The Healthiest Ways to Eat Pasta, According to a Nutritionist

Chickpea penne? Right on.

Pasta primavera on a vintage plates.
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  • The best way to eat traditional wheat-based pasta as part of a healthy diet is to add more vegetables.
  • If you're trying to lose weight but craving pasta, stick to whole-wheat versions, or try new bean- and legume-based noodles that offer more protein and fiber.
  • Zoodles and other vegetable "pastas" offer a low-cal alternative, but you'll want to eat them with more protein on the side.
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    Pasta has earned a bad rap, but in actuality, this Mediterranean diet mainstay deserves some fanfare: In 1 cup of cooked wheat-based pasta, you’ll get 200 calories from complex carbs, 7 grams of plant-based protein, and 3 grams of fiber — not to mention antioxidants, minerals, and B vitamins (like folic acid and niacin) that help your body metabolize energy, plus iron thanks to the enriched, milled flour.

    But if you’ve been to the grocery store recently, you may have noticed an influx of new-fangled pastas touting themselves as healthy alternatives to your standard wheat-based bowties. From veggie-based to protein-added, zoodles to chickpea noodles, all are making claims about their purported health benefits. So is pasta actually good for you, or is this just savvy marketing?

    The good news: There are a zillion ways to eat pasta to feel fuller and promote (even ) that still max out on flavor. Here’s how to shop for, prep, and eat pasta for better health and longer-lasting energy.


    American Style vs. Italian Style: Where We Go Wrong

    Whole wheat spaghetti with vegetables
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    In America, we're used to eating traditional pasta in a bowl as a main dish, often with sauce, cheese, and butter. Many restaurants here also double-up on the carbs, offering sliced bread to dip in butter or oil, or garlic knots galore. But in Mediterranean cultures, carbs (whether in the form of bread, pasta, or grains) are consumed as part of a meal that's loaded with vegetables and grilled seafood.

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    To make your standard wheat-based pasta healthier, simply switch up the ratio of veggies to pasta: Double up on the veggie serving you’d normally have, and cut the pasta by a half or third. You’ll keep the flavor, add extra fiber, and generally max out on nutritional quality, without ever noticing the difference.


    The Healthiest Way to Add Pasta Toppings

    But what about meat? Adding meat to traditional pastas can make for a more filling meal, but if you’re loading up on veggies and eating regular meals and snacks, you may not need to add protein. (Also, protein can come in the form of cheese if you’re going for a vegetarian option.)

    To limit sodium, pick cheeses that are under 200 milligrams of sodium per slice. A little less of a stronger flavored cheese can go a long way: Try a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago, feta, goat, or even pepper jack.

    Make it Mediterranean by adding more veggies, including frozen or canned versions, which are equally as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Some top veggies to load up on:


    The Healthiest Way to Add Sauce

    My favorite way to sauce any kind of pasta is to buy plain jarred tomato sauce and add sautéed or simmered veggies. You'll only need a few tablespoons to boost the flavor without overloading on sodium or added sugar, especially if you're adding in extra vegetables. In general, check sauce labels for three things:

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    1. Sodium that's under 400 milligrams per ½ cup.
    2. No added sugar (or corn syrup, honey, or any sort of fruit juice puree).
    3. Real, whole tomatoes as the first ingredient.

      How to health-ify cream-based sauces at home:

      Cut any cream sauce in half and add pureed butternut squash or pumpkin into the mix and season as you would traditional pasta sauce. Or, you can opt for adding flavor with part-skim cheese or a non-fat Greek yogurt plus a sprinkling of flavorful, full-fat cheese (like Parmigiano Reggiano or Asiago).


      The Healthiest Kinds of Pasta You Can Buy

      If you're trying to lose weight and craving pasta, stick to whole-wheat versions, try one of the new pulse-based noodles on the market, or opt for "zoodles" as a low-cal alternative.

      Pulse Pasta

      Pulses are the dry, edible seed of veggies otherwise known as beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils. Since they’re plant-based and chock-full of protein and fiber, they’re some of the , and certainly one of the top nutritious pasta choices on the market.

      Choose products with 100% lentils, chickpeas, beans, or peas as the first ingredient, but a word to the wise: You’ll need to start slow. A 2-ounce serving of chickpea pasta has up to 20 grams of protein and 20 grams of fiber, which means that your intestinal tract might not be ready for the fiber-palooza you’re about to deliver. First try mi some into your traditional pasta recipes, buying the "protein" pastas made with legume and wheat flour, or simply slow down as you eat.

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      100% Whole-Grain Pasta

      If you’re aiming to load up on fiber (which, ahem, we all should be eating more of!), whole-grain pastas are another prime choice — especially if you add extra veggies. Since 100% whole-grain wheat flour packs up to 7 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein per 2-ounce dry serving, it's a filling accompaniment for tomatoes, squash, or whatever produce is in season.

      TIP: Look for “100% whole grain" wheat or any other grain as the first and only ingredient.

      Zoodles

      Zoodles (a.k.a. spiralized zucchini noodles), as well as sweet potato, beet, and squash versions, provide everything you could want from spaghetti, without containing as many calories as legumes or grains. They pack fiber and a little bit of protein (anywhere from 1 to 5 grams of each nutrient, depending on type of veggie).

      That said, because zoodles are so low in calories per serving, you’ll need some protein on the side to bulk up your meal. Try grilled shrimp, scallops, rotisserie chicken, or even some mozzarella and tomatoes.


      The Low-Down on Other Types of Pasta

      Pasta  with wood background
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      What's the deal with all those other boxes in the pasta aisle?

      Gluten-Free Pasta: Choose it if you suffer from celiac disease, follow a low-FODMAP diet, or avoid gluten, but this isn’t your most nutritious choice. Pick quinoa over brown rice-based options.

      FYI: Label claims about “glycemic index” mean next to nothing unless you plan on eating your pasta plain.

      Protein Pasta: Opt for ones with legume-based flours over protein powders, and check labels to make there aren't loads of added ingredients.

      Boxed Mac n' Cheese: To make it healthier, prepare it with just a little bit of the powdered cheese and then add a combo of part-skim mozz and full-fat Asiago instead (plus veggies!). Organic versions do not impact the nutrient quality, so go for whatever brand makes you happy.

      Pasta Made With Veggies: Choose kinds with actual, real vegetables and/or legumes in the ingredients list. Veggie purees or powders lack fiber and wear a health halo despite their "meh" nutritional attributes.


      The Bottom Line

      The best way to make traditional wheat pasta part of a healthy diet is to double up on vegetables and reduce the serving of noodles by a half or third. Pick a low-sodium sauce without any added sweeteners that uses vegetables as the first ingredient. If you're curious about the new stuff on the grocery store shelves and freezer aisles, go with bean-based or whole-wheat versions, or pair low-cal zoodles and other vegetable "pastas" with a lean protein on the side.

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