Is Pasta Really Unhealthy For You?


You’ve always heard that pasta isn’t healthy, but why? One of the most common reasons that is given is that it is high in carbs. This means it can raise blood sugar levels and cause you to gain weight. We are all looking for healthier alternatives to our favorite meals.

Is Pasta Unhealthy ?

Pasta is one of the first foods people cut out when they’re trying to drive down carb consumption. But unlike other items that are often considered “off-limits” for those following a diet or looking to lose weight (think sweets and alcohol), pasta actually does possess some redeeming nutritional qualities. There’s even research to suggest that pasta may be beneficial for weight loss. Yep, you read that right.

Why do some people think they need to avoid eating pasta?

First things first: pasta is packed with carbohydrates. Just one cup of cooked spaghetti delivers 42 grams of carbs, about a sixth of one’s recommended daily carb intake on a 2,000-calorie diet. That may not sound like much, but it bears noting that almost no one ever eats just one cup of pasta at a time. “Pasta is a food many people tend to overeat,” says Brown. Order spaghetti Bolognese at a restaurant, and you’re likely to eat at least two to three servings of pasta in one sitting.

So, why does that matter?

“The simple carbs [found in white pasta] quickly translate to sugar in our bodies, and can increase blood sugar levels quickly,” explains Brown. “Blood sugar is closely related to cortisol and hormone levels.”

What’s more, is that calories add up fast when we eat pasta? Just one cup of cooked pasta contains about 200 calories. Multiply that by two or three, depending on the portion size served, then add a creamy sauce and cheese on top, and, well, you get the idea.

OK, where’s the good news—is pasta ever healthy to eat?

Before you trash your tortellini, rest assured: pasta isn’t the enemy. Just pay attention to the type you choose to consume.

“White pasta is refined during processing,” explains Brown. “With the bran and germ stripped away, most of the nutrients contained within the wheat kernel are removed. This makes white pasta higher in calories and lower in fiber.”

That said, most refined pastas are fortified with vitamins and minerals like niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, and folic acid, so they aren’t entirely devoid of nutrients. Whole wheat pasta is made from the entire wheat kernel and naturally contain those nutrients (and therefore doesn’t need to be fortified), as well as protein and fiber. The higher fiber content of whole-wheat pastas can help keep you full for longer and also mitigate rises in blood sugar levels post-meal.

More good news: Research suggests pasta may not deserve its notoriously bad rep. A 2018 systematic review published in The BMJ found that overweight or obese individuals who ate pasta while following a low-glycemic index (GI) diet experienced significant weight loss compared to those following a high-GI diet. According to the authors, the findings indicate that pasta consumption in the context of other healthy dietary patterns is a-OK, and may even be beneficial for those looking to lose weight.

Is Pasta Fattening or a Good Weight Loss Food?

Pasta is thought to have originated as an Italian staple around the 12th century. Italians have been consuming pasta for thousands of years, yet their obesity rates have remained very low.  Italians traditionally follow a Mediterranean diet which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, legumes, nuts and little red meat and sweets.

Pasta in Western society has gotten a reputation as a “bad carb” or a fattening food.  However, Italians have been enjoying pasta for so long but have had lower rates of obesity and other chronic diseases than other parts of the world.

When assessing if pasta is fattening or a good weight loss food, you need to take into account what type of pasta is used, what else is served with the pasta, serving size and overall diet.

Pasta and blood sugar

The glycemic index (GI) or glycemic load (GL) are used to determine a food’s effect on raising blood sugar levels.  Foods with high GI or GL values are considered to raise blood sugar rapidly after eating.  The higher blood sugar is raised, the more insulin gets released.

Insulin helps energy from the blood go into cells of the body for energy or storage.  Having high levels of blood sugar and consequently insulin is thought to encourage fat storage.

High carbohydrate foods like sugar and white bread have high GI values.  Pasta, since it is primarily carbohydrate, is often associated as also having a high GI value.

However, pasta surprisingly has a relatively low GI value

The type of flour used for pasta making, semolina flour, is more resistant to break down and can have a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream, especially compared to other carbohydrate foods like bread or cereals.

How much are you eating?

Since pasta has a relatively low GI, does this mean you can eat as much as you want?  Of course not.  Portion size of pasta, as with any food, is very important.

In a Washington Post article Julie Jones, professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University, suggests carbohydrates are not the enemy, but rather over consumption of anything.

A downside with eating pasta is that it can be easy to eat a larger than necessary portion.  Italian tradition is to stop eating when you are full instead of when the plate is clean.

To make pasta meals healthier, try taking a smaller than normal portion and add more salad to your meal.

What kind of pasta?

Pasta is traditionally made with semolina flour, which is fairly resistant to breakdown.  However, now more than ever you can buy pastas made from all different types of flours.

As gluten free diets have become popular, more gluten free pastas are available.  Gluten free pastas can be made from rice, corn or quinoa flours.

Use caution with gluten free pastas: sometimes people associate anything that is gluten free as an automatic healthier alternative.  Some gluten free pastas made from white rice can be lower in fiber and may have a higher GI rating.

If you are looking for a higher fiber or nutrient dense pasta, whole wheat pastas or quinoa based pastas usually have a higher fiber content.

What else is with the pasta?

What you put on top of pasta is just as important as how much pasta you are eating.  Adding heavy creamy sauces on top of the noodles can really change the calorie content of a meal.

What are the healthiest toppings for pasta?

There are many options.  Tomato based sauces are a rich source of antioxidants and vitamin C.  However, some pre-made sauces can also be high in sodium and even sugar.  Look for tomato sauces that have minimal ingredients, or better yet make your own sauce!

