Healthy Food from Italy – 6 Health-Boosting Dishes
April 23, 2019
Healthy food from Italy!? There’s more to beautiful Italia’s cuisine than fast food pizza spin-offs… Here are the top 6 authentic dishes to try!
Italy. Just the word conjures up images of romantic winding roads, the scent of basil and oregano, and of course, one of the world’s greatest empires ever to have existed: Rome.
Whether it’s meatballs and parmesan, da Vinci, opera, or even Mario(!), we all have that special portrayal of one of the most influential cultures of the past and present.
Perhaps one of the most famous things about Italy is its cuisine, and today I would like to explore that with you. In this article we will cover some healthy food from Italy that should be welcomed into our diets!
For most, Italian food means pizza and pasta – which as we all know don’t exactly have a healthy reputation. However, the traditional and real food from every region in the country can be and is enjoyed healthily in many ways. I’d like to share 6 healthy meals that range from hearty to light and fun.
So pour yourself a complimentary Amarone, sit back, and become an Italian cuisine connoisseur. “Saluti”!
1. Chicken Minestrone
So, I thought it would only make sense to begin with one of the most historical dishes of Italy: minestrone. Thought to have originated in a time before that Romans, minestrone was originally made with leftover ingredients, vegetables, and stock.
There are many varieties of this soup-like dish, most often made with pasta or with rice and loaded with traditional herbs and vegetables.
Making it with meat results in a much heartier dish. Using chicken in this dish will result in higher proteins like glycine (which is great for connective tissue), vitamins such as B3 and B5 for metabolism, vitamins A and B6 for nervous system development and health, as well as vitamin D. Oh, and don’t forget the minerals: especially choline, iron, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
In most cases, minestrone will include celery, root vegetables such as onions and carrots, and herbs such as garlic and thyme. These are all brilliant for health and contain a wealth of vitamins and antioxidants.
Quick Tips on Choosing Healthy Carbohydrates
It is best – if using starches – to use rice instead of pasta. Different people will find different results, however, such as due to intolerances or activity levels. In general, rice may be healthier as a “cellular carbohydrate” and large amounts of pasta are undesirable, because pasta is refined into flour and becomes “acellular”.
Essentially, this difference is “whole food” vs “processed food”. Cellular carbohydrates are slower-digesting, as the cells haven’t been broken down as much, so we need to put in the work and time to break them down. Acellular carbohydrates spike blood sugar and insulin more rapidly, because the cells have been degraded and their energy-providing nutrients made readily available to us.
Even better, opt for a wholegrain variety rather than refined white rices – (check out dish number 4 for more info on why)!
One of the best ways to make minestrone is with stock. All natural stocks are extremely good for us, and especially so if using bone and meat. This will encourage the proper growth and building of soft tissue such as joints, ligaments, tendons, and skin. The benefits of this are more than plentiful.
Read: ‘How and Why to Drink Bone Broth – Benefits and Recipe!’
2. Caesar Salad
Our second healthy food from Italy is the classic Caesar Salad. Caesar salad, believe it or not, was not named after the famous Julius Caesar of Rome, and was originally named Aviator’s salad.
It is a simple mix romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, eggs, garlic, anchovies, and olive oil, often seasoned with lemon juice and black pepper.
P.S. In the Summer months, there’s not much of a better way to balance out a nice barbecue than this!
There Is Nothing Unhealthy about this Dish…
Whole food, whole food, whole food. That’s what makes a natural diet, and in turn a nutritious and healthy one!
Caesar salad is one healthy food from Italy that makes the most of each individual ingredient in this way.
- Lettuce is loaded with vitamins A (and zeaxanthin), K, and C, and contains good amounts of minerals – mostly manganese, magnesium, and iron.
- Parmesan is great for your bones, being very high in protein and calcium. These also support energy levels, tissue regeneration, muscle growth, metabolism, and more!
- Eggs are great for many reasons and benefit brain health, heart health, and the nervous system, and also contain a fair amount of protein.
- Garlic is a superfood that has been used medicinally for millennia. It contains active ingredients like allicin and sulphuric compounds, which are beneficial for gut health, illness prevention and treatment, and for tissue building. One of the reasons is so great for gut health is due to its fibre, which acts as a prebiotic to feed the beneficial (and indeed vital) probiotic bacteria in out guts!
