Yes, