Healthy pasta hacks you need to know
Mac and cheese. Spaghetti. Lasagna. If you’re really fancy, some cacio e pepe or even the internet-famous baked feta pasta. Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes—there’s even a new, 3-D shape called cascatelli designed to better hold on to whatever sauce you’re using.
Whatever the shape, pasta really is the ultimate comfort food. Plus, it’s inexpensive and so easy to make—but is it healthy?
Although carbs get a bad rap these days, many foods that contain carbohydrates are healthy for us and can certainly be included as part of a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables are the ultimate healthy carb-containing foods, but pasta is also actually a healthy carb, as long as you follow a few hacks.
Hack #1: Cook pasta to al dente or “firm to the bite”. Pasta should be slightly firm not mushy. Overcooking pasta increases the glycemic index, which can increase blood sugar levels. Pasta is actually low-to-moderate on the glycemic index. Cooking it al dente helps the glycemic index stay lower.
Hack #2: Choose pasta with fiber whenever possible so it digests more slowly to help you feel full. Great pasta choices include whole wheat pasta, pasta made from beans (usually chickpeas) or lentils, or soba noodles. If you don’t like the taste or texture of those options, try a pasta with added fiber such as Ronzoni Smart Taste.
Looking to reduce carbohydrates? Consider spaghetti squash noodles or other veggie noodles made from zucchini, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beets, kohlrabi, cucumbers or carrots. If you need to follow a gluten-free diet, there are pastas made from rice, corn, beans or lentils. Soba noodles made only from buckwheat flour can also be a great option without gluten.
Hack #3: Eat a sensible amount of pasta. As a dietitian, I’d LOVE to tell you to eat as much as you want, but, unfortunately, I can’t unless you have a high metabolism. Eating large amounts of pasta drives up calories, carbs, and blood sugar levels, so portion control is key. Aim for roughly 1 cup of cooked noodles (about the size of a fist). Especially limit the portion size of pasta dishes when eating in restaurants. The average amount of pasta served when eating out is 4 cups! That’s like eating 8 slices of bread! Most restaurant pasta dishes average between 1,000-2,000 calories, so it’s a good idea to split a dish in half or thirds.
If you want a larger portion size with fewer calories and carbs, choose spaghetti squash or other veggie noodles, which typically have 75% less calories and carbs for the same serving size.
Hack #4: Balance pasta with healthy pasta pairings. Instead of eating a large plate of pasta with garlic bread or several breadsticks, serve pasta on a smaller plate and pair with a salad or veggie on the side. This is one of my main hacks to keep portion sizes of pasta in check. Healthy sauces like tomato or marinara can also be paired with lean meats, chicken, seafood, beans, lentils or veggies. Limit creamy sauces and pasta dishes smothered in tons of cheese. But even if you decide to eat something indulgent like fettucine alfredo, combine hack #3 and hack #4: eat a smaller portion with a salad to satisfy your taste buds and help you feel full.
About the Author
Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.