Make it Healthy: Pasta

several spoons of pasta

Spaghetti and meatballs, Alfredo and lasagna—many of our favorite comfort foods involve pasta noodles. And while no one’s touting them as a super food, you may wonder if noodles can fit within a well balanced diet. Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated dietitian Erin Castle is here to weigh in.

What’s the problem? Boxed pasta comes in all shapes and sizes (spaghetti, elbow, bow tie, fettuccine, penne) and is typically made from milled wheat, AKA flour, and water. “Flour contains the sugars, starches and fibers that make up carbohydrates,” explains Castle. “Carbohydrates are a macronutrient and great source of energy for our bodies’ daily functions.” That said, our bodies digest the simple carbohydrates in noodles quickly. “This can make us feel like we need to consume more of them to get full, increasing our chance of overeating.” Also, when paired with cream-based sauces, cheese and meats high in fat (like ground beef), a bowl of noodles can quickly become laden with saturated fat and calories.

The result: One serving of Olive Garden’s Chicken Alfredo made with butter, cream and cheese contains 1,620 calories, 100g total fat, 57g saturated fat, 96g carbohydrates and 1,680mg sodium.

The fix: To increase protein and fiber, try alternative noodle options, like chickpea, black bean and whole-wheat. “A two-ounce serving of Banza brand chickpea pasta has 14g protein, 8g fiber and 32g carbohydrates—that’s twice the protein, twice the fiber and 10g less carbohydrates than traditional noodles,” notes Castle. You can also opt for fresh pasta, which is often made with protein-packed eggs. Keep portions in check: A proper portion size is two ounces of dry noodles, which yields a third-cup cooked. “That’s about the size of a tennis ball,” she says. Top your noodles with a plant-based sauce like olive oil or marinara (check the ingredients list for added sugars in jarred sauce). Finally, add bulk and nutrients to the meal with non-starchy veggies like mushrooms, spinach, onion and peppers. “Leave it vegetarian or pair it with an additional lean protein source such as chicken breast, lean ground turkey, low-fat cheese or shrimp.”

Try this! To lighten up and add more nutritional value to Alfredo sauce, use pumpkin purée and plain Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream. This cuts the calories and fat in half, increases the protein and adds a healthy dose of Vitamin A.