Are you tired of hearing that pasta is just a carb-heavy indulgence? Pasta isn’t just heaps of noodles drowning in creamy sauces; it’s a versatile dish that can be incorporated into your diet in many ways.
Learn more about the nutritional value of pasta, the benefits of eating pasta and how to eat pasta in healthful ways.
What Is Pasta?
Pasta is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine that comes in countless shapes and varieties, such as long, thin strands of spaghetti or short, cylindrical tubes of penne. Other common types of pasta include: fettuccini, tortellini, lasagna, penne and macaroni.
“Standard pasta is made from refined wheat flour, what we often call white flour,” says Carrie Dennett, a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition by Carrie. Along with wheat flour, pasta also contains eggs and water.
Because most pasta is made from refined wheat flour, it’s low in fiber and many of the nutrients that are normally present in wheat. But Dennett points out that many brands of white pasta are enriched with iron and B vitamins, including folate.
“Pasta is not a major source of vitamins, but it does have some in smaller amounts,” says Michelle Saari, a registered dietitian based in Canada and founder of The Dietitian Prescription, a website that aims to help people choose foods that are good for blood sugars, energy and their weight. She adds that pasta contains about 9% of your daily iron recommendations, 6% magnesium and 5% of your daily vitamin B6 recommendations.
Benefits of Eating Pasta
There are several lifestyle and health benefits to eating pasta, including:
Pasta is easily available, accessible and affordable for the average American. A box of off-brand pasta at the grocery store could cost as low as $1.00 per box.
Pasta doesn’t include any perishable ingredients like dairy or meats that would make it more susceptible to spoiling. Pasta also has low moisture content, due to the drying process during manufacturing, which prevents the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and mold.
As a result, you can stock up on your favorite penne or farfalle, also known as bow-tie, noodles and keep them in the pantry for months to years at a time, depending on the packaging expiration date. Just be sure to store it in a cool, dry place and in a tightly sealed container to maintain its quality.
Anyone who has done road races has probably had a pasta meal the night before. But why?
“Pasta is high in starch, which is a good source of slowly digested energy for athletes,” says Julie Stefanski, a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a senior editor for Goodheart-Willcox Publisher. “While a sports drink before exercise may provide the same amount of carbs, it would be digested more quickly.”
Carbohydrates are one of the body’s primary sources of energy. When you consume foods containing carbohydrates – like pasta – your body breaks down the carbs into glucose, a simple sugar that can be readily used by your cells for energy.
Pasta is an easily digestible carbohydrate that can help ensure that carbohydrate stores (glycogen) is optimized in both the muscles and liver. For athletes and active clients, carbs can fuel workouts and restore post exercise.
However, using pasta for energy and exercise means planning ahead, Stefanski emphasizes. “A pasta meal targeted to provide energy for exercise would need to be consumed 1 to 2 hours before a meal to ensure adequate digestion and metabolism.”
For those on the go, pasta requires little preparation. It’s a great choice for the time-pressed, as it typically takes less than 10 to 15 minutes to prepare – plus you can make it once and eat it twice.
Prepare a box or bag of pasta and create variation by changing up the add-ins or add-ons for nutrient amplification and augmentation. For example, here are a few ways you can quickly whip up a nutritionally balanced pasta dish:
- Pasta with olive oil and garlic, canned clams and spinach.
- Pasta and zucchini noodles with grilled flank steak and spicy tomato-based pasta sauce.
- Pasta with marinara sauce and shredded chicken.
- Pasta with fresh mozzarella, grape tomatoes, shredded prosciutto and pesto.
- Pasta with edamame, carrots, peanuts and sesame ginger dressing.
- Leftover pasta can be a quick and easy breakfast when tossed with an egg or some ricotta cheese.
- Stir-fried chicken, beef, fish or tofu and vegetables is a great pairing with rice noodles.
- Pasta salad with garbanzo beans, shredded carrots, chopped zucchini and vinaigrette.
- Pasta with grilled salmon, capers and fresh dill.
The options of how to prepare pasta are truly endless.
Is Pasta Bad For You?
Pasta gets a bad rap for being a high-carb food that causes weight gain and contributes to health issues like high blood sugar, diabetes and obesity.
“Pasta is part of the Mediterranean diet, which is a traditional and healthy way of eating. It can definitely be a healthy food, but it could also be consumed in a way that makes it not so healthy,” Dennett says.
