How to enjoy Italian food without regrets: 8 secret tips from a real pro

Italian food without regrets

I can see you, sitting at a local pizzeria, with a glimpse of guilt in your eyes… your stomach is growling and the scent of basil and fresh tomatoes is mesmerising. In front of you is a large margherita and a glass of wine.

To eat or not to eat? That is the question…

With its variety of breads, meats, cheeses, and pastries, Italian cuisine truly is a tempting explosion of freshness and flavors.

After all, who wouldn’t be seduced by the rich, earthy aroma of pasta all’amatriciana? Turning your back on pizzabruschetta, and vino rosso is not an option, so what can be done about those extra pounds?

Here are a few tricks to follow that will save you from finding “excess baggage” on your belly after a full immersion in Italian deliciousness.

How to enjoy Italian food and keep a waistline

We interviewed Doctor Evelina Flachi, Nutritionist and expert in Food Science, President of Food Education Italy. 

If you’ve watched Italian television, you’ll recognize her as she is regularly called on as an esteemed nutrition expert, and as the personal nutrition consultant for many Italian TV stars. 

Doctor Flachi shared a few simple rules you can follow to enjoy the delicacies of Italian cuisine with no regrets.

Italian culinary tradition praises carbs. Many travellers in Italy complain about gaining weight while abroad, can this be connected to an increase in carbohydrate consumption?

Carbohydrates are not to blame. The sauces and condiments, rich in saturated fats, are often at fault. It would be sufficient to consume carbohydrates, such as pasta or risotto with beans and vegetables as a balanced single dish. Pasta salad, topped with mozzarella or tuna, is just an example of a healthy and tasty recipe.

Side note: In a balanced diet, It is important not to remove carbohydrates. They are an incredible source of energy and are consumed immediately by our body.

pasta e fagioli

Tip #1

Try pasta e fagioli, a traditional and very simple dish with beans… and yet delicious!

How often should one eat pasta?

At least 3 times a week, preferably at lunch time. Whole-wheat is always a better option as it reduces fat absorption and it helps regulate bowel movements. Whole-wheat pasta is also much more filling than regular pasta!

pasta alla Norma

Tip #2

Ask for “pasta alla Norma“, with fresh tomatoes, eggplants, and a spoon of ricotta… you can thank us later!

The latest American Dietary Guidelines indicate that using vegetable oils is a healthy eating pattern. Which are the healthiest oils? How should these be used and in what quantities?

Vegetable fats – extra-virgin olive oil more than any other – are definitely a better option than animal fats (like butter). The suggested dose is 4-6 teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil per day. Olive oil is even recommended for frying. For this purpose, extra-virgin olive oil can be substituted by peanut oil, which, however, should never be used uncooked because it is rich in saturated fats. A rule of thumb is to NEVER re-use pre-cooked fats and oils!

A trick for a healthy seasoning? Mix 4 teaspoons of oil, with lemon juice or vinegar, spices and a tiny bit of salt. That’s so much lighter than any creamy dressing!

grilled veggies

Tip #3

Try cooking without added fats (steam or grill) and add extra-virgin olive oil at the end: you’ll be able to fully enjoy its quality, even with a small quantity.

What to eat for breakfast to have high energy and jumpstart a busy day as a tourist in Rome?

Start your day with a satisfying breakfast. Choose muesli, granola or a mix of whole-wheat cereals and dried fruits, instead of toasted bread with jam or croissants. At lunch, opt for a light first course with vegetables so you will be able to walk at a fast pace, while at dinner choose grilled/roasted meat or fish, with a side of veggies.

whole grain croissant

Tip #4

If you can’t resist pastry, ask for a whole-grain croissant, cornetto integrale with honey or berries jam. It's just as delicious!

Which are the Italian dishes that foreigners concerned about weight should avoid?

In general, everyone should avoid an excessive intake of saturated fats and simple sugars (glucose and fructose). However, instead of banning certain dishes from your diet, opt for smaller portions, and choose either a first or a second course per meal. A trick for those who wish to try a bit of everything while in Italy, is to use a fruit plate to limit the size of each portion. It goes without saying that after a heavy lunch the following meal should be lighter. Grilled fish and vegetables are always a good idea!

Advice: Choose amatriciana instead of carbonara! A tomato based sauce is much lighter than the eggs-cheese-bacon combination.

orecchiette with broccoli

Tip #5

There are countless kinds of very typical pasta with vegetables: try orecchiette con cime di rapa or any pasta with broccoli… you’ll be surprised!

A trick for those who wish to try a bit of everything while in Italy, is to use a fruit plate to limit the size of each portion.

Do you have any secret tips for those who wish to fully enjoy the Italian culinary experience, but would also like to stay fit during their vacation in Rome?

At most Roman restaurants, the menu is filled with very healthy and tasty food options, such as “pollo alla diavola”, grilled fresh fish, and vegetable soups (anything with zuppaminestra or vellutata in the name will be fine!).

In general, my suggestion is to start every meal with a glass of water and some raw vegetables. Vegetables are filling low calorie foods which help to prevent you from overindulging in food and choosing abundant portions.

Of course, do not forget that exercise is the best way to stay fit without giving up on taste!

zuppa toscana

Tip #6

Order a zuppa toscana, a delicious soup of beans, cereals and vegetables that will leave you speechless! If you want to skip a restaurant meal, you’ll even find it in the supermarket!

A glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away: Myth or Truth?

It is true that wine can help digestion, but its benefits are only real if consumed as part of a balanced diet (such as the Mediterranean diet). In any case, the recommended dose of wine for men is a glass of wine (125 cc) during each meal, while for women, the dose is one glass per day, if there are no personal contraindications. Go for a smaller quantity but a higher quality of wine!

Warning: remember that wine should be categorically consumed only during meals.

local red wine

Tip #7

Wherever you are in Italy, ask for a local wine, instead of a well known Chianti. Traditional cuisine usually pairs well with the wines of the same region.

Red meat has been recently classified as carcinogenic for humans. What is your opinion on the matter?

It all depends on the quality of the meat. Italian meat is high-quality as, by law, farmers are not allowed to use hormones. For a balanced healthy diet, consumption of meat should be limited to 400 gr a week. It should also be noted that any food, if not cooked properly, can present health risks.

bresaola carpaccio

Tip #8

As a healthy, low calorie meat-based appetizer, choose Bresaola, an air-dried, salted beef, extremely tender and surprisingly lean, best if served with arugula and Parmesan cheese.

As a general rule, adapting to the rules of Mediterranean diet and following Italian healthy eating habits will help foreigners stay fit in Italy. Many expats confirm that they actually lost weight thanks to the new diet. Choose beans, cereals, vegetables, and fish over fried, processed and high-fat food.

And now, please, go ahead and enjoy that pizza you’ve been staring at!

Dr Evelina Flachi nutritionist
Dr Evelina Flachi, expert nutritionist

Still got doubts?

DoctorsinItaly Team

This article was written, curated, and updated by the DoctorsinItaly team, as part of our efforts to share relevant and current information on health and wellness related topics, as well as on life as an expat or traveler in Italy.