I grew up in a city in Connecticut famous for its Italian food—New Haven’s pizza places are some of the best in the world—so being able to enjoy fettuccine alla carbonara, osso buco, tiramisu and the like feels more like a birthright than a privilege. But whenever I want to enjoy a deliciously cheesy Italian dish, there always seems to be someone ready to make a disparaging comment about how unhealthy it is. Because Italian equals pasta and pasta equals carbs and carbs equal unhealthy, right? Wrong.
In actuality, authentic Italian cooking can be some of the healthiest on earth. The cuisine is packed with healthy staples that made the Mediterranean diet famous: heart-healthy olive oil, omega-3-packed seafood, fiber-rich whole grains and many more. It’s no wonder that Italians boast some of the longest life expectancies on the planet.
Here’s a look at some of the amazing benefits of essential foods in Italian cooking. Use them to make a delicious, skinny Italian feast.
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Olive Oil—Make olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat, your go-to cooking oil. By replacing butter with olive oil—the most commonly used oil in the Mediterranean region—you’ll cut back on saturated fat, help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and boost levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. In addition, extra-virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants called polyphenols that have been linked to heart health.
Try eating like an Italian by dressing your salad greens with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or use olive oil to sauté fresh vegetables. You can even use olive oil in place of butter in baking. (Find out what brands of olive oil the EatingWell Test Kitchen likes the most here .)
Tomatoes—There’s nothing quite like a ripe tomato, whether served on a bed of fresh greens or made into an Italian red sauce to dress a bowl of hearty pasta. Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C and lycopene, a heart-protective antioxidant that may also help prevent some cancers (particularly prostate). Vitamin A, potassium and folate are also among the tomato’s nutritional benefits. Although cooked tomatoes have less vitamin C, their lycopene is more available and antioxidant activity is undiminished.
To boost the tomatoes in your diet, add fresh tomatoes to your salads, soups or pasta dishes, or learn how to make homemade tomato sauce with canned tomatoes. Or slice a juicy tomato and enjoy the simple, fresh flavor of tomatoes with a piece of whole-grain toast and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
Garlic—Garlic is magical; at least that’s what the ancients Romans thought. We now know that garlic has both antibiotic and antifungal properties. In an era before antibiotics, garlic may have kept the Greeks and Romans free of infection. Garlic boasts anticancer characteristics—studies show it may lower breast, colon, stomach, throat and skin cancer risks. It’s heart-healthy, too, as it’s been shown to prevent clotting. The secret to all these health benefits? Sulfides. Those beneficial sulfides aren’t released, however, unless the garlic is crushed or chopped and left to sit for at least 10 to 15 minutes before eating or cooking. Garlic purchased already chopped offers the same benefits.
Garlic’s characteristic flavor adds dimension to just about any dish. Try adding chopped garlic to sautéed greens, salad dressings or homemade spaghetti sauce.
Seafood—Seafood is a staple protein in Italian diets; any and all kinds of shellfish and fish are celebrated, often several in the same dish. While fattier types like tuna and salmon supply heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, lean seafood like shrimp, mussels, squid and sea bass provide ample protein, niacin and selenium. Serve fish or seafood at least twice a week.
To add more seafood and fish to your Italian cooking, try adding shrimp or scallops to your favorite Italian pasta recipe. Who can resist a plate of skillet-tossed gnocchi and veggies sprinkled with Parmesan and topped with sizzling shrimp?
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Whole Grains—Historically, unrefined grains (whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain bread, barley, whole-wheat couscous) are the basis of most Mediterranean diets. Leaving the grains whole lowers their glycemic index, so they are digested more slowly and produce gentler rises in glucose and insulin than refined versions; they also retain all their fiber, magnesium, vitamin E and other antioxidant phytochemicals. Diets rich in whole grains may protect against heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Top toasted whole-grain bread with diced tomatoes, garlic and basil and toss whole-wheat pasta with olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.
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Beans—Beans are an essential, satisfying and healthy ingredient often found in Italian cuisine. Aim to swap out some of your meat and get your protein from beans and other legumes like lentils and chickpeas. By displacing meat, you’ll lower your saturated-fat intake while adding healthful nutrients, like fiber and antioxidant-rich flavonols. Eaten daily, combined with grains and starches, beans provide high-quality protein along with folate, calcium, iron and zinc. They also offer healthy, filling doses of fiber (both soluble and insoluble), phytates and phytosterols; studies suggest beans may help manage diabetes, prevent colon cancer and reduce heart disease risk.
Add a dish or two that contain beans and other legumes to your weekly menu. Try making Bolognese sauce with beans instead of beef  for a hearty bean pasta dish, spread pureed beans on homemade pizza or make a minestrone soup with beans.
Nuts—Nut trees are almost as common as olive trees in Italy. Nuts are savored as snacks, ground into sauces and sprinkled on salads. Nuts are loaded with heart-friendly monounsaturated fat; they’re also rich sources of protein, fiber, vitamin E, folate, calcium and magnesium. Nut protein is also high in arginine, an amino acid that helps maintain healthy blood vessels. Try topping your salad with chopped nuts, adding nuts to your baking or making a nutty sauce like pesto with almonds, pine nuts or hazelnuts.
Dark Leafy Greens—To be Italian is to appreciate dark leafy vegetables, especially broccoli rabe, an earthy bitter brassica that pairs beautifully with bold ingredients like sausage, anchovy and hot pepper. Dark leafy greens are nutrition superstars, providing plenty of vitamins A, C and K as well as heart-healthy fiber and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Include a generous portion of rich dark leafy greens, such as chard, kale, escarole and collards, either in a salad or sautéed with olive oil, plenty of garlic and a touch of crushed red pepper.
What are your favorite healthy Italian foods? Tell us what you think below.