“That’s true of lots of foods,” she adds. “A diet that includes a variety of nutritious foods can absolutely include pasta if that’s an enjoyable food for someone.”
Though many people connect pasta with weight gain, that may not be true. In a review that identified 38 relevant studies examining pasta intake and body weight outcomes or potential mechanisms, observational and limited clinical data suggest pasta is either inversely or not associated with overweight or obesity in healthy children and adults. Additionally, within the context of a healthy diet, the review found that pasta does not contribute to weight gain.
In fact, it may provide added nutritional benefits as part of a balanced diet. In one national survey analysis, researchers found that pasta consumers had increased intake of daily fiber, folate, iron, magnesium and vitamin E when compared with non-consumers for both children and adults. Overall, they found that pasta consumption was associated with a better diet quality and improved nutrient intakes.
In short, enjoying pasta in moderation within your dietary recommendations is OK, especially alongside a well-balanced meal of lean protein and veggies.
Whole-Grain Pasta vs. Refined Pasta
Most people consume refined pasta. It’s your average box of spaghetti or penne you find on the grocery store shelves made from wheat flour that’s had the bran and germ removed during processing.
Whole-grain pasta, on the other hand, is made from whole grains, which could include a variety of grains like wheat, barley or oats. Similarly, whole-wheat pasta is made from the entire wheat kernel. Some pastas split the difference by containing about half whole grains, Dennett says.
Whole-grain pasta is a good source of dietary fiber. Fiber contributes to the feeling of fullness in your body, adding bulk to your meal and taking longer to digest. Also, “fiber helps slow the release of glucose (the broken down carbohydrates) in pasta, which benefits your blood sugar and energy levels,” Saari says.
“One cup of whole-wheat spaghetti has more than 4 grams of fiber, compared with about 2 grams for an equivalent portion of refined enriched spaghetti,” Dennett says.
“Refined wheat flour is stripped of its bran, making it a poor source of fiber,” Stefanski says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that half of the grains you consume in a day should be whole grains. “Whole grains naturally contain more fiber, more B vitamins and are broken down more slowly in the body than refined grains,” Stefanski says. “Whole grains also provide more digestive material for microbes within our intestines.”
Dennett adds that today’s whole-wheat and whole-grain pastas taste much better than previous generations.
However, “if you really prefer the taste or affordability of common pasta, you can choose other sources of whole grains such as barley, oats or whole-grain corn to complement your pasta preference,” Stefanski adds.
Is Low-Carb Pasta Healthy?
In recent years, many pasta alternatives have hit the market. Low-carb pasta is a type of pasta designed to have fewer carbohydrates compared with traditional wheat-based pasta.
Low-carb pastas typically use alternative ingredients to wheat flour, such as:
- Almond flour.
- Coconut flour.
- Bean flour.
Another low-carb alternative that’s become popular among consumers is vegetable-based pasta, such as spiralized zucchini, sweet potato gnocchi or cauliflower-based noodles.
“Some low-carb pastas will vary nutritionally based on what they’re made of, and they’ll also vary in flavor, which means some may not pair well with certain sauces,” Dennett says. “Some low-carb pastas might be as satisfying as traditional pasta, while others, such as spiralized vegetables, clearly bear no resemblance to pasta,” she adds. “That’s fine if you’re just looking for a vehicle for a specific sauce and honestly don’t care if it’s real pasta or not, but if you’re disappointed instead of satisfied, that’s not a good recipe for a healthy relationship with food.”
Low-carb pastas may be a good fit for someone following a low-carb diet or keto diet, for someone who has diabetes or for someone who generally wants to lower their overall carbohydrate intake.
“Other alternatives include pasta made from chickpeas and lentils, which, while not low carb, are higher in fiber and protein and can be quite tasty,” Dennett says.
How to Make Pasta Healthy
Prepare your pasta like they do in the Mediterranean – al dente, which means neither too hard nor too soft. Al dente is a way to cook pasta, which means “to the tooth” in Italian. When pasta is cooked al dente, it’s not too hard or overcooked to a point where it’s soft or mushy.
When cooked al dente, pasta will have a lower glycemic index than when it’s cooked to be soft. The average GI of al dente penne pasta is 50, which is even lower than the GI of oatmeal or many whole-grain breakfast cereals. A lower GI can help keep blood sugar levels stable so you will stay fuller longer.
