Question: I'm happy with my weight, so I think I'm consuming the correct number of calories each day, but I'd like to eat healthier foods. My low-carb and Paleo diet friends tell me that pasta is bad for my health. Is that true?
Jeffrey - About.com User
Answer: Pasta isn't a bad food, although you may need to watch your portion sizes.
Pasta, like bread, bagels and other grain products, is energy-dense. A one-cup serving of spaghetti has 220 calories, mostly from complex carbohydrates. It belongs to the grain food group, and according to the Unites States Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate.gov, about one-quarter of any meal should contain grains like pasta, rice, cornmeal or oatmeal.
That's about right, because you want to leave plenty of room for colorful fruits and vegetables, and a healthy source of protein.
What About All Those Carbs?
Pasta isn't bad just because it's high in carbs. Your body needs carbohydrates for energy, especially if you're an active person. A balanced diet should have about half your calories coming from carbohydrates.
If you're following a strict low-carb diet, it's tough to fit much pasta into your diet; it's great for a balanced diet and fits easily into a low-fat diet (as long as you keep the sauces and other toppings light).
Doesn't Pasta Have Gluten?
Regular pasta is made from wheat, so it has gluten. That's a problem for people with celiac disease, wheat allergies or intolerances, but for the rest of us, there's no need to follow a gluten-free diet. Some fad diets are based partly on avoiding gluten, but they're not based on credible scientific research.
Gluten-free pasta made from corn or rice is still high in carbohydrates and has about the same number of calories as wheat pasta. I find that corn pasta is a little difficult to prepare properly, but rice pasta is fairly easy to cook (takes a little longer than wheat pasta) and can be used in almost any dish that calls for pasta.
Healthier Pasta Meals
A serving of pasta itself is fairly innocent, but it can be turned bad by what's served on and around it. Linguine with topped with fresh vegetables in a light sauce is healthful, but I can't say the same for most canned and boxed pasta meals that are high in sodium and fat. Most brands of macaroni and cheese are high in fat and calories too.
Here are a few healthy pasta dishes:
Whole Wheat Pasta
Most pasta is made from refined grains that have had the husks removed, which gives it a lighter flavor and texture, but reduces the fiber content. Whole wheat pasta has more fiber than regular pasta. It also has a stronger flavor and different texture -- some people like it right away, while others need to eat whole grain pasta a few times before acquiring a taste for it. I think it helps to use robust sauces with lots of flavor (but stick with tomato based sauces, because creamy and cheesy sauces are higher in calories).
Here are a few recipes made with whole wheat pasta:
- Pasta Salad with Light Lemon-Parsley Vinaigrette
- Kale with Whole Wheat Pasta and Cheese
- Whole Wheat Pasta Primavera with Vegetables
United States Department of Agriculture. "National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference." Accessed April 17, 2013. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/.
United States Department of Agriculture. "What Foods Are in the Grain Group?" Accessed April 17, 2013. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/grains.html
United States Department of Health and Human Services. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." Accessed April 17, 2013. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm.