Healthiest Italian Foods To Add To Your Next Meal
If I had to pick only one culture to consistently eat from, day after day, it would be from Italy, hands down. There is so much variation and tradition with Italian food while meals have that air of color, elegance and feel of comfort food.
What also makes Italian food top-notch is that, in general, Italian cuisine is very healthy because it provides a preventive base for heart disease, inflammation, immune health and cancer.
Why is Italian food so healthy?
Much of what you find on an Italian’s plate is part of a Mediterranean diet, proven one of the healthiest in the world. Unfortunately even in Italy, food trends are changing. And like in many industrialized countries, real food and cooking traditions are replaced by faster convenience foods. You can fight change though, and with small adaption in your eating plan, put the good aspects of a Mediterranean Italian diet back on your next plate.
List of Italy’s healthy foods enjoyed without moderation.
Here are my seven top power health Italian foods and drinks. They are not in any ranking order (except #1 which I think should stay at #1), and I would recommend trying to incorporate these foods on the list as part of your regular diet. Red wine and coffee optional.
At the end of the article, I will give you tips on how to get the most healthy punch from this healthy food list so keep reading to the end.
This list is not exclusive. If I missed something or you want to add your own tips on healthiest Italian foods, please shout out your comment below.
Grazie mille e buon appetito!
- Garlic: called the ‘stinking rose’ because of its shape of cloves linked together and its smelly sulfur compounds. For its small size, garlic packs a lot of nutrition. It has high amounts of essential nutrition: minerals calcium and phosphorus, vitamins B1, B6 and C, amino acid tryptophan and these trace elements: copper, manganese, and selenium. It is an immune system booster and is a natural antibiotic because it fights against colds, and viruses. It is also a natural de-toxer: it helps the liver release toxins from the body, it thins the blood and helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Peppers: belong to the Capsicum annuum family. Included in the group are: peperoncini= (little big peppers), peperoncini verdi (green peppers) usually put in vinegar and stored in jars, peperoncini rossi (dried peppers and then made to a powder), peperoncini Verdi fritti (fried green peppers typical of Southern Italy), peperoncini rossi corti ripieni (red short filled pepper), peperoni (big peppers). Bell peppers are the mild members of Capsicum annuum because they don’t contain capsaicin (this is what gives peppers their heat). Foods in the Capsicum annuum family have powerful antioxidant properties and, in particular, peppers promotes eye health because these antioxidants help prevent macular degeneration. Peppers are also high in Vitamin C and help stimulate appetite, improve blood circulation and help indigestion.
- Red Wine: Italy is the number 1 producer of wine in the world (even surpassing France and Spain). Red wine is an even healthier option than white wine because red wine contains tannins from the pits and skins of the grapes which are full of polyphenols including proanthocyanidin, a strong antioxidant.
- Olive oil: Although Italy cannot claim to produce the most olive oil in the world they still do a large-scale production with producing about 25% of the world’s olive oil. Italians, like the Spanish and other Latin cultures like to throw, cook and drizzle olive oil into everything, from pasta on salads, to dip in bread, to sauté vegetables, meat and fish. Extra virgin olive oil has the most health benefits because it’s in its most raw state and high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil, especially when substituted for other fats, helps lower your bad cholesterol (called LDL-Low density lipoproteins) and lower your blood pressure. And as a big plus, olive oil has valuable antioxidant properties because it has polyphenol compounds and Vitamin E. So drink up!
- Coffee: Surprise! Strong Italian coffee is on my list for healthiest Italian foods. And this is not just because it tastes good and wakes you up. Truth is that real Italian coffee like espresso contains tannins and antioxidants while being healthy for the liver. Italians like to drink their caffe to jump-start the day and another strong and small espresso after the midday main meal. It helps with digestion and it does give that mental pickup that you need after a big meal. More recent research shows that coffee can help with lowering your blood sugar levels (thus lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes in the long run), dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and certain cancers. It also helps with increasing good bacteria in the digestive tract.
- Tomatoes: once thought poisonous and now sold as heirlooms! I can’t say enough about tomatoes just because I love the taste and freshness of these colored shapes that smell like the earth (when just picked). Tomatoes are a high source of the antioxidant lycopene which helps prevent certain types of cancers (in particular prostate cancer). Tomatoes help with preventing aggregation (clumping together) of platelets in the blood and are a rich source of vitamin C, A and E. They also contain flavonoids (which are natural anti-inflammatories), potassium and other mineral salts.
