I've just got back from a 10 day vacation in new York where I spent a fair amount of time with my Italian in laws, and you know what that means... meatballs, pizza, and pasta. Three words that will either excite you or completely terrify you. Personally they get me excited, but then an hour or so after inhaling numerous servings of ridiculously large portions, I want to write my last will and testament and hang myself. You see Mom number 2 is an incredible cook and although I may be the Healthy Boy, when it comes to her meals, all bets are off. I dive in because I know I'm not going to be able to have such great comfort food for a long time and when I'm on vacation, I'm on vacation. There are some people however when trying to lose weight or embarking on a healthy eating plan, simply avoid Italian food altogether, but eating it doesn't mean you need to commit carb-icide or lay on the couch in a complete food coma for hours as your dreams of fitting into those skinny jeans this summer get dashed. You can incorporate Italian food into your healthy lifestyle without seeing your waistline expand, all you just need to know is a few little rules of thumb. So lets check em out.
Garlic Bread, Garlic Knots and Breadsticks
You may think those little knots you get at the pizzeria wouldn't be so bad for your diet but they are. These deceptive critters while small in size, are smothered in butter and oil and have around 90 - 100 calories per knot. A few of those and you have already had 300 calories before you meal has already begun. Avoid any bread before a meal altogether.
An excellent source for an appetizer. Just avoid any of that nasty processed salami which is full of fat, and opt for feta cheese which traditionally has less fat that other hard cheeses. Other good appetizer choices include a house salad and minestrone soup.
Not a good choice for an appetizer. These are dipped in fatty egg yolks, rolled in white bread crumbs and then fried turning them into an 800 calorie appetizer that will leave you rolling out of the restaurant without even touching the second course.
Some low calorie iceberg lettuce with a sprinkling of cheese isn't so bad is it? Well it wouldn't be if that's all that were in your Caesar salad. They also load it with dense white flour croutons that have been covered in oil and cooked, as well as a creamy and fattening Caesar dressing. In fact Caesar dressing is one of the worst salad dressing out there, and just one of these little salads could be setting you back anywhere from 200 - 600 calories.
I have previously devoted a whole post to pizza ( click here to read it and to find a great whole wheat pizza recipe) because of the large variety of slices and pies available. Firstly you need to know that each slice contains approximately anywhere from 300 - 350 calories. Some are a lot worse than others
- Avoid any pizza with meat toppings such as pepperoni and sausage. They are both high fat sources of meat (not to mention the unhealthiest with all the nitrates pumped into them because they are processed)
- Ask for part skim cheese. It can save you up to 50 calories per slice and a few grams a fat and you wont even taste the difference.
- Some people choose white pizzas because they have less calories than pizzas with a red based sauce. Not really. The calories come predominately from the cheese so get a pie with a marinara sauce (which gives you a healthy dose of lycopene for healthy skin) and ask for less or no cheese.
- Avoid thick crust pizzas like Chicago deep dish, which can have up to twice the amount of calories than thin crust pizza.
Eggplant Parmesan or Chicken Parmesan
My better half makes an eggplant parm that is better than sex. Seriously. Usually when we cook it however we bake it rather than fry it, and use egg whites rather than yolks, as well as whole wheat breadcrumbs and no fat ricotta and mozzarella. If you are making this at home, try it that way. It tastes just as good but without all the excess calories. If you are eating out at a restaurant though, you had better avoid these two dishes at all costs. The frying coupled with the egg yolks and full fat cheeses make these an artery clogging meal that can exceed anywhere from 1000 - 1500 calories.
There are so many varieties of pastas available, with so may different sauce options it can get a little overwhelming and confusing. A rule of thumb is to avoid the high fat and cream based pastas such as Alfredo or Cabonara, and instead opt for tomato or marinara sauce dishes. The Fettuccine Alfredo from Olive garden will set you back 12200 calories in one sitting, while the Cheese Ravioli in meat sauce will only cost you 660 calories. Marinara doesn't always mean healthy mind you, restaurants can throw high fat meat and lots of oil into the sauce, so make sure you ask them how it is prepared and ask for sauces sans meat if available.
When it comes to entrees, you also need to be mindful of the sauces used and how the meal was prepared. The Chicken and Shrimp Cabonara from Olive Garden is a whopping 1440 calories, which is close to a full day's worth of calories for someone on a fat loss diet, but the Chicken Marsala is only 770 and the Herb Grilled Salmon is only 510 calories.
Avoid any meal with this word in it. It basically means that it has been fried. Fried equals fat. Fat equals muffin top. Muffin top equals locking yourself indoors all summer with no friends feeling sorry for yourself...well that may be a little extreme but you get the point. Instead ask for meals that have been grilled or baked and you will be saving hundreds or calories
Surprisingly, a slice of Tiramisu wont set you back all that many calories in comparison to other desserts on an Italian menu. They are normally around 300 - 400 calories and if you are sharing it with that tall dark and handsome sitting across from you, it's barely nothing. Once small to regular size cannoli will set you back around 250 calories, and one scoop of gelato is roughly the same. Simply watch your portion sizes and don't go over board and you can enjoy something sweet without feeling too guilty.
There are a few other tips you can keep in mind to avoid eating excess calories and signing up for Weight Watchers that can be used when eating out at any restaurant, not just Italian.
1. Watch your portion sizes: If you are one of those people who likes to feel full and eat large amounts of food (that's me) order a salad with your meal or vegetables as a side rather than fries or potatoes.
2. Send away the bread basket. When your server comes toward you with that warm, welcoming basket of wheaty goodness, simply tell him or her that you do not want any bread. You have just saved yourself 80 - 200 calories before the meal has even begun.
3. Drink water rather than soda and you will also save yourself 100 - 200 calories.
4. Eat slowly. They say it takes 20 minds for your stomach to send signals to your brain to say it is full. So eat slowly and enjoy every bite and you will avoid overindulging.
5. If you do overindulge and go crazy, don't beat yourself up about it, consider this to be your "cheat meal" and get straight back to your healthy eating and exercise plan the following day.
So although you may be watching what you eat, you don't need to cover your eyes every time you walk past your local italian restaurant, and no need to avoid the pasta isle at the grocery store altogether. You can still eat amazing, warm comforting italian food and not get fat, you just need to know what to order and know how it was prepared if you didn't make it yourself. At the end of the day, if you are eating healthy 90% of the time, then you are doing better than most people and shouldn't beat yourself up if you find yourself face down in a bowl of fettuccine alfredo from time to time. And if you are lucky enough to have incredibly giving and welcoming Italian in-laws with a warm and generous Italian Ma like I do, then you will most likely not only be face down in a big bowl of pasta, but you will be going back for seconds with a big smile on your face as you do.