Your body uses carbohydrates as its main fuel source. Sugars and starches are broken down into simple sugars during digestion. They’re then absorbed into your bloodstream, where they’re also known as blood sugar (glucose). From there, the glucose enters your body’s cells with the help of insulin. Some of this glucose is used by your body for energy, fueling all of your activities, whether it’s going for a jog or simply breathing. Extra glucose is stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for later use or is converted to fat.
The theory behind the low-carb diet is that insulin prevents fat from breaking down in the body by allowing sugar to be used for energy. Proponents of the low-carb diet believe that decreasing carbs results in lower insulin levels, which causes the body to burn stored fat for energy and ultimately helps you shed excess weight and reduce risk factors for a variety of health conditions. A low-carb diet limits carbohydrates — such as grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — and emphasizes dietary protein and fat. Many types of low-carb diets exist, each with varying restrictions on the types and amounts of carbohydrates you can eat.
When most people think of Italian food, their minds immediately leap to dishes which are overwhelmingly carbohydrate –- pasta, pizza and bread. But lots of Italian dishes are great choices for people who must watch their carbs or who are just looking for a lighter dinner option. Finding them is easier if you start to “think like an Italian”.
Low-Carb Italian Eating – Dos and Don’t
Italians are known for shopping daily for the freshest and choicest produce, seafood and meats, often with a fairly simple preparation, so as not to hide the wonderful fresh flavors. So cook with lots of healthy fresh ingredients.
Use olive oil. This type of fat, as well as the antioxidants in olive oil, are part of the reasons for the healthfulness of the “Mediterranean Diet.”
Italians eat their main meal slowly over several small courses.
Minimize the following which are high in carbs: pasta, bread, risotto, polenta, bruschetta, crostini.
Be aware that fried items, such as a calamari appetizer, will usually be breaded.
In Italian, “pasto” means “meal,” and “antipasti” or “antipasto” is “before the meal.”
Antipasti are usually made with meats, seafood and vegetables, such as salami, cheeses and marinated vegetables, such as artichokes and peppers.
Gamberoni (shrimp) is a common antipasto dish, either cold or hot, often sautéed with garlic and wine.
Grilled, roasted or marinated vegetables.
Steamed clams or mussels
In Italy, soups are often served instead of pasta. Many Italian soups are low in carbs, even the soups with beans or pasta in them often only have small amounts of these per portion. Since there are so many different soups, the exact carb count depends on the cook, but generally you’ll want to go with thinner soups. Seafood soups are a good choice and another good choice is Stracciatelle, an Italian egg drop soup. Also, look for soups with lots of vegetables.
Salads are almost always a good bet, if you avoid croutons or other bread. An Italian salad could contain many fresh vegetables –- and, of course, olive oil. The classic caprese salad has mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.
Meats and Seafood – Secondi
This course is the main concern for someone eating low carb. Most of the meats and seafood on an Italian menu have little starch or sugar. Avoid breaded meats, such as chicken or veal parmesan or milanese.
True Italian tomato sauces have little or no sugar, although many pasta sauces in the United States are loaded with added sugar. Read the labels on the jars or make your own.
In Italy, meals often end with fresh fruit..Needless to say, rich desserts are high in carbohydrates.
There are many low-carb alternatives to pasta. Many vegetables are bland enough to use as a “blank canvas” for pasta sauces and most of them are far more nutritious than pasta ever thought of being. Take the classic, spaghetti squash. Cup for cup, it has fewer than 25% of the calories and carbs of regular spaghetti (even whole wheat). It’s delicious with pesto and other pasta sauces.
Veggies that serve as good “beds” for pasta sauces:
Zucchini or other summer squash, shredded, julienned or just cut into ribbons with a peeler.
Cabbage – shredded and sautéed with sliced onion.
Use your imagination – many vegetables have compatible flavors with sauces, for example, green beans with pesto sauce or eggplant strips with marinara.
Low Carb Antipasto
Asparagus Rolls with Prosciutto and Basil Ricotta Cheese
- 1/2 cup whole basil leaves
- 1/2 cup lowfat ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 pound medium asparagus spears, about 16 pieces
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 8 slices thinly sliced prosciutto
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Trim two inches from ends of asparagus. Have a medium size bowl of ice water ready for chilling basil and asparagus. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil with salt. Add basil leaves to water and blanch until leaves brighten, about 20 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon and plunge into ice water. Remove and squeeze out excess water. Add asparagus to boiling water and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until ends are soft when pinched. Remove from water and chill in ice water to stop cooking.
Place blanched basil leaves into blender or food processor. Add ricotta cheese, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Lay out slices of prosciutto on a cutting board. Place dollop of ricotta mixture on one end of the prosciutto slice. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Arrange two asparagus spears at the edge of each prosciutto slice and begin rolling around the asparagus until the end of the prosciutto is reached. Arrange on platter and serve.
Italian Vegetable Soup
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 large stalks celery, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, pressed
- 1 medium red bell pepper
- 1 cup chopped carrot or squash
- 1 heaping tablespoon sweet paprika
- 3 teaspoons turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- Hot sauce, to taste
- 1 15 oz can tomatoes, chopped
- 1 and 1/2 cups swiss chard or spinach or other dark leafy green – cut into thin strips
- 10 oz frozen green beans (or fresh)
- Salt and pepper
- 5 cups low salt stock or broth
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
1. In a large soup pot, put oil, onion, and celery. Cook on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes until vegetables are softened.
