Health Benefits of Italian Foods

Think beyond heavy, cheesy dishes and focus on these Italian foods that have essential health benefits.

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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 oil is added, which is the perfect excuse to make a batch of tomato sauce.


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

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 instead of 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 (one glass a day for women, two for men). More than that can harm, rather than help, your health.


Pungent garlic is a staple of Italian cuisine, and it has 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 two figs give you 4 grams of fiber and almost one-tenth 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.


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 half a cup of ricotta delivers 14 grams of protein and 25 percent of your daily calcium need. The calories in whole milk ricotta can add up fast, though, so choose part-skim ricotta to slash some calories without sacrificing a lot of flavor.

White Beans

Italians often cook with white beans — 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.

Leafy Greens

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