For decades, pasta has come under fire by health advocates — and not without cause. So maybe we can’t go so far as to say that pasta is healthy for you. But we will say that, in moderation and mixed with healthy toppings, it can certainly be part of a healthy diet.
Pasta has been a dietary staple for generations around the world. Only recently have we seen it fingered as the “culprit” of our expanding waistlines. Pasta’s atop many people’s lists of favorite comfort foods, making it difficult to remove completely from their diets.
And, according to Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “restricting your favorite foods won’t be effective long-term. Finding ways to include your favorite foods in a healthy lifestyle is important to sustain a healthy weight and relationship with food.”
We’ve got good news. If pasta is among your favorite foods, there are ways to incorporate it into a healthy diet, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
The Case Against Pasta
Pasta is featured on many lists of bad-for-you foods because of its sky-high carbohydrate content and a general aversion in recent years to the macronutrient. With the popularization of low-carb diets — everything from Atkins to paleo to keto — pasta was destined to fall within the craze’s crosshairs eventually.
That’s because, as carbs enter the bloodstream in the form of glucose (blood sugar), they trigger the release of insulin, which, among its responsibilities, promotes fat storage. With higher levels of glucose come higher amounts of insulin, which signal your body to store more fat than you may be able to burn via exercise and daily activity.
The majority of pasta you’ll find packaged and ready to cook at the grocery store is processed and refined, with a carb content between 30 and 40 grams per serving. For comparison, the ketogenic diet recommends approximately 30-40 grams of carbs per day.
So if carbs are “bad” for you, it stands to reason that pasta is too. All of this, of course, is all quite a bit of oversimplification.
So… Is Pasta Bad for You?
For all you pasta lovers (who isn’t??), we may have some good news. Pasta may not be all that bad for you. It certainly has its flaws, especially when it’s covered in high fat, cream-based sauces or those high in sodium or sugar. But, pair it with the right foods and consume it in moderation, and pasta can certainly be a part of your healthy diet.
“The real problem is too much pasta,” says Denis Faye, Openfit’s Executive Director of Nutrition Content. “Go whole grain and eat regular servings.”
Another way to make pasta a healthy part of your diet is to look at what you’re putting on top of it. “Instead of pasta with cheese sauce, try adding sautéed veggies to the pasta or have it with a side salad,” says Davis. “For those who want to increase the protein in their diet, I recommend lentil or chickpea pasta.”
By adding vegetables to your pasta, you’re increasing the fiber content of your meal, which makes you feel fuller faster. It also slows down the processes by which your body metabolizes carbohydrates and simple sugars.
Great, So How Often Can I Eat Pasta and Still Be Healthy?
Now that you know pasta can be incorporated into a healthy diet, the automatic follow-up question is: how much?
Assessing how much pasta can be a healthy part of your diet is a matter of assessing your overall grain intake. “It can be part of your diet, but it shouldn’t be the majority of your diet,” says Faye. “You’ll get into trouble at a lot of restaurants because they’re prone to serving monster portions and adding all kinds of high-calorie sauces.”
If you’re cutting your calorie intake to lose weight but still want to keep pasta in your life, it’s possible — if done with care. Davis recommends: “Try limiting it to a cup of pasta per meal, and opt for whole grain or other alternatives. Always make half of your plate vegetables and the rest will fall into place.”
When you’re limiting your calories to lose weight, “you want to get the most nutrition bang for your buck,” says Faye. Because pasta is a processed grain, its calories aren’t the most nutritious you can consume when you’re already limiting the number you’re eating.
What About Alternatives to Pasta?
If you’ve chosen to cut back on the number of carbs you eat, there are dozens of wonderful low-carb pasta alternatives that have higher fiber and protein content than traditional processed wheat pasta.
For pasta lovers with a gluten intolerance, or those seeking a low-carb pasta, look no further than spaghetti squash, suggests Faye. This nutrient-dense vegetable can be cooked and then pulled apart to create a perfect veggie pasta.
“I like chickpea pasta. It has a good mouthfeel (similar to regular pasta), and provides extra protein and fiber,” says Davis. “I also love zoodles [spiralized zucchini noodles] as well, and these are full of fiber and antioxidants.”
The alternative pasta market is a growing industry, so you might be surprised by how many options you can find at your local grocery store or online. There’s everything from basic whole wheat pasta to edamame pasta to black bean pasta to mushroom pasta.
Pasta La Vista
Pasta may have been demonized over the years as a fattening, bad-for-you food, but the conclusion shouldn’t be as simple as that. Pasta, in moderation and served with healthy vegetables instead of creamy, high-fat or high-sugar sauces, can be a part of a healthy diet — even for those trying to lose weight. There are also numerous pasta alternatives on the market now that drop the carbohydrate count and increase the protein and fiber content of noodles that will satisfy any pasta lover’s craving for this beloved comfort food.