The dieter's guide to eating Italian

You always know you are close to an Italian restaurant even before you can see it. The smell is a mixture of garlic, basil, oregano, fresh bread, olive oil and melting cheese. This heady combination is enough to make mince meat (preferably Bolognese style) of even the strongest will power.

Italian food is a favourite for many. While the Mediterranean diet enjoyed in Italy is packed full with fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, cereals and olive oil, which will benefit your health, there are clearly some aspects of the Italian way of eating that would dent your weight loss aspirations. Rather than avoiding your local Italian for the duration of your diet, we have some tips and advice on eating out Italian style so that you can still enjoy ‘La Dolce Vita’.

Courses

A true Italian restaurant will offer an antipasto, possibly a salad dish, a pasta dish, then a meat or fish dish, then cheese and dessert. You don’t have to eat all of them. Decide on two courses - antipasto and pasta, antipasto and a meat or fish course, or pasta then meat or fish.

The bread basket

Most Italian restaurants automatically place a bread basket on the table before your meal arrives. If you are starving, the temptation is to keep on munching away until your first course is served. White bread rolls will give you around 117 calories each, but if the selection is fairly luxurious and includes ciabatta or focaccia, you could be adding significant amounts of calories and fat to your meal without realising.

We looked at several types of focaccia from a selection of supermarkets and found that the average amount of calories per piece (around 75 grams) was 220 and it contained around 10 grams of fat. That’s before you even start your meal! When you are eating your main course, garlic bread on the side will vastly increase your fat intake and remember that even a thin scraping of fat contains around 45 calories, never mind bread that is oozing with melted butter.

Starters

When you begin your Italian meal the temptations are plenty – cheese smothered crostini, deep fried mozzerella or deep fried seafood, parma ham or salami antipasti. That said there are plenty of healthy alternatives to choose from - marinated calamari, marinated or baked mushrooms and vegetables, steamed or baked shellfish and minestrone, vegetable or lentil soups.

The calories and fat for these dishes will vary enormously according to the portion sizes and the way these dishes are cooked. The best thing to do is ask if you are unsure and don’t be afraid to order one starter between two. The seafood dishes, especially, can be quite substantial.

There may be also a bowl of olives on the table to munch on. Enjoy a few olives before your meal but don't over-indulge. If you are having salad, be careful to ask for the dressing or oil and vinegar to be served separately or your efforts to choose healthily could be wasted. Caesar salad or other salads with bacon, parmesan cheese or deep-fried croutons should also be avoided if you are watching your weight.

Pasta

There is a basic rule when ordering a pasta dish if you are watching your weight – choose a sauce that is tomato based. Examples are Arrabiata, Pomodoro or Marinara sauces. The ‘no-nos’ are creamy or cheese-based sauces such as Carbonara, cheese tortellini or ravioli and sauces that contain salami or cured meats such as Parma ham and proscuitto. You also have to be careful with Bolognese type dishes that can be very fatty, depending on how they are cooked.

Lasagne is probably the worst culprit containing both meat and cheese sauce. Again, the danger with Italian meals is that they are served in enormous portions. You can share this course with your dining partner or leave some of it on your plate. If you know the restaurant well and are aware of the gigantic portion sizes before you start, the best (and most economical!) option may be just to have a pasta course.

Pizza

Pizza is often considered to be an unhealthy junk food option but in reality it can be extremely healthy if you choose wisely. The pizza base is essentially just bread so it’s not high in calories. That said, choosing a thick crust pizza base can add a lot of unnecessary calories to your meal. It’s better to opt for a thin crust pizza to keep your calories down, given the fact that the obligatory cheese topping can be pretty heavy.

Go for vegetable toppings like spinach, onions, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and herbs where possible to really boost your vitamin intake for the day. Other healthy choices include seafood or chicken. Choosing something like pepperoni adds as much as 27 calories and 2.5 grams of fat per slice.

Meat or fish course

This course is often a safe-ish option if you are eating Italian since meat or fish means precisely that – you are unlikely to get a plate full of extras, like chips or fatty salads etc. What you need to be careful of however, is how the meat or fish is cooked. It’s likely to be fried and if you are really unlucky, it could be served with the cooking oil. A fillet of veal may be a low calorie option, but not when served in a pool of olive oil. Ask for your meat of fish to be grilled if possible.

Cheese

If you want to finish your meal with a portion of cheese, it’s best to share it. An ounce (28 grams) of fontina will provide you with 110 calories and 9 grams of fat, something like gorgonzola will set you back around 90 calories and 7.5 grams of fat per ounce. An ounce is usually the size of an individual portion pack of cheese so we are not talking about an awful lot here and that’s without the bread or crackers.

Dessert

You know the culprits – Tiramisu, baked cheesecake and creamy ice cream. Of course, you don’t have to have these fatty options. If they don’t have it on the menu there is a very good chance that the waiter will bring you some fresh fruit on request. Or enjoy a refreshing fruit sorbet instead.

Drinks

Limit yourself to one glass of wine, enjoy sparkling mineral water with lemon instead. Choose red wine over white and add some heart healthy antioxidants to your meal.

Italian food offers a wealth of flavour and variety that has the potential to improve any diet. Choose wisely and there is no reason to say ciao to Italian eating or your diet. Buon appetito!

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Thanks to tescodiets.com who have provided this article.