- Beans: also known as legumes or pulses, beans are a rich source of protein and fiber. Although beans are not a complete protein source containing all the amino acids the body needs, they can be substituted for meat and fish in the diet. Beans are rich in isoflavones, which help with bone and prostate health, prevent certain cancers, and reduce your risk of heart disease. Beans are also very heart healthy because they help with lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Beans, although hard to digest if not cooked enough, are on the flip side very beneficial towards your intestinal health.
Italian Healthiest Foods Tips: How to get these in your eating plan.
- To get maximum health benefits, garlic is best eaten daily or at least a few times a week. Keep the ‘stinking rose’ away from direct light and when ready to use, pull off a clove or two, peel the skin and use right away. Crush your garlic and put it in sauces, sliced thin and put on garlic bread, roasted whole in the oven. There are many uses for garlic and I highly recommended you do like the Italians and put garlic regularly in your foods because garlic is my top on the list for overall power healthy foods!
- Peppers come in many sizes and shapes. The bell peppers are sweet and mild and are palatable for even young children’s mouths. We cut up bell peppers for snacks, on salads, sauté them for sauces, add them to homemade pasta ragu. On a spicy side, use Italian chili peppers as a flavor enhancer in different dishes. The recipes don’t have from the Italian culture, there are other cultures that cook with chili peppers, but one easy recipe for a sauce I love is all’arrabiata made with garlic, tomatoes and red chili peppers. Arrabiata, translated as angry in English because of the heat from these chili peppers adds a hot spice to the dish. This is good food and so simple to make! Plus, it has many of these ingredients from the list in the recipe.
- Red wine naturally contains tannins because the skin of the grape is left on to ferment to make the wines. You don’t have to drink Italian red wine (but why not?, they are good!). But look for wines aged in oak barrels because these contain the highest antioxidant properties. If you don’t drink wine now, don’t start this habit for health reasons, alcohol should be drunk in moderation. You can also enjoy white wine in moderation and Italy has a good choice of white wines too. Drinking a glass of wine with a meal helps to slow the meal down, adding to enjoyment and feelings of satiety.
- Olive Oil is a best when used as extra virgin olive oil. So look for that mark on the label when buying. For a few dollars more, you can find a better quality olive oil that hasn’t been over processed. Keep your oil away from direct sunlight. Heating olive oil destroys some of its health benefits, so I would recommend eating some olive oil in its natural state on salads or vegetables. Experiment and do like the Italians-bring it on and don’t be shy!
- Like I said with buying olive oil, look for better quality coffee to buy. Buy the coffee beans whole and grind them before brewing to get the largest health benefits. If possible, avoid milk or cream in those afternoon espresso because this decreases the health benefits of coffee. Don’t hesitate to have a small cup of coffee after lunch, like the Italians do. It marks the end of the meal and the coffee helps for digestion.
- Tomatoes, “you call it a tomato, I call it a tomato.” (There is a song like that, no?). I don’t have enough room to talk about tomatoes and the health benefits of this wonderful fruit! Buy in season, grow them in your garden, can them in jars for the winter, and have stocks of store-bought canned (Italian) tomatoes on hand for a quick and easy pasta sauce.
- With the move to more ecologically sustainable lifestyles, beans are a good source of protein and add fiber to our diets. You can do like the Italians and make their famous soup called, Minestrone. No time to soak beans? Buy canned. Beans also make a great dip.
Getting your Mediterranean healthy Italian foods all in one meal
Here is an example you can try. Envision this for tomorrow evening….
- Check your shopping list: garlic, extra virgin olive oil, chili peppers, bell peppers, in season tomatoes (or canned tomatoes), coffee, canned white beans, spaghetti.
- Stop at the wine store for some red wine. Choose red wine that aged in barrels.
- Start to cook. Blend the beans to a purée with olive oil and one garlic clove and cut bell peppers in slices. Open the wine to let it breath.
- Serve the bean dip with the bell peppers and a glass of red wine.
- Make the spaghetti all’arrabiata (using tomatoes, chili peppers, garlic and olive oil) and serve another glass of wine. (Need a recipe? Here is Jamie Oliver’s Spaghetti all’arrabiata dish).
- Enjoy the time eating and drinking.
- Make an espresso to finish the meal.
That sounds simple, doesn’t it? One meal all packed up with the seven healthiest Italian foods and drinks. And to finish off the meal and this article, a picture of Italian caffe drunk in a bar in Italy.
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