Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 25, 2020
Worst: Deep Dish Meat-Lover's Pizza
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That deep dish means a thicker crust with more carbohydrates. Those "carbs" are the type of calories that enter your bloodstream more quickly than other energy sources, like protein or fat. Add sausage, meat, and cheese, and you get a calorie bomb with enough fat to help clog your arteries over time, and enough carbs to spike your blood sugar. That's not an ideal combo for good health.
Best: Thin Crust Pizza With Veggies
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A thinner crust has fewer calories and carbs. And if it's whole wheat, it takes longer to digest, so your blood sugar is less likely to spike. Top it with vegetables and tomato sauce with no added sugar. To keep the fat down, take it easy on the cheese. If you decide to add meat, look for lean protein like skinless chicken or turkey.
Worst: Stuffed Shells
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It's got three different kinds of fat-filled cheese, and giant shells of pasta for plenty of carbs. That's not a great start. If you want to treat yourself, look for low-fat ricotta cheese for the main filling, and likewise for the mozzarella and parmesan. After that, it's all about the portions. Drink plenty of water, and eat it with a generous serving of green salad so you don't overdo it.
Best: Stuffed Peppers
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Instead of stuffing carb-rich pasta shells with fat-loaded cheeses of different stripes, why not fill a delicious, low-carb, low-calorie bell pepper with whole-grain rice, tomatoes, and lean protein like ground turkey. That way, you can scratch the same itch with far fewer carbs and calories and less fat.
Worst: Spaghetti Carbonara
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This recipe starts with a pile of carb-rich pasta. Then, you add four egg yolks, a cup of cheese, olive oil, and, if that's not enough calories and fat, half a pound of bacon. Some cooks even add a bit of cream for good measure! The result -- no surprise -- is delicious. It's OK as a treat, but the best way to make a healthy version of this dish is to eat something else.
Best: Spaghetti Marinara
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If you're craving pasta, this is a pretty healthy choice. Start with whole wheat spaghetti, and add a touch of olive oil to the marinara sauce. It's OK because it helps your body absorb an important tomato nutrient (lycopene) that protects your cells. Just don't overdo the fat and watch the sugar content of your sauce. Those can pile on extra calories. Lean grilled chicken breast is a great way to add some protein if you want it.
Worst: Parmesan Risotto
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The traditional way to make this Italian rice dish is with loads of oil, butter, and parmesan cheese. That adds up to lots of fat and calories even without the main ingredient. The rice itself not only has lots of carbs, it also has a high "glycemic index." That means the energy enters your blood even more quickly than pasta.
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If your heart's set on having rice with your supper, why not add a bit of it to this healthy, versatile mixed vegetable and bean soup. That way you can fill up on low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat broth and vegetables and still get some rice to satisfy your craving. For pasta, make sure you use whole wheat or whole grain short pasta like rotini or elbow macaroni.
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You take white flour, which already has lots of carbs and a high glycemic index, and add sugar, which has more of both. Then mix it with a solid helping of shortening (fat), roll it out, and fry it in some more fat. And we're not done yet. The filling is full of more fat and calories, in the form of ricotta cheese and sugar. Sprinkle the top with some powdered sugar for the final touch. Think of it as a "once-in-a-blue-moon" dessert.
Best: Lemon Granita
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You make it with nothing more than sugar, water, and lemons, though any juice works. It's originally from Sicily, an island off the southern tip of Italy. Some recipes add a bit of egg white too, which is high in protein. The whole thing is low-fat, relatively low-calorie, and refreshing enough to wake you from your midday summer stupor.
Worst: Eggplant Parmesan
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It's a vegetable, so how bad can it be? Pretty bad, actually. The problem isn't the eggplant itself. It's that you cover it with plenty of flour and breadcrumbs and fry it in oil. Some healthier recipes skip this step, but there's more to worry about. You layer with loads of mozzarella and parmesan cheese, which adds more fat and calories, and then melt it all in the oven.
Best: Grilled Vegetables
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It couldn't be simpler. Toss veggies like eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and even mushrooms in a bit of olive oil and throw them on the grill. Any extra fat should drip into the fire, which will give you perfectly charred vegetables that are high in nutrients and fiber and low in calories. A sprinkle of sea salt should finish the dish. And you can roast the whole lot in the oven if you don't feel like cooking outside.
Worst: Fried Calamari
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Start with a perfectly innocent pile of fresh seafood with lots of protein and very little fat -- in this case squid. So far, so good. But then things start to go wrong. You dredge it in high-carb flour or breadcrumbs and fry it in a vat of oil. Fat, calories, carbs -- you get the idea -- it's not a great choice if you're watching your weight or eating for your health.
Best: Neapolitan-Style Mussels
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Create a simple broth of onions, garlic, white wine, tomatoes, and a bit of olive oil. Then you use steam to gently pry open these scrumptious little gems from the sea. When you're done eating them right out of their shells, you can soak up the remaining nectar with a piece of whole grain bread.
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AllRecipes.com: "Stuffed Shells."
American Heart Association: "Chunky Marinara with Pasta & Seared Chicken," "Classic Margherita Pizza with Whole Wheat Pizza Crust."
Canadian Broadcasting Company: "Neapolitan-Style Mussels."
Diabetes Forecast: "Italian Stuffed Red Peppers."
Food&Wine: "Minestrone with Arborio Rice."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Glycemic index for 60+ foods," "Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk."
HealthyChildren.org: "Choose This, Not That: Healthy & Unhealthy Choices at Fast Food Restaurants."
Italian Sons and Daughters of America: "Recipe: Semolina Calamari," "A History of Italian Ice," "Recipe: Cannoli Siciliani."
Kitchn.com: "How To Make Classic Eggplant Parmesan."
New York Times Cooking: "Spaghetti Carbonara."
Philo's Kitchen: "Lemon Granita – Traditional Sicilian Sorbet Recipe."