To build a healthy pasta meal, first measure your portion. “If pasta is associated with weight gain, it’s because we’re eating a lot of it,” says Wesley McWhorter, director of culinary nutrition at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston.
A serving of pasta is considered 2 ounces dry, or about 1 cup cooked. That might not sound like it would be enough for a meal, but you can and should combine it with vegetables and protein (eggs, beans, tofu, fish, or lean meat or poultry).
Tie it all together with a better-for-you sauce, such as a low-sodium marinara, a light garlic and olive oil dressing, or a touch of pesto. Here’s what you need to know about dry pasta options.
Regular white pasta
It’s refined-grain food, which is usually code for not so healthy. But pasta gets a pass. It’s made from durum wheat (semolina), a hard-wheat variety that’s higher in protein than most other types.
Nutritional profile: It supplies 6 to 7 grams of protein and about 2 grams of fiber per cooked cup. Most types are enriched with iron and B vitamins, such as folic acid. And the way the carbohydrates and protein in pasta are bound gives it a low glycemic index (GI), meaning it’s digested more slowly than other refined carbs. So it might keep you full and release blood sugar (glucose) into your body more gradually, which could help with weight loss.
Cooking and serving tips: Cook it al dente; it will taste better, and overcooked pasta has a higher GI. Serve 1 cup of noodles with 1 cup of fiber-rich food, such as beans or roasted broccoli, McWhorter says, for a hearty dish.
Spinach linguine or tricolored rotini are essentially white pasta with some vegetables mixed in. These pastas add some color to your meal, but they don’t contain enough vegetables to make them a healthier choice.
Nutritional profile: The nutrition numbers are pretty similar to white pasta’s.
Cooking and serving tips: “The best way to get a serving of vegetables into your meal is to add some fresh or frozen veggies to whatever pasta you choose,” McWhorter says. One idea is to serve veggie pasta made with vegetables such as beets, butternut squash or summer squash cut into long noodle strands. You can use a julienne peeler, a mandoline or a special spiralizer to make them. They take much less time to cook than pasta. Sauté them, blanch them quickly or simmer them right in the sauce.
Like regular pasta, it’s made from durum wheat, but the whole kernel — bran, endosperm and germ. (White flour comes from the endosperm only.) It has a nutty flavor that can be mild or pronounced. Other whole grains — such as spelt (a type of wheat), quinoa and buckwheat (soba) — are also used in pasta.
Nutritional profile: It can have up to 7 grams of fiber per cup, or 31 percent of the daily need for women, 25 percent for men 51 and older. It’s higher in other nutrients, such as riboflavin, niacin, magnesium and zinc, found in the grain’s bran and germ. Pastas made from corn, rice or both tend to be less nutritious than those made from other grains.
Cooking and serving tips: The nutty flavor pairs well with roasted vegetables, garlic or hot pepper.
These are made from bean flours, such as black bean, chickpea or lentil, either alone or with a whole grain. The best have a mild beany flavor, but CR’s tests of legume pastas have found that some are bitter.
Nutritional profile: “A legume-based pasta is the most nutrient-dense,” McWhorter says. The main ingredient does double-duty as a fiber-rich carb (3 to 15 grams) and a serving of protein (11 to 15 grams). It’s also a good source of potassium.
Cooking and serving tips: Give the red sauce a rest; these pastas pair better with heartier flavors. Try tossing black bean pasta with olive oil, lime juice and cilantro, and mixing with avocado, red bell peppers and corn kernels. Or combine lentil pasta with spinach, roasted cherry tomatoes and cauliflower, and a garlic olive oil.
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