- Anchovies contain generous amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and protein.
- Olive oil is another superfood found in this salad. It has demonstrated anti-cancer and anti-ageing properties, and its copious amounts of polyphenols act as potent anti-inflammatories. Check out my post on olive oil’s amazing benefits here (some may surprise you)!
The vitamin A content of this salad helps boost eye health too!
If you are lactose or dairy intolerant, then substituting the cheese and eggs with olives, nut cheeses (recipe by The Raw Chef), or tomatoes might be a good choice!
3. Caprese Salad
Caprese salad is one even simpler than the last, with only four main ingredients! It is not only easy to make, but it is wonderfully healthy.
It consists of sliced tomato, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil leaves, and plenty of olive oil (and an optional sprinkle of salt or pepper and pesto). That’s it. How easy is that?
- Tomatoes are well-known for their health benefits, mostly due to them being rich in vitamin C. However, they are also a good way to get more vitamin A and antioxidants such as lycopene into it or diets. Lycopene is known to act against hypertension and cancer, and to protect our bones and skin.
- Mozzarella – just like parmesan and other cheeses – is abundant in calcium and protein. It also contains iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium in fair amounts and is rich in most B vitamins particularly B2 and B12. This makes it great for our bones, and for the proper health and function of red blood cells.
- Basil has many kinds and is a traditional part of Ayurvedic medicine. Since ancient times in India and China, people have been using basil to relieve stress and pain. It also comes packed with antioxidants like gut-bacteria-feeding polyphenols, and is relatively rich in vitamin K1, which helps with forming blood clots. In Italy, you will find Sweet Basil as the common variety.
- Olive Oil… (Read ahead)
The Benefits of Olive Oil (The Mediterranean Gold)
I want to talk about Olive Oil in a little more depth here. Here’s an entire post about its amazing health benefits if you want to learn more!
In Italian cuisine it is an essential ingredient, and it’s no wonder… Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil in the world and the third largest consumer at approximately 11.3l per capita per year (lucky them)!
(Ahead of them come only Spain and Greece).
As I said above, olive oil has demonstrated anti-ageing and anti-cancer (including of bowel and breast) properties. This is due to it being loaded with antioxidants of many kinds and anti-carcinogens. Since it consists of monounsaturated fats, it benefits heart health by combating hypertension and also may help manage weight loss.
Its benefits are far too much to talk about here, but it really is no lie that olive oil can make you live longer! Check out our article on it to learn more.
In the 14th century, shortly after rice was introduced to Spain, the northern region of Italy known as Lombard started to cultivate rice. We believe it is from here that risotto origitnated.
This thick and creamy rice dish has changed very little over time, being made by cooking rice in broth until the desired texture is reached. The added extra ingredients can be of many varieties, including vegetables, mushrooms, fish, meat, and so on. For this reason, there are many types of risotto (just as there are minestrone).
About the Types of Rice…
Almost always, risotto is made with arborio rice – a small and starchy seed that is to accredit for the creamy texture of this dish.
When consumed in moderate portions it provides mostly carbohydrates, almost entirely as starch, with little fibre. You will also get a minor amount of protein, and small amounts of iron and vitamin C.
However, white arborio rice is refined. This means it lacks its outer layers (bran and husk), leaving just the starch store inside the rice grain. The process of removing these outer layers removes fibre, protein, and micronutrients and can increase the glycemic index of the rice (e.g. how fast and how much it spikes blood sugar, as compared to carb sources with more fibre and protein).
Many people will actually find that white rice is much easier on their digestive system, on the other hand. This makes sense considering the antinutrients found in the outer layers of any whole grain. However, it is still best to enjoy rice moderately, and try to eat it as part of a balanced meal, (and preferably around workouts to replenish glycogen and provide some energy).
Arborio Substitutes (for those with Lower Insulin Sensitivity, Following a Low-Carb Diet, or Who Are Sedentary):
Possible substitutes of lower glycemic index (which won’t spike blood sugar and insulin as much) include:
- Basmati rice – small difference;
- Pearl barley – small difference;
- Wholegrain / brown rice (soak or ferment it first*) – moderate difference;
- Quinoa (soak or ferment too*) – moderate difference;
- Cauliflower rice – big difference.
