Can Pasta Be Healthy?

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
by Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
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Can Pasta Be Healthy?

We’ve covered the health aspects of bread and rice, and agree that, on balance, they are delicious, nutritious and not at all “bad” like their reputation as carbohydrates tends to label them. But you might be wondering if pasta is also healthy in moderation, and how pasta alternatives like chickpea, zoodles or buckwheat stack up. Here’s what you need to know.

Whole-grain pasta, or pasta made from whole-grain wheat, not stripped of the bran and germ, is a good source of fiber, manganese, B vitamins, phosphorus and iron. Refined pasta, which is stripped of the bran and germ, contains fewer vitamins and minerals and about half the amount of fiber as its whole-grain counterpart, making it a less nutritious choice sometimes. There are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes we need foods that are a bit easier on the digestive system, in which case the lower fiber content of refined pasta is helpful. For example, if you have GI distress or are an endurance athlete with a big event or hard training the next day (you need something with less fiber). As always, the name of the game is variety, and when you do have pasta, what you’re eating it with.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER DIGESTIVE ISSUES?

A common complaint I hear from clients is eating pasta leaves them feeling bloated and uncomfortable, or they eat pasta and “gain 5 pounds” immediately (I promise, this isn’t possible). People often mistakenly attribute this to the carbohydrates in pasta, the gluten content or both. Usually the issue here is neither, most people can digest gluten just fine, it’s the bigger picture. When pasta is served at a restaurant (or even when we eat it at home), the portions are pretty big and it serves as the “main event” of the meal. What’s more, refined pasta isn’t very filling due to its lack of fiber and lower protein content, so we may want to eat more of it to feel satisfied. This is especially true if the meal doesn’t include other fiber-containing foods like vegetables or a high-quality protein source.

Restriction of pasta and carbohydrates in general is another big reason why one may feel bloated when they “give in” and have these foods. Dietary restriction often leads to bingeing, and when paired with all-or-nothing thinking (“I’m allowing myself this food only right now, and then never again!”), overconsuming foods like pasta is common and can absolutely lead to bloating. But it’s not the pasta itself here, it’s the disordered, diet mindset and/or physiological response to restriction. It’s also important to note that when we restrict carbohydrates, we lose water weight because the body loses stored carbohydrates along with water. Once carbohydrates are consumed and the body can restock these stores, we also store water with them, and that can lead to a bloated feeling. This natural process typically would not happen so noticeably if complex carbs were consumed on a regular basis.

WHAT KIND OF PASTA SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?

Keeping your diet varied and trying new foods can help you reach your health goals. Here are some popular types of pasta to try:

WHEAT PASTA (WHOLE WHEAT, WHITE)

This is the most common type of pasta, and it can be found in whole wheat/whole-grain versions or refined, white versions. Whole wheat pastas have a nuttier, hearty flavor, while white pastas are more mild. Fiber content in whole wheat pastas is about twice that of white, and this makes whole wheat varieties a bit more filling with less of a blood sugar spike. Both versions can have a place in the diet, depending on what dish is being cooked, individual situations or lifestyles (as discussed above) and what you’re having with the pasta.

BEAN-BASED PASTAS (CHICKPEA, BLACK BEAN, LENTIL, MUNG BEAN)

These pastas are excellent sources of fiber and protein and typically have about twice the protein and fiber of a whole wheat pasta. This makes them even more filling and also allows a more complete, satisfying meal when an additional protein source isn’t available or there are dietary restrictions. For example, a lentil pasta with stir-fried veggies and a pesto sauce, or a chickpea pasta with tomato sauce and steamed veggies would be great options for vegans or anyone who wants a quick weeknight meal.

ALTERNATIVE GRAIN PASTAS (BUCKWHEAT/SOBA, QUINOA, RICE)

These are good options for those with Celiac disease as they are gluten free (unless made with some wheat flour — always check the labels!). Soba noodles, popular in Japanese dishes, are thick and nutty, and along with quinoa and brown rice pastas have a similar nutrient profile as whole wheat pasta.

VEGGIE NOODLES (ZUCCHINI NOODLES, ETC)

“Zoodles” and many other spiralized veggie noodles have become trendy, due in part to the popularity of diets that shun carbohydrates or grains. Zoodles can be a useful meal component for those looking to increase their vegetable intake or people with Celiac disease (who can’t have gluten). However, they’re not a source of complex carbs and are often less filling than a regular pasta.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Pasta is one of those comforting foods that nourishes the soul as much as the body. If it weren’t good for health, entire countries like Italy would likely be in the midst of a health crisis, not leisurely and happily tucking into their cacio e pepe with friends. As with everything, the key is balance. Enjoy pasta with a good protein source and plenty of veggies to make it a well-rounded meal.

About the Author

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD
Kelly Hogan, MS, RD

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD is an NYC-based registered dietitian specializing in women’s health, sports nutrition and plant-based eating. She is passionate about helping people develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies, and uses a non-diet, health at every size approach in her practice. When she’s not talking or writing all things nutrition, Kelly can be found running in Central Park – she’s run 11 marathons and counting! – cooking recipes new and old, handstanding at the yoga studio or hanging with friends and/or her rescue dog, Peanut.

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