17 Ways to Eat Healthier in Italian Restaurants

eat healthier in Italian restaurants

Updated 10/19/18
Who doesn’t love Italian food! Huge plates of pasta, pizza, bread dipped in olive oil, chicken or veal breaded, fried and topped with cheese and of course, dessert. Whether you’re trying to watch your weight, blood sugar or cholesterol, Italian food can spell trouble. But with some planning, you can navigate Italian dining with minimal “damage” and still enjoy  your meal. Watch my video on Everyday Health to learn some tips and tricks to eat healthier in Italian restaurants. This video was on done for people with diabetes but my tips can be applied to everyone.

Potential problems with Italian food

  Carbs. This one isn’t a shocker … carbs, carbs and more carbs. Bread, pasta, pizza, lasagna, ravioli and rich Italian desserts. Not such a great choice for those people trying to watch their weight or carb intake, including people with diabetes, prediabetes or PCOS. And the portions tend to be jumbo sized!

 Too many calories from fat. Many chefs in Italian restaurants tend to be heavy handed with the olive oil. While it makes the food taste great , oil  can really pack in the calories. Think about it – your pasta, garlic and oil dish can easily have 2-3  tablespoons of oil (240 – 360 calories). Side of sautéed spinach – again, at least 2 tablespoons of oil (240 calories). Now watch the waiter dress your salad with vinegar … and more oil. While olive is heart healthy and won’t have effect on raising cholesterol or blood sugar, it can add quite a few calories! pic credit


Watch my video for Healthy Dining in Italian Restaurants from Everyday Health

Tips to eat healthier in Italian restaurants:


  1. Pass on the bread. No bread means no butter or olive oil. A typical piece of bread with added butter/oil can easily be 150 calories. Ideally ask to have the bread basket to be taken off the table. If it needs to be on the table for others, casually push it out of your reach. BTW – did you know there is an Italian rule that you aren’t supposed to dip your bread in olive oil? Read this link (same link as picture credit) oil and bread
  2. Beware of the appetizers. An order of tomatoes and mozzeralla (drizzled with oil) can pack in over 500 calories. And avoid the obvious (but oh so tasty!) appetizers that are fried – like calamari with marinara sauce. Avoid the antipasti as it’s usually full of fatty meats and cheese. Better choices include grilled calamari with a squeeze of lemon
  3. Avoid “fancy” salads loaded with cheese, such as Caesar. An average side Caesar salad can easily contain 600 calories. A better choice would be a mixed green salad with shaved parmesan cheese. Get dressing on the side and add ~ 1 -2 tablespoons. Or better yet, ask for lemon or vinegar and oil on the side, and add your own (go easy on the oil)
  4. Ask for vegetables steamed as Italian restaurants are known to be heavy handed with the olive oil. I love steamed spinach with lemon. If they won’t steam it for you, you can try to ask for sautéing or grilling with less oil (they may or may not listen!) As a last resort, choose a vegetable that tends to absorb less oil – like asparagus or a portabella mushroom. Spinach and eggplant absorb the most. pic credit 
  5. Ask for a half order of pasta. If the restaurant doesn’t have half orders, ask them to bring youonly half the order and have the rest wrapped up in a doggie bag. That way it’s not staring you in the face. A typical entree sized order of pasta can be 3-4 cups and can pack in approximately 900 calories.
  6. Choose whole wheat pasta if they have it.
  7. Try to split an order of pasta with a friend and get a side salad.
  8. Sometimes ordering ravioli is a better choice then getting a pasta for an entree as the portions tend to be smaller. Of course, this depends on the restaurant!
  9. Order wine by the glass. If your dining companion wants to split a bottle, ask for a glass instead. Splitting a bottle usually means ~ 300 calories+ (for 2 glasses)
  10. If you are in the mood for pizza, look for thin crust pizza with a whole wheat crust if possible (though not all places have this). Ask for extra veggies and less cheese. Add a side salad and eat less pizza than you normally would.
  11. salad and pizzaIf you are in the mood for pizza, look for thin crust pizza with a whole wheat crust if possible (though not all places have this). Ask for extra veggies and less cheese. Add a side salad and eat less pizza than you normally would.
  12. Best pasta sauces are tomato-based like marinara, pomodoro, arrabbiata or diavolo (all these are approximately 200 calories for the sauce). Avoid the alfredo, cream, a la vodka or pink sauces (contain 500+ for the sauce) Pesto and oil/garlic are heart healthy and won’t raise cholesterol, but tend to be high in calories if you are watching your weight (approximately 400 calories for the sauce). A tablespoon or two of parmesan cheese isn’t so bad – only about 40 calories per 2 tablespoons.
  13. Want to add protein to your pasta or pizza? Best choices are chicken (not fried) and seafood. Meat sauce is better than meatballs and sausage and pepperoni is the worst!
  14. Want to cut down on carbs and calories? Try seafood (my favorite is shrimp) or chicken in marinara sauce over steamed spinach instead of pasta.
  15. Don’t be afraid to ask for deviations from the menu. Ask for grilled or broiled shrimp instead of shrimp scampi. Grilled chicken instead of chicken francaise. Ask for a side of marinara sauce and dip
  16. Substitute a vegetable for the side of pasta
  17. If all else fails and there are no healthy options on the menu, your best bet is eat a small portion
  18. Skip the dessert or just order fruit. Or if you must – one bite of someone else’s dessert!


Does anyone else have any good tips for cutting back on calories, fat or carbs when dining in Italian restaurants?



I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.

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