The last two may benefit digestion even more when properly prepared*, particularly if you do not already suffer from digestive distress such as IBS, and instead could benefit from the extra fibre. These options also provide you with more micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, too.
One note is that cauliflower is low in starches, unlike the rest of these substitutes. Because of this, making risotto with cauliflower rice may result in a thinner consistency. You can overcome this by slowly cooking and stewing the dish to let it evaporate and condense more, as well as by using a thicker broth like homemade bone broth (see below), and using healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil, full-fat butter, and lard, or even cracking one or two eggs in.
It is when we add healthy and wholesome ingredients such as seafood and vegetables that this dish really becomes healthy. The choices are practically endless. One of the best things you can do to boost the health of this dish is to prepare it using bone broth/stock.
In other words, risotto serves as an energy-dense and satisfying medium for your other nutritious ingredients. Some delicious ideas to try are chicken and mushroom risotto, risotto alle verdure (vegetable risotto) served with fried or poached eggs, risotto alla parmigiana (use A.O.P. Parmigiana Reggiano cheese), and risotto allo zafferano e pancetta (saffron and pancetta).
5. Trippa alla Romana (and Lampredotto)
Trippa Alla Romana “Tripe of Rome” comes in as the fifth healthy food from Italy on our list.
This one may not be immediately appetising for some, but hopefully I can show you why it should be. If you haven’t read my previous post about the benefits of organ meat (or offal), I highly suggest that you do, because trust me when I say they’re pretty awesome.
This hearty dish is often served with root vegetables and garlic and is cooked in olive oil, white wine, and water. This provides a strong boost of vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants. The cooking process eliminates the alcohol content of the wine.
Let’s talk about what tripe is before we get into the benefits. A once commonly consumed organ meat (or offal or variety meat), tripe is the lining of the stomach and is often acquired from cow or sheep.
Being an organ meat means that it benefits from ‘bioconcentration’ (the process of concentrating nutrients from or in a less nutrient-dense environment) and is therefore extremely nutritious.
This meat is lower in fat than others, and is a noteworthy source of protein, making it quite lean. The protein is useful for building tissue and muscle and for producing and regulating hormones.
Additionally, it contains the essential vitamin B12 in reasonable amounts. This B-vitamin is important for:
- Red blood cell function
- DNA and serotonin production
- Bone health and mineral density
- Lowering homocysteine levels – which in turn prevents and acts against hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attacks, heart disease, and stroke (it supports heart and brain health in many ways including ways which I have not mentioned here).
Tripe also provides us with selenium and zinc. Selenium is a potent antioxidant that is also used to manage thyroid function and the production of DNA, and zinc also has many benefits.
This dish really is healthy for us, as are organ meats in general. If you’re afraid to try them, there are certainly ways to overcome that.
Read: ‘Organ Meat Benefits – Exploring Our Ancient Nutrition’ to learn more.
You just need to try eating these foods yourself and connect with the foods we’re evolved to treasure. It is just like eating anything else, and certainly worth it for most of us.
6. Mussel Stew
Onto our final dish of this list, mussel stew.
Seafood is an integral part of the Mediterranean cuisine as a whole, and Italy is no exception.
Mussels are highly nutritious molluscs that provide high amounts of:
- B vitamins
- Vitamins A
- Vitamin C
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- …and other minerals.
This makes them extremely healthy and a fantastic way to reduce and prevent inflammation. In turn, they can help to maintain health, combat chronic conditions like arthritis, build muscle and other body tissues, support the immune system, boost brain health and heart health, control hormones, and a lot (lot) more.
Being high in protein means mussels can boost energy levels throughout the day. And for those of you that exercise, this is great for improving performance and speeding up recovery.
A 3-oz serving of muscles contains approximately 20g of protein, which is about 40% of the recommended daily value.
What Else Is in a Mussel Stew?
Now of course, mussel stew might not be so interesting without other ingredients, so let’s take a look at those.
A true Italian-styled mussel stew typically contains a good amount of one of my favourite herbs: garlic.
This “pungent” herb is considered a superfood and has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Furthermore, onion is often a key ingredient, which is high in vitamin C and has health benefits similar to those of garlic.
