05/15/2014 07:49 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Meet the Anti-Mediterranean Diet

There's much to be said for the so-called Mediterranean diet -- diets low in red meat and high in fish, nuts, vegetables, beans and heart-healthy fats like olive oil. But if that's the diet you want to eat, you certainly aren't going to find it at "Italian" chain restaurants in America. For the most part, chains such as Carrabba's, Olive Garden, Maggiano's Little Italy, and Romano's Macaroni Grill specialize in what might be fairly described as the anti-Mediterranean diet: Big plates weighted down with butter, cheese, cream sauce, meat, and far larger quantities of white-flour pasta than you'd find at an restaurant in Italy.

You may find lasagna in some regions of Italy, but only in America (specifically at Olive Garden) would you find it tossed in the deep-fryer and served on a bed of Alfredo sauce and topped with more cheese. Despite the chain's Tuscan trappings, it wouldn't be hard to have an app, entrée, and dessert at Olive Garden and waddle out to the parking lot having consumed two or three days' worth of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

Fortunately, calorie labeling will soon be required at Maggiano's and any other chain with more than 20 outlets nationwide -- thanks to an important but lesser known provision of the Affordable Care Act. That will help consumers manage their weight and will likely spur more restaurants to offer more lower-calorie meals. Until then, we've assembled some of the meals to avoid at these four restaurants, a few that are remarkably better, and a two easy recipes that demonstrate it's easy to eat healthy Italian -- when you cook for yourself at home.

Meet the Anti-Mediterranean Diet