Mangia! It’s Italiano!

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Like other Mediterranean countries, Italy’s cuisine is rich in grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, all of which may play a role in preventing heart disease and cancer.

So, what’s so fattening about the Italian food you’re eating? How about “almost everything.” In one meal, you can eat enough food to put on an entire pound of fat, which would take 5 hours and 9 minutes of jumping rope to burn off. Maybe that’s why Olive Garden refuses to give out the nutrient information of their foods unless you have (I’m not kidding here) “a note from a physician.”

So, unless you know what to look for, an Italian menu can be hazardous to your health.

Yes, pasta can be a healthy choice (at times); it’s the preparation and what’s added that causes complications. The sauces, the sides, and even the vegetables are not only cooked in oil, but sometimes butter and cheese are also added for extra flavor (not to mention extra fat). Your best defense is to ask the waiter to pack half your meal in a doggie bag before it’s even brought out, or share your dish with a friend.

  • Spaghetti and meatballs: 1086 calories, 35g fat, 146g carbs
  • Potato gnocchi: 804 calories, 39g fat, 99g carbs
  • Stuffed shells (6 jumbo shells): 780 calories, 32g fat, 82g carbs
  • Pasta primavera: 542 calories, 23g fat, 62g carbs

The menu doesn’t always say whether or not an item is deep fried, so ask. Frying is pretty standard for mozzarella and zucchini sticks, calamari, and of course chicken, veal, and eggplant parmigiana. You might think eggplant is a healthy choice because it’s a vegetable, but not when it’s deep fried and smothered with cheese. To save calories, skip the cheese and/or get your food grilled — trust me, you’ll still feel satisfied.

  • Eggplant parmigiana: 1396 calories, 78g fat, 141g carbs
  • Chicken parmigiana: 1340 calories, 78g fat, 88g carbs
  • Fried calamari: 1040 calories, 70g fat, 62g carbs

Not to depress you more, but this nutrient information doesn’t include the heaping side order of pasta that comes with these dishes — add another 606 calories, 15g fat, and 101g carbs. That brings your grand total to more than 1600 calories, not including a few pieces of bread dipped in olive oil.

The sauce in pasta is the heart of the dish. It’s what gives the pasta its “pastabilities.” The problem is that chefs are mostly interested in making their sauces taste the best — and there is no better guarantee of this than using plenty of cheese, butter, and oil. At least ask for the sauce on the side and add it yourself — sparingly.

Red and white sauces are both loaded with oil, and that includes marinara sauce. You would think pesto sauce made with basil, olive oil, grated cheese, and pine nuts is a healthy option, but more than half its calories are from fat. Keep in mind that carbonara sauce is made with eggs, ham or bacon, and cream — an obvious artery clogger. Oh, and if you love Alfredo sauce, sorry — it’s made entirely of cream, butter, and cheese.

  • Linguine with white clam sauce: 910 calories, 29g fat, 104g carbs
  • Linguine with red clam sauce: 890 calories, 23g fat, 130g carbs
  • Spaghetti with marinara sauce: 850 calories, 17g fat, 165g carbs
  • Mussels marinara: 806 calories, 17g fat, 71g carbs
  • Capellini with tomatoes and basil: 860 calories, 30g fat, 119g carbs
  • Spaghetti Carbonara: 1067 calories, 34g fat, 143g carbs
  • Pasta with pesto sauce: 1075 calories, 69g fat, 81g carbs
  • Fettuccine Alfredo: 1078 calories, 41g fat, 137g carbs
  • Shrimp Scampi: 932 calories, 67g fat, 4g carbs
  • Spaghetti Bolognese: 975 calories, 24g fat, 135g carbs

Who doesn’t love a nice homemade lasagna? This favorite contains way too much cheese and ground meat for a single serving. Even the meatless version is no calorie bargain. Again, halve your entree so you’re only eating half the calories.

  • Lasagna with meat and spinach: 1116 calories, 44g fat, 114g carbs
  • Meatless lasagna with spinach: 978 calories, 30g fat, 127g carbs

Garlic bread — fuhggedaboutit. Bread drenched in olive oil — skip it — it’s more fattening than healthy. And that plate of antipasto — all those cheeses and pressed meats, such as pepperoni and salami, are full of saturated fat and cholesterol.

  • Garlic bread (4 slices): 545 calories, 21g fat, 75g carbs
  • Antipasto: 630 calories, 47g fat, 18g carbs
  • Roasted peppers in olive oil (1/2 pepper): 504 calories, 54g fat, 4g carbs
  • Bread dipped in olive oil (2 slices): 528 calories, 42g fat, 30g carbs
  • Minestrone soup (2 cups): 468 calories, 26g fat, 44g carbs
  • Parmesan cheese (1 tablespoon): 23 calories, 2g fat, 0g carbs
  • Italian bread (2 slices): 162 calories, 2g fat, 30g carbs
  • Olives (10): 91 calories, 10g fat, 1g carbs

If you’re lucky, your restaurant will be one of the Italian places that serves fresh fruit. Otherwise, cool Italian ices are probably your best bet.

  • Gelato (1 cup): 740 calories, 58g fat, 52g carbs
  • Tiramisu (1 piece): 400 calories, 29g fat, 30g carbs
  • Italian ice (1 cup): 123 calories, 0g fat, 31g carbs

Although it’s a challenge, there are some excellent recipes out there for chefs, or anyone who wants to cook healthy Italian food that still tastes amazing. I was even able to create a recipe for chicken parmigiana that’s low in fat and tastes great. Basically, take a paper-thin cutlet, spray the pan with cooking spray, use Healthy Choice sauce and sprinkle on a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese, and you’re all set. And do I ever eat the oil and cheese laden restaurant version? I think I’ve already confessed enough.

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