The sauce is often made with tomatoes, white wine, olive oil, or stock, (or a healthy mixture). If you want to give this dish a try in the kitchen, try my Italian Tomato Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes recipe for an easy, authentic way to get started.
This dish makes use of traditional Italian herbs to produce an amazing aroma and flavour. These include parsley, basil, and oregano. Each herb of course has its own benefits, but all of them contain plenty of antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and can protect against cancer.
Individually, parsley is a brilliant detoxifying herb, basil supports healthy digestion, and oregano has potent antibacterial properties.
Smart Decisions for a Smart Diet…
Traditionally, Italian food is rather quite healthy, and some of Italy’s most famous dishes (and those less common from regions throughout the country) may offer us multiple benefits.
That is reason enough to add them into our diets. The examples of healthy food from Italy covered here just go to show that!
Unfortunately, some of the stereotypical staples of the Italian cuisine such as refined pasta and pizza can be rather unhealthy.
Of course, having either or in small amounts (particularly using less-refined sourdough or whole grains, and WITHOUT vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, grapeseed, rapeseed, etc.) is okay for most people, provided that they incorporate part of a larger, varied, and nutrient-dense diet (i.e. having plenty of vegetables, fish, and meats (etc.), especially with these dishes).
Remember: Avoiding those with vegetable oils and/or high amounts of sugar is key.
Healthy Eating Is Fun; It’s an Adventure!
Having a healthy diet (and being healthy in general) is a process of learning and applying knowledge. It is not just a state of being. It should be fun, like our own individual adventure.
By no means should you have to cut out an entire ethnic cuisine to eat healthily, and in our ever-globalising world full of international influences, doing so would be impractical (and boring!).
There are many ways to enjoy the cuisines of any given culture in a healthy and practical manner. So, with your newfound knowledge, go out there and truly experience the Italian way for what it’s meant to be.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and I will revisit this topic with much more yet to be learned.
Please do tell me about your favourite experiences with this amazing cuisine. Have you ever been to Italy and have the chance to try the authentic, local – or even better, homemade – food? I would love to hear your stories below! 🙂
If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, drop them below, too, and I’ll always respond.
Until next time, stay healthy
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4 Replies to “Healthy Food from Italy – 6 Health-Boosting Dishes”
You hare now talking my language as I am half Italian, and have grown up with Italian food. I have eaten pasta, pizza, meat dishes and Italian desserts that will make your mouth water.
The six you have chosen are very interesting but I would say that they are not my favourite, but then it would not necessarily be healthy. As Italians eat a lot of saturated fats, then this may seem unhealthy but this is not so, Italiand=s eat a lot of fish, fruit, and vegetables which balances all the bad things that they eat. I think it is more the Italian lifestyle that is healthy and not only the food.
I totally agree with you! It is very important to eat a balanced diet, and it’s apparent that Italians certainly do.
I tried to include some dishes that are, of course, healthy, whilst can be experimented with to allow anyone trying to make healthier choices to adjust recipes to one’s own palate too.
Also, it is a common misconception that saturated fats are unhealthy. The truth is that they are vital and important components of health, and they shouldn’t be feared as they are. It is important to include variety in one’s diet, which means plenty of vegetables, healthy fruits, fish, and meat alike, and I appreciate the comment about the Italian lifestyle as a whole being healthy. Proper food and nutrition is just one of the corner pieces of health, but without it achieving good health simply isn’t possible.
Thanks for your comment 🙂
My husband’s birthday is coming up and I’m hiring some catering for his party, but I want some advice since he’s a health nut. I didn’t know risotto could help with your digestion and it’s really healthy when you add veggies and seafood. I’ll have to keep that in mind and find some catering that’s conscious of food preferences, thanks to this post!
I’m glad I could help, Sarah! Risotto can be made perfectly using whole, fresh ingredients, and with the vegetables and seafood you’ll be adding a lot of nutrients and other antioxidants. Remember you can be creative with some variety to cut back on the carbohydrates a little by using Brown basmati rice, or even quinoa for example! These may benefit digestion even more, and have a lower Glycemic Index (along with more nutrients).
I wish you and your husband a great day, best of wishes 🙂