2. Add garlic and turn up the heat to medium. Cook for a minute or so and add the peppers and carrots. Cook another minute or two and add the spices. Stir and cook until fragrant — another minute or so.
3. Add tomatoes and stock, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add frozen beans and chard and simmer for another 5 minutes or until the beans are cooked.
4. Adjust seasonings.
Low Carb Second Courses
Italian Grilled Chicken
- 6 boneless chicken breasts halves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese
To grill: Preheat grill. Skin chicken breasts and rub with black pepper to taste.
Blend basil, olive oil, butter, garlic and parmesan cheese using an electric blender or processor at low speed until smooth.
Baste chicken lightly with mixture.
Grill over medium coals basting during cooking time with more basil sauce.
During this time add the rosemary branches to coals for added smoke flavor.
Grill 10 minutes on each side or until chicken is done when the temperature reads 160°F. on a meat thermometer.
Garnish with fresh basil and serve with Zucchini Lasagna, recipe below.
Low-Carb Zucchini Lasagna
This low-carb lasagna uses zucchini “noodles” instead of pasta noodles. The trick to making this work is to take some of the water out of the zucchini first by salting the “noodles”. Then they firm up and are more noodle-like, instead of mushy. This recipe can be made with or without meat.
- 1 1/2 pounds of zucchini
- salt – enough to lightly salt the zucchini – between 1/4 and 1/2 teaspoon
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb whole milk ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil or 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 cups jarred pasta sauce (any variety with no added sugars) or homemade
- 8 oz mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
1. Slice the zucchini into strips, lengthwise. The strips should be about 1/8 inch thick.
2. Put the zucchini strips into a colander and sprinkle the salt on them. Toss to coat. Put the colander over a bowl to catch the juice. After 10-15 minutes, toss the strips again so that the brine will more-or-less evenly coat the strips. Drain for an hour.
3. While the zucchini is draining, cook the meat. Then, combine the ricotta, eggs, and basil or parsley.
4. Spread the zucchini strips on paper toweling or a cotton tea towel to take away most of the surface liquid.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
1. Put 1/2 cup of the pasta sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan, and combine the meat with the rest of the sauce.
2. Begin layering by covering the sauce with a layer of zucchini. Then cover the zucchini with about one third of the ricotta mixture, one third of the sauce and one third of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat, only arrange the zucchini strips in the other direction, e.g. if in the first layer the strips are lined up along the length of the pan, for the next layer line them up across the width of the pan. Alternate again for the third layer. After the third layer, finish with the Parmesan cheese.
3. Bake until the cheese is golden brown, about 30 minutes. (Note, if you refrigerate the lasagna before baking, cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes covered, then remove the foil and cook an additional 30 minutes, or until cheese is golden brown.)
Makes 8 Servings.
Meatballs and Eggplant with Fresh Mozzarella
- 1 large eggplant
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 pound 96% Lean Ground Sirloin
- 1/3 cup minced onion
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 2 tablespoons Parmesan
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup almond flour (ground almonds)
- 1 (14-ounce) jar tomato sauce or homemade marinara sauce
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella
- Fresh basil, chopped, for garnish
Heat oven to 375°F. Peel eggplant and slice it into 12 circles. Sprinkle evenly with salt. Place eggplant in colander in the sink for 15 minutes.
While eggplant drains, mix ground sirloin in a large bowl with onion, garlic, dried oregano, dried basil, Parmesan, egg and almond flour. Mix thoroughly and shape into 12 meatballs.
Slice mozzarella into 12 thin pieces.
Rinse eggplant well with cold water. Squeeze dry by pressing down on eggplant in the colander and spread on kitchen towels to dry. Place eggplant into a 9×9-inch square baking pan and spread with 1/3 cup tomato sauce. Place meatballs on top of eggplant slices and pour remaining sauce over all. Top each meatball with slice of mozzarella. Bake in the oven 25 minutes.
Remove from oven, garnish with fresh basil and serve immediately. Serve with Italian Marinated Vegetable Salad, recipe below.
Italian Marinated Vegetable Salad
Serves: 12 servings
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 pound broccoli rabe, trimmed
- 1 cup small cauliflower florets
- 8 ounces button mushrooms (cut in half if too large)
- 1 cup half-moon-sliced zucchini
- 1 cup half-moon-sliced yellow squash
- 1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips
- 1/2 cup marinated, quartered artichoke hearts
- 1/2 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 tablespoon thinly-sliced fresh basil leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges, for garnish
Equipment: 1 large stock pot with submersible pasta basket
Make the Vegetables: Fill the stock pot with water and bring to a boil. Stir in the lemon juice and salt. Fill the pasta basket with the broccoli rabe, cauliflower, mushrooms, zucchini and squash. Submerge in the boiling water and cook, covered for 2 minutes. Remove the basket and refresh the vegetables under cold running water. Drain well.
Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and mix with the pepper strips, artichokes and olives.
In a blender, combine the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper. Mix on medium until completely blended. While the motor is running, slowly pour in the oils in a steady stream to make a smooth dressing.
Pour the dressing over the vegetables. Add the basil and toss well. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Arrange on a decorative platter garnished with fresh basil and lemon wedges.
- Living Low-Carb (everydayhealth.com)
- Fitness And Low Carb Diets: An Unhealthy Solution (three60fitness.ca)
- Low Carb Chili for a snowy April day! (thetalkingscale.typepad.com)
- Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s Kids Eat Low-Carb (lorensworld.com)
- How Can One Possibly Eat Very-Low-Carb For Life? (diabeticmediterraneandiet.com)