How often can you eat pasta a part of a healthy diet? Here’s what dietitians say – AOL

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Updated April 9, 2024 at 10:18 AM

If you’ve ever felt bad for eating pasta (or any carbs), dietitians want that to end here.

“Pasta is definitely demonized and it shouldn’t be,” Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian based in Dallas and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.

“First of all,” she says, “it’s delicious.”

Pasta is a major part of cuisines around the world, “so it does break my heart that carbohydrate-rich foods — especially pasta — tend to get demonized in our society today,” agrees Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, assistant professor at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Not only does pasta taste great, but it’s also both exceedingly versatile and affordable, Susie adds. “And if you’re living with picky eaters, it can be a great vehicle for other foods, particularly vegetables,” she says.

It’s also easy to meal prep because it can be made in batches and reheated throughout the week, even added to soups or eaten cold in a veggie-packed pasta salad, Linsenmeyer adds.

Whether you’re a fan of the classic weeknight spaghetti and meatballs or you prefer more intricate recipes, there are plenty of great reasons to make pasta a part of your healthy meal plan.

Pasta nutritional benefits

All pasta is going to provide some nutrients, including carbohydrates (one of our body’s main sources of energy), as well as fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Most of the pasta you’ll find in the grocery store is refined pasta, meaning it’s made from grains that have had parts of the wheat kernel removed. This kind of pasta is also typically enriched, meaning it has had B vitamins and iron added back in, Susie explains.

“Refined pasta is going to be a little higher in calories and carbs, but it is also higher in B vitamins (than whole grain pasta),” she says.

If you love pasta, there’s no reason to cut it out from your diet, the experts say. It can be a great way to pack in vegetables, healthy fats from nuts, olive oil and pasta sauces, Linsenmeyer says. “It’s fine to include in a regular diet as often as every day. It really is.”

Other healthy pastas to try

Whole grain pasta

Whole grain pastas can be made from whole wheat, buckwheat, barley and other flours. These pastas are made with flour containing the entire wheat kernel, which provides more nutrients than refined pasta.

Whole grain pasta takes the lead for fiber and certain vitamins and minerals,” Susie says.

A serving of whole grain spaghetti contains 6 grams of fiber compared to 2.5 grams in refined spaghetti, she explains. Whole grain pasta also contains a hefty dose of manganese, a mineral that’s important for the health of our bones, connective tissues and blood.

But the reality is that not everyone is going to like whole wheat grain, Linsenmeyer says.

And, aside from fiber, the nutritional differences between whole grain and refined pastas are relatively small. Whole wheat spaghetti has about 120 calories, 7.5 grams of protein and 37 grams of carbohydrates per serving, Susie says. That’s compared to refined spaghetti’s 175 calories, 8.1 grams of protein and 43 grams of carbohydrates.

For people with certain medical issues, such as diabetes, those differences may make whole grain pasta the obvious winner. But for others, taste may be the deciding factor.

“I’d steer towards whole wheat,” Susie says, “but it comes down to personal preference.”

Chickpea, lentil or bean pasta

These days you’ll find pasta made out of chickpeas, lentils or beans, which come with more nutrients than traditional pasta.

These varieties usually provide more fiber and plant-based protein with fewer carbohydrates than refined pasta. Legumes are major sources of gut- and heart-healthy fiber, TODAY.com explained previously. Alternative pastas like these are also often gluten-free (but check the label to be sure).

However, the texture of these pastas tends to be quite different than that of classic refined or whole grain pasta, Susie says. For that reason, they may not be to everyone’s tastes.

Gluten-free pasta

If you need or prefer to avoid gluten, then you’ll want to go with a gluten-free variety of pasta. “Gluten-free pastas are usually made from brown rice or quinoa,” Susie says.

You can also always try spiralized vegetable “zoodles” or rice noodles, like those found in pho or pad thai.

Any type of pasta can be part of a healthy meal

“It’s fine to include (pasta) as a staple food in the diet,” Linsenmeyer says. “The question is really, what is the portion size?”

Looking at other cultures around the world that eat pasta frequently, particularly Italy, you’ll notice that pasta is not their entire meal, Linsenmeyer explains. They might be having pasta with vegetables and lean protein, like fish. “It’s not just a bottomless bowl of pasta (like) we tend to do in the United States,” she says.

While it’s totally OK to have pasta a lot (even daily), it’s important to make sure “it’s not the star of the show,” Susie says. “It’s part of the show.”

For people who are used to larger servings, Linsenmeyer recommends “playing around with the proportions.” She suggests making the bowl mostly vegetables, lean protein and legumes with some pasta thrown in, rather than making pasta the centerpiece. That way you can still have a larger portion, but you’re prioritizing the more nutrient-dense elements of the meal.

For picky eaters, pasta can be a lifeline

Pasta is a particularly palatable option for young, picky eaters. Sometimes, kids are also open to eating frozen veggies stirred into their mac and cheese, or spinach hidden in red sauce to boost the nutritional content.

But that’s not always going to work and that’s OK, the experts say. Parents can prioritize getting fruits and vegetables into other snacks and meals throughout the day instead.

Pasta is “not always going to be the most nutrient-dense meal and that’s fine,” Susie says. “If you’re 3, macaroni and cheese is just the foundation of your food pyramid.”

For Linsenmeyer’s kids, who are the picky side, plain butter noodles are a frequent meal. “They’re not going to be OK with me tucking a little kale into that pasta. That’s not going to happen,” she says. “So I’m going to get those vegetables in other ways, and that’s just how we adapt in our household.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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