Health Benefits of Italian Foods

Classic Italian cooking can be the key to good health with the right ingredients on hand.

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These essential Italian fruits are an amazing source of vitamin C and lycopene — an antioxidant that boosts heart health and also could give some protection against prostate cancer. Lycopene is even more available to your body when tomatoes are cooked and cooked and oil is added...a perfect excuse to make a batch of tomato sauce.

By Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D.

Get the Recipe: Turkey Meatballs with Quick And Spicy Tomato Sauce and Whole-Wheat Spaghetti

Olive Oil

Olive oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats — they help by lowering your "bad" LDL cholesterol, especially when used to replace saturated fat. Olive oil also has inflammation-soothing phytonutrients, but these can degrade when olive oil is exposed to light and air, or cooked over high heat. So buy olive oil in metal containers over glass (or just store in the cabinet) and use it over lower heats.

Red Wine

Red wine has phytonutrients, including resveratrol and anthocyanins, which are linked to heart health. To reap the benefits, though, moderation is key (1 glass a day for women, 2 for men). More than that can harm, rather than help, your health.


Pungent garlic is a staple of Italian cuisine, and one with a host of health benefits. It's linked to heart health and a reduced risk of certain cancers. Plus, it's thought to be an antifungal (and antibacterial) agent.


This traditional Italian grain is high in fiber, protein and iron. It has a chewy texture and nutty flavor, making it a tasty way to get whole grains into your diet.


With a silky texture and crunchy pop from the seeds, fresh figs are a decadent autumn treat, but they're healthy too. Just 2 figs give you 4 grams of fiber and almost 1/10 of your daily potassium dose.


This nightshade plant is packed with several phytonutrients that act as antioxidants — quelling damage from free radicals. It also has a toothsome texture that makes it a satisfying main-stage replacement for meat. Try our Food Network Kitchen's recipe for a light yet classic eggplant preparation.

Get the Recipe: Lightened Chicken and Eggplant Parmesan


Fish is an excellent lean protein that's also high in selenium and niacin. And oily fish, such as sardines, are high in heart- and brain-healthy omega-3s.


Ricotta is an excellent source of protein and also calcium — just 1/2 cup delivers 14 grams of protein and 25 percent of your daily calcium need. Although the calories in whole-milk ricotta can add up fast, choosing part-skim ricotta helps you slash some calories without sacrificing a lot of flavor. Try a few dollops on top of this thin-crust spinach pizza.

Get the Recipe: Healthy Spinach and Ricotta Pizza

White Beans

Italians often cook with white beans — Rachael Ray's take on Pasta e Fagioli is a classic example. White beans are loaded with fiber, protein and potassium, making them an excellent choice at lunch or dinner.

Get the Recipe: Pasta and Beans: Pasta e Fagioli

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens like escarole, broccoli rabe and spinach make frequent appearances in Italian meals, and that's a good thing — leafy greens are packed with vitamins, including folate and vitamins A, C and K. Plus, they add fiber to your meal (fiber keeps you full and promotes a healthy digestive tract).