfat Cappuccino
3080 calories 794 calories

The calories on the left hand side are absolutely ridiculous – this is more than most individuals calorie needs for an entire day! Crazy, right?!  The healthier version on the right side may still be a little more than necessary but a HUGE difference to its comparison.  To decrease calories even more, decide between wine and cappuccino OR opt out of the appetizer or have small salad instead.

Christy Maskeroni MS, RD is the Director of Nutrition and Master Coach Trainer at CLAY Health Club & Spa in New York City.  She has spent the last several years developing customized nutrition and fitness programs for clients interested in reaching a new height of health and wellness.  www.insideclay.com


  • Tom says:

    This was an excellent article. Italian food is one of the best. The good thing is there are choices in Italian cooking. Christy is right. Look for those alternatives and you will find them. It may save your life. To your health!!

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  • Hank says:

    This article makes a lot of sense. I have to have pasta. I see that a side dish will do the trick and grilling saves calories. Very helpful article.

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  • gren says:

    Hey Marc

    I love pasta and usually have it every Friday night with the wife. Nothing too fancy- spaghetti, 3-4 meatballs, homemade tomato sauce, garlic, capers and black olives (didn't mean to get too into the details, but thought that would help you).

    Anyways, the stores usually stock up different kinds of pasta - those made out of semolina and whole-wheat.

    I usually buy the ones made out of semolina coz they taste good and presentation-wise, it looks like spaghetti.

    The whole-wheat variety is kinda off-putting - dark brown (don't know the taste though).

    What's your take - semolina or whole-wheat? Which would be more healthy?

    FYI, I don't have a huge helping of spaghetti.


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    • Marc Perry says:

      @gren - I will certainly let Christy chime in if she like, but here's a pretty good explanation to your question:

      "The nutritional quality of a pasta, and often its taste and texture, depend upon the flour. Those made with whole grain flours, such as whole wheat pasta, are naturally the most nutrient-rich because the bran and germ of the grain have been left in. Most pasta is made with durum wheat, a hard wheat high in protein and gluten, which makes a dough that sticks together well and holds its shape, a feature so important to pasta makers. Most of the familiar dried pastas are made with semolina or farina, or a combination of the two. In these flours, the germ and bran have been removed, and the fiber and nutritional values are lower. Semolina is made from durum wheat and may have more protein than farina, which is made from a softer wheat. So, as with all foods, look at the label." Source: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/family-nutrition/pasta

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  • Jasper Whiteside says:

    All things have their place in the food triangle. I agree with the article that it is important to keep track of the quantity of those foods that you eat. If you have had enough dairy for the day, it might be a good idea to choose a dish that doesn't have it. Thankfully, Italian food is versatile in its options.

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    • Kristin says:

      It's true - Italian food offer more than just pizza and pasta. I had some amazing food while traveling in Italy a couple years ago. Amazing fish dishes and delicious vegetables were just a couple of the great options. Thanks for sharing!
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

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