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3 Healthy Food Lessons from Italy

Mark Huntsman
By Mark HuntsmanFebruary 18, 2015
3 Healthy Food Lessons From Italy

The Italian diet is comprised of meals that are satisfying and delicious, but that are also surprisingly different from the way we most often think of Italian food. Commonly referred to as the Mediterranean diet, it centers on foods that are rich in nutrients, promote brain health and help fight heart disease.

3 Healthy Food Lessons From Italy

The good news for seniors and caregivers: it’s possible to prepare delicious, heart-healthy Italian meals quickly and often quite simply. Learn more.

Balance, Not Breadsticks

When we in North America think about Italian food, we most likely picture heaping plates of pasta with meatballs and bottomless baskets of breadsticks than we do fresh fruits, olive oil and leafy greens.

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The sauces in our versions of Italian dishes are much heavier, too, often drowning the pasta instead of just enhancing its flavor. While Italians do eat favorites like white Alfredo sauce and red meat sauce, pasta is typically just one small course of a meal, and most pasta dishes are served in a light sauce with basil.

Of course, our version of Italian food makes up just one small part of a puzzle that’s led to more than 32% of American adults being obese — especially when compared with Italian adults, who only have an 8% obesity rate, and are far less likely to die from cancer and heart problems.

The Key Ingredient

The Italian diet brings nutritional health that can reduce obesity, but it also offers a path to preventing heart disease and related problems. Perhaps the two most notable differences concern breads and red meat. Italians, for example, frequently use whole grains rather than white in their breads, and they eat red meat in small amounts, sparingly.

But the Italians have eons of experience in creating rich and richly satisfying meals. The core ingredients of their diet include:

  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Olive oil
  • Whole grains (rather than white)
  • Small amounts of dairy (it’s more prevalent in northern Italy than in the south)
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Small amounts of red meat and eggs
  • Moderate amounts of red wine (most often consumed with meals)

From high-profile chefs to enthusiastic amateur cooks, people who switch to the Mediterranean style of eating say they love the way they feel and will never go back.

The solution, says chef Gino D’Acampo in “The Italian Diet,” is to create a healthy way of eating that can help you lose weight in the short term — about a pound a week, according to D’Acampo — and maintain a healthy weight over the long-term while simultaneously reducing your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Let’s take a look at three delicious recipes from the Italian diet that can help you improve your health.

Chicken Piccata with Pasta and Mushrooms


  • 6 ounces whole-wheat angel hair pasta
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, divided
  • 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 4 chicken cutlets, (3/4-1 pound total), trimmed
  • 3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 10-ounce package mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 2 teaspoons butter


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  2. Add pasta and cook until just tender, 4-6 minutes. Drain and rinse.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk 5 teaspoons of flour and broth in a small bowl until smooth. Place the remaining flour in a shallow dish.
  4. Season chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper and dredge both sides in the flour.
  5. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until browned and no longer pink in the middle, 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate; cover and keep warm.
  6. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they release their juices and begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
  7. Add garlic and wine to the pan and cook until reduced by half, 1-2 minutes. Stir in the reserved broth-flour mixture, lemon juice and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt.
  8. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes.
  9. Stir in parsley, capers, butter and the reserved mushrooms.
  10. Measure out 1/2 cup of the mushroom sauce.
  11. Toss the pasta in the pan with the remaining sauce. Serve the pasta topped with the chicken and the reserved sauce.

Learn more about this chicken piccata with pasta recipe.

Quick Pizza Margherita


  • 1 10-ounce can refrigerated pizza crust dough
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 garlic clove, halved
  • 5 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced (about 3/4 pound)
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Unroll crust dough onto a baking sheet coated with cooking spray; pat into a 13 x 11-inch rectangle. Bake at 400° for 8 minutes. Remove crust from oven, and brush with 1/2 teaspoon oil. Rub crust with cut sides of garlic.
  3. Arrange tomato slices on crust, leaving a 1/2-inch border; sprinkle evenly with cheese. Bake at 400° for 12 minutes or until cheese melts and crust is golden.
  4. Combine 1/2 teaspoon oil and vinegar, stirring with a whisk.
  5. Sprinkle pizza evenly with sliced basil, salt, and pepper. Drizzle the vinegar mixture evenly over the pizza. Cut pizza into 8 pieces.

Learn more about this pizza margherita recipe.

Spring Risotto


  • 6 cups boiling water, divided
  • 1 cup dried morels
  • 2 pounds unshelled fava beans
  • 5 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced leek (about 3 large)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup sliced green onions
  • 3/4 cup (3 ounces) finely grated fresh Romano cheese


  1. Combine 3 cups of boiling water and morels in a bowl; cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Drain mushrooms and rinse with cold water. Drain again and then chop.
  2. Remove beans from pods and discard pods. Place beans in a medium saucepan with remaining 3 cups boiling water and cook beans 1 minute. Rinse with cold water. Drain; remove outer skins from beans. Discard skins.
  3. Bring broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan (do not boil). Keep broth warm over low heat.
  4. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  5. Add leek and garlic; saute 2 minutes or until leek is tender.
  6. Add rice and tomato paste; cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
  7. Stir in wine, salt, and pepper; cook 1 1/2 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
  8. Stir in 1 cup broth; cook about 2 1/2 minutes or until the liquid is nearly absorbed, stirring constantly.
  9. Add remaining broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly until each portion of broth is absorbed before adding the next (about 20 minutes total).
  10. Stir in morels and beans; cook for 30 seconds or until thoroughly heated.
  11. Stir in green onions.
  12. Sprinkle each serving with cheese.

Learn more about this spring risotto recipe.

How do you incorporate Italian foods into your diet? Share your favorite recipes with us in the comments below.

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Mark Huntsman
Mark Huntsman

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