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Secrets to eating well in Italy

Vanessa Berberian

Alfresco dining between Piazza Farnese and Campo de' Fiori in Rome.

If you think that stepping foot into Italy means giving up any ambitions of eating healthy, think again. Sure, there's pizza and carb-heavy pasta around every corner, but the country's culinary scene offers so much more. With all the fish, beans, veggies and foods made with healthy types of flour, it's possible to eat like a king without turning into a giant. Nutritionist Lauren Antonucci, owner/director of Nutrition Energy NYC, walks us through what to order -- and what to avoid -- while traveling in this foodie paradise. 

Slideshow: See these and other tips about eating well

How to pick the best types of pasta

This category is the backbone of Italian cuisine, so you certainly don't want to avoid it altogether. But if healthy eating is your goal, you do want to avoid traditional white pasta when you can. Fortunately, you can choose from delicious alternatives. If you want to stick to pasta, Antonucci suggests opting for whole wheat, which has about 6 grams of fiber per cup, or fregola, which is made from semolina and water and has a slightly higher protein content than white pasta. 

Better yet, venture into the grain family and order farro. "It's an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, protein and fiber," says Antonucci. If you're a risotto fan, proceed with caution. Stock-based risotto isn't so bad, but when made with cream and cheese, one cup of the highly absorbent Arborio rice can contain up to 500 calories.

How to choose the best sauces

Authentic Italian restaurants don't overload dishes with sauce -- all the more reason to eat like a local. "The real Italian way is fresh food, light on the sauce and small portions," explains Antonucci. Still, it's wise to choose carefully.

Cream sauces are hotbeds of fat and cholesterol, so either enjoy in moderation or avoid altogether. Red sauces are a much better option, Antonucci says. The tomato base is a great source of lycopene, and red sauces are often packed with other healthy veggies, garlic and herbs. Added bonus: with a tomato-based sauce, you don't have to feel guilty sopping up the extra with fresh-baked Italian bread.

How to order the best wine & drinks

"Wine is always a great option," Antonucci says. "A 5-ounce glass of red wine contains 150 calories and even supplies you with powerful antioxidants," she explains. If you prefer white wine, you'll save about 30 calories per glass.

After dinner, Italians love their limoncello, a digestif made from lemons, simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) and vodka. It comes in such small servings that one small glass isn't going to destroy your diet.

How to order the best coffee

The good news: an Italian espresso contains almost no calories at all. Of course, the more milk and sugar you add, the more of an indulgence it is. To keep the calories in check, "shoot for nonfat or low-fat milk," suggests Antonucci, "and treat your milk as a sweetener."

And instead of ordering a latte or a cappuccino, opt for a macchiato, which is an espresso with just a dollop of foam on top.

How to pack the perfect picnic

It's nearly impossible to travel around Italy without coming across at least one farmer's market each day. The country may not have invented the outdoor food market, but it has certainly perfected it, with fresh produce, farm eggs and artisan cheeses, meats and breads. Planning to throw together a picnic lunch? Here's how to make smart food choices.

Look for homemade bruschetta toast topped with caponata or garden-fresh tomatoes and basil, suggests Antonucci. "Certainly choose some cheeses and meats," she says, "but add some fresh fruits and veggies, such as spinach, avocado, tomato, asparagus and roasted peppers." 

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