Pasta is a convenient and filling meal, but some types of pasta provide empty carbs, meaning that they offer very little nutritional value alongside the calories. As people's understanding of carbohydrates, gluten, and the glycemic index (GI) grows, they may wonder: is pasta healthy?
Pasta is an enormously popular food. According to the National Pasta Association, the average person in the United States eats 20 pounds (lb) of pasta every year.
In this article, learn about the benefits and drawbacks of pasta, as well as the different types that are available.
Pasta can be an excellent addition to a healthful diet.
A recent study reinforced this, finding that people on a low-GI diet still lost weight when they ate pasta. The study concluded that pasta did not cause any weight gain or increases in body fat.
GI is a measure of how quickly and significantly a carbohydrate-rich food may raise blood sugar. The faster the absorption, the higher and faster a person's blood sugar levels will spike.
However, it is essential to limit the portion size of pasta and to minimize the use of high-sugar and high-fat sauces. It is also better to opt for whole-grain pasta, or bean- or lentil-based pasta, which is more nutritious.
Some people eliminate pasta from their diet because they are trying to reduce their gluten intake. Unless a person has a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, there is no evidence that a gluten-free diet offers any health benefits.
In fact, studies show that many types of gluten-free pasta and other gluten-free products can be more expensive and less healthful than their non-gluten-free equivalents. They tend to be lower in fiber and protein, and higher in sugar and fat than regular foods.
Finally, whole-grain pasta is one of the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet, which is a nutritional approach that many doctors and dietitians recommend for better weight control and a lower risk of disease.
Traditional enriched pasta only uses specific parts of the wheat kernel, which means that it loses key nutrients during the production process.
Manufacturers often artificially add some of these nutrients, which include iron and B vitamins, to the final product.
Whole-grain pasta uses all of the wheat kernel, which means that the nutrients remain in the pasta, along with fiber and other beneficial components. Whole-grain pasta is also lower in calories and carbohydrates.
Eating whole grains has been linked to a lower risk of obesity and the associated health risks.
Both types of pasta are available in many shapes and sizes. Some of the most popular varieties include:
While pasta can be healthful on its own, it can easily become a base for too many calories.
At the popular Olive Garden restaurant chain, a spaghetti dish with a creamy mushroom sauce and meatballs contains 1,680 calories.
As an adult's average daily calorie requirement is 1,600–2,400 for women and 2,000–3,000 for men, this single meal contributes to at least half of the day's calories and possibly even the full amount.
The same principles apply at home, where adding pre-made sauces and common accompaniments such as garlic bread or spoonfuls of Parmesan cheese can make an otherwise healthful meal unhealthful.
However, pasta can also be an excellent base for healthful foods. Tips to make healthful pasta-based meals include:
- adding plenty of vegetables
- using lean proteins, such as fish
- making sauces at home instead of buying pre-made ones
- limiting the amount of oil to 1–2 tablespoons
- replacing cheese with nutritional yeast
- using whole-grain, bean-based, or lentil-based pasta
It is also vital to limit the portion size. People should aim to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables and just over a quarter with carbohydrates, such as pasta.
Alternatives to pasta include:
- zucchini, spaghetti squash, and other vegetables
- brown or wild rice
- buckwheat noodles, also called soba noodles
- sprouted grains
- whole-wheat couscous
- shirataki, or miracle, noodles
Is pasta healthy? When people eat the correct portion size and add nutritious toppings, yes it can be.
To make pasta-based meals more healthful, people should avoid rich, creamy sauces and high-calorie accompaniments and add more vegetables and lean proteins.