To cook pasta perfect every time, use a 4- to 6-quart pot, add enough water to fill three-quarters of it, add salt and bring it to a rolling boil. Gently add pasta and cook it according to the directions on the box since cooking time varies depending on the shape and type of pasta. Stir frequently while cooking to prevent clumping or sticking to your pot. There’s also no need to rinse pasta after cooking it or to add oil to the water.
“Pasta cooked al dente is tender but still slightly firm to the bite, which means we digest the carbs in it more slowly,” Dennett says. She adds that you’ll get that same benefit by pairing carbs with protein and fat.
“If eating pasta as a main dish, as most Americans are likely to do, provide overall balance by including protein, healthy fat and vegetables,” Dennett says.
For example, she suggests enjoying pasta with a tomato sauce with meat or plant-based protein and onions, mushrooms, peppers or other vegetables sautéed in olive oil. Or, she suggests tossing the pasta in pesto and topping it with grilled chicken, fish, tofu or tempeh.
“Not only does this provide a variety of nutrients we need for health, but pairing pasta – or any type of carbohydrate – with protein and fat helps us absorb the carbs more slowly while satisfying hunger for longer,” Dennett says.
Additionally, “this will help avoid the energy crash that typically comes with a serving (of pasta),” Saari says.
“Many people worry that pasta, especially pasta made from refined grains, has too many carbs and will raise their blood sugar too fast,” Dennett says.
“To enjoy pasta as part of an overall healthy diet, I suggest being mindful of portion sizes rather than blindly tossing dry pasta into boiling water,” Dennett says.
Standard pasta is considered part of the grains food group. “The grains group is broken down into servings that equal one ounce each,” Stefanski says. “For pasta, a one-ounce equivalent is only a ½-cup serving. If you read the Nutrition Facts label on most pastas, you’ll see the serving size listed as 3/4 cup dry or 1 cup cooked.”
She adds that the Nutrition Facts label reflects what people actually eat – not necessarily what they should eat. “It’s recommended that most smaller adults consume 6 to 8, 1-ounce portions of grains per day.”
However, she says that most Americans meet and exceed their grain servings. “Rather than eating all grains at once, it’s better to spread grain servings throughout the day. For example, instead of consuming all grains servings at once as 3 cups of pasta, it would be more balanced to consume less pasta, more vegetables and lean protein and have different grains at another time in the day.”
These days, there are numerous pasta alternatives available – some of which may even be healthier options than whole-grain pasta or cater to specific dietary needs.
For example, gluten-free options like chickpea pasta and zucchini noodles are especially beneficial for individuals with gluten intolerance. Plus, some make for an added serving of vegetables and the nutrients that come with it.
- Whole-wheat pasta is a great option for people who want to increase their fiber and protein intake.
- Quinoa pasta is high in protein and rich in iron and magnesium. Plus, quinoa is gluten free, making it ideal for those with celiac disease.
- Buckwheat noodles, also known as soba noodles, are a type of Japanese pasta typically served cold. They’re also lower in both calories and carbs than other pastas. As long as the pasta is 100% buckwheat and made in a facility that does not processes wheat, buckwheat noodles are actually both wheat and gluten free.
- Spelt pasta is a high-fiber, high-protein option that’s free of wheat (though not gluten).
- Brown rice pasta is not necessarily any more nutritious than the other alternative pastas, it’s an ideal way for people with severely restricted diets or food sensitivities to get their pasta fix. Brown rice pasta is free of both gluten and FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), molecules that can be poorly absorbed in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
In the U.S. – and particularly at restaurants – pasta dishes are flooded with heavy, cream-based sauces. Though these sauces are full of flavor, they’re full of calories and fat too.
Instead, try tossing your dish in fresh herbs and a light serving of high-quality olive oil for a tasty, waistline-friendly blend. Think pesto, for example. Or opt for tomato-based sauces, which are typically lower in calories and fat than cream-based alternatives.
Pasta, while often rich in calories and carbohydrates, can still be enjoyed in moderation, especially when paired with protein and vegetables.
“Remember that not every food we include has to hit a nutritional home run,” Dennett emphasizes. “A diet that includes a lot of nutrient-rich whole or minimally processed foods has room for foods that are more neutral nutritionally, as well as those that are more about pleasure and satisfaction than nutrition, per se.”