8 Secrets to Eating Well in Italy

Daytime alfresco dining, between Piazza Farnese and Campo de' Fiori, Rome. Vanessa Berberian
By Beth Collins

If you think that stepping foot into Italy means giving up any ambitions of eating healthy, think again. Sure, there's pizza and carb-heavy pasta around every corner, but the country's culinary scene offers so much more. With all the fish, beans, veggies, and foods made with healthy types of flour, it's possible to eat like a king without turning into a giant. Nutritionist Lauren Antonucci walks us through what to order -- and what to avoid -- while traveling in this foodie paradise. Buon Appetito!

Photo Caption: Alfresco dining between Piazza Farnese and Campo de' Fiori in Rome
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Farro with chickpeas and mushrooms. travelingmcmahans
This category is the backbone of Italian cuisine, so you certainly don't want to avoid it altogether. But if healthy eating is your goal, you do want to avoid traditional white pasta when you can. Fortunately, you can choose from delicious alternatives. If you want to stick to pasta, Antonucci suggests opting for whole wheat, which has about 6 grams of fiber per cup, or fregola, which is made from semolina and water and has a slightly higher protein content than white pasta.

Better yet, venture into the grain family and order farro. "It's an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber," says Antonucci. If you're a risotto fan, proceed with caution. Stock-based risotto isn't so bad, but when made with cream and cheese, one cup of the highly absorbent Arborio rice can contain up to 500 calories.

Photo Caption: Farro with chickpeas and mushrooms
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Penne in tomato sauce served up at Pizzeria La Montecarlo on Vicolo Savelli, Rome. Vanessa Berberian
Authentic Italian restaurants don't overload dishes with sauce -- all the more reason to eat like a local. "The real Italian way is fresh food, light on the sauce, and small portions," explains Antonucci. Still, it's wise to choose carefully.

Cream sauces are hotbeds of fat and cholesterol, so either enjoy in moderation or avoid altogether. Red sauces are a much better option, Antonucci says. The tomato base is a great source of lycopene, and red sauces are often packed with other healthy veggies, garlic, and herbs. Added bonus: with a tomato-based sauce, you don't have to feel guilty sopping up the extra with fresh-baked Italian bread!

Photo Caption: Penne in tomato sauce served up at Pizzeria La Montecarlo on Vicolo Savelli, Rome
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Wine tasting in the Cantina Comunale of La Morra, Piedmont. Riccardo De Luca
"Wine is always a great option," Antonucci says. "A 5-ounce glass of red wine contains 150 calories and even supplies you with powerful antioxidants," she explains. If you prefer white wine, you'll save about 30 calories per glass.

After dinner, Italians love their Limoncello, a digestif made from lemons and simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water). It comes in such small servings that one small glass isn't going to destroy your diet.

Photo Caption: Wine tasting in the Cantina Comunale of La Morra, Piedmont
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Cantuccini, a type of almond biscotti that's said to originate from the Tuscan town of Prato. photolinda
With piles of colorful cookies on display, Italian pastry shops have a way of luring you inside even when you weren't craving something sweet. Luckily, Italian cookies tend to be on the small side, so eating one is relatively harmless. Even better, order biscotti, says Antonucci. The traditional version is small (about 1½ inches long) and isn't made with any butter or oil. Each one is only about 50 calories, making it a great option for the health-conscious eater.

Practice more restraint when it comes to cannoli. With a deep-fried shell and sweet, creamy filling made from ricotta or mascarpone, each treat is about 250 calories and 5 grams of fat.

But isn't part of the joy of traveling about experiencing the country's traditional food? "While it's best to avoid fried foods as much as possible, go ahead and try one -- or share one -- just to experience this traditional food of Italy," Antonucci says.

Photo Caption: Cantuccini, a type of almond biscotti that's said to originate from the Tuscan town of Prato
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Gelato in Naples. Raffaele Capasso
Visit Italy, and skip the gelato? Not a chance. Fortunately, the creamy treat happens to be a better option than traditional ice cream. "Gelato is made with whole milk instead of cream or butter, so it contains about 70% less fat than premium ice cream," says Antonucci. Even better, go for sorbetto. They contain only fruit, water, and sugar, so they're fat-free and only 100 calories per serving.

Photo Caption: Gelato in Naples
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Freshly made Zabaglione, a custard-based dessert. fabcom
Italian cookies, biscotti, and gelato may be within reason for health-conscious eaters, but the desserts you'll find on restaurant menus tend to be much bigger indulgences. Take tiramisu, the end-all-be-all of Italian desserts. "Each piece can contain up to 600 calories and 45 grams of fat," says Antonucci.

Panna cotta isn't much better. Made with milk, cream, gelatin, vanilla, and sugar, it has 400 calories, 36 grams of fat, and 120 grams of cholesterol per 6-ounce ramekin. And that innocent-looking fruit tart, the Torta della Nonna? Guilt-inducing, with 365 calories and 17 grams of fat.

"These are definitely share-around-the-table items!" says Antonucci. Alternately, order the Zabaglione, a custard-based dessert made with an emulsion of eggs, sugar, and wine. With 100 calories and 4 grams of fat per serving, you don't have to share unless you want to.

Photo Caption: Freshly made Zabaglione, a custard-based dessert
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Macchiato and a newspaper in Bolzano, northern Italy. Jon Shave
The good news: an Italian espresso contains almost no calories at all. Of course, the more milk and sugar you add, the more of an indulgence it is. To keep the calories in check, "shoot for nonfat or low-fat milk," suggests Antonucci, "and treat your milk as a sweetener."

And instead of ordering a latte or a cappuccino, opt for a macchiato, which is an espresso with just a dollop of foam on top.

Photo Caption: Macchiato in Bolzano, northern Italy
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Tuscan picnic, Montepulciano. Pete the painter
It's nearly impossible to travel around Italy without coming across at least one farmer's market each day. The country may not have invented the outdoor food market, but it has certainly perfected it, with fresh produce, farm eggs, and artisan cheeses, meats, and breads. Planning to throw together a picnic lunch? Here's how to make smart food choices.

Look for homemade bruschetta toast topped with caponata or garden-fresh tomatoes and basil, suggests Antonucci. "Certainly choose some cheeses and meats," she says, "but add some fresh fruits and veggies, such as spinach, avocado, tomato, asparagus, and roasted peppers."

For dessert, keep your eye out for chocolate-covered fresh local nuts.
Photo Caption: A Tuscan picnic in Montepulciano
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