Pasta can also be made with a little olive oil, garlic and/or other herbs for seasoning.  Adding in some olive oil can be a source for heart healthy fats and omega 3 fatty acids.

No matter what sauce you choose, add in some vegetables to your pasta dish to lighten it up and to increase the nutrient density of the meal.

How to make a pasta dish healthier

Here are some ways to keep pasta dishes light and part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Keep the pasta al dente. Cooking the pasta longer than al dente can increase the GI of the pasta

Eat smaller portion of pasta. If you pile the pasta on your plate, try switching it up.  Think about a pasta meal like any other meal.  One fourth of the plate can make up grains, one fourth can be a protein and the rest of the plate should be made up of fruits and vegetables, according to the USDA My Plate.

Get creative with your meal! There are many ways you can add in different vegetables, proteins and healthy fats into a pasta dish to increase the nutritional profile.  Try adding in various colors of vegetables that can take place of some of the noodles on your plate.

Eat like the Mediterranean diet: eat slowly and enjoy your meal. Stop when you’re full.

Pasta is higher in carbohydrates, but it is lower on the GI than other carbohydrate foods like white bread.

As with anything, the main thing to keep in mind for pasta is how much are you eating and what are you eating with it?  Try eating a smaller portion size of pasta with plenty of vegetables, healthy proteins and fats.

If you are gluten intolerant and you still want to eat pasta, choose varieties that are higher in fiber and still watch your portion sizes.

If you don’t want to eat pasta or don’t like the way it makes you feel, then don’t eat it.

However, if you are avoiding pasta just because you hear it is a fattening food, take into consideration it depends what you eat the pasta with and how much you are eating.

Pasta Can Help You Lose Weight, Unless You’re Making These Mistakes

Mistake 1: Not Adding Veggies

Your plate of pasta shouldn’t be void of vegetables. Veggies add bulk and satiating fiber to our meals that can help slow digestion, resulting in a steadier stream of energy, Moskovitz says.

Further, slowing digestion can also lead to lower levels of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar and can also influence appetite and fat accumulation, Moskovitz says.

Mistake 2: Not Pairing It with Protein

If you’re omitting meatballs from your meal to cut calories, you might be missing out.

What we eat with carbs matters in terms of how our body digests, absorbs and metabolizes them, Moskovitz says. Adding a protein (which takes longer to digest) to your pasta may help keep you satiated and better balances macronutrients to support a healthy metabolism, she says.

Indeed, eating more protein is not only more filling, but it may also reduce fat mass and help you maintain lean muscle when you’re trying to lose weight, per a November 2014 study in ​Nutrition & Metabolism​​.

Mistake 3: Choosing a Sauce High in Sugar and Fat

It’s not the noodles themselves but what sauce you slather on them that can make pasta problematic for your weight-loss efforts.

For example, creamy, dairy-based sauces tend to be high in fat and calories, Moskovitz says. And it’s a surplus of calories that’s more likely to cause weight gain (not just slurping down some spaghetti here and there), she adds.

That’s why Moskovitz suggests choosing a sauce with fewer than 10 grams of fat per serving. Same goes for sauces with excessive sugar: Aim for under 10 grams.

To slash the sugar and fat, look for a product that’s tomato-based and seasoned with flavorful herbs like garlic and basil (bonus if it contains extra veggies), Moskovitz says. And not all pasta dishes need sauce — dress your dish with a dollop of nutritious oil like olive or flaxseed oil to amp up the flavors that are already present.

Mistake 4: Overdoing Your Serving Size

“Enjoying a small bowl of pasta here and there has minimal to no impact on weight,” Moskovitz says. However, frequently feasting on larger, restaurant-style portions of pasta can cause a calorie surplus and sabotage your goals.

Here’s why: The carbs you don’t burn for fuel are stored as glycogen in your liver and muscle, and when those storage locations are at max capacity, your body will convert the excess glycogen into fat cells, Moskovitz says.

In short, if you continuously overload your pasta portions, you will gain weight over time.

“Spacing out your intake with sensible portions that appropriately match your caloric needs is the best way to keep pasta in your diet and still feel you’re healthiest,” Moskovitz says.

Mistake 5: Choosing White Pasta

Is all pasta good for weight loss? Well, not necessarily.

Rethink your refined white pasta, which is bad for weight loss due to its lack of fiber and protein and because it can lead to blood sugar spikes. Instead, swap your noodles for a more nutrient-dense variety.

“While whole-wheat or bean-based pastas are not as traditional, they pack in a lot more filling fiber, especially black bean, chickpea and lentil versions,” Moskovitz says. Other varieties like brown rice pasta are also good for weight loss thanks to their whole-grain content.

Mistake 6: Only Making Pasta a Main Dish

Eating an entirely carb-based meal minus other macros is unbalanced and will inevitably lead to a carb crash and more cravings, which is not necessarily how to lose weight eating pasta.

“If you’re just eating one food for dinner, chances are you’re going to eat a lot more of that food to fill up,” Moskovitz says. And we already know that a surplus portion of pasta can prevent you from shedding pounds.

But pasta doesn’t have to be the main event — it can work as a stellar side dish too.

Mistake 7: Skipping Water

You may forget to drink while you dig into a delicious bowl of pasta. But sipping a glass of water with your meal can help your body better detect when it’s full, per Johns Hopkins University. Drinking water also allows you to take natural breaks in between bites, which gives you a moment to notice if you’re satiated.

Mistake 8: Feeling Guilty About Eating Pasta

“No matter what, pasta is never enjoyable with a side of guilt,” Moskovitz says. “If you end up eating more pasta than you planned, or it came under a thick, calorie-dense cream sauce, it’s not the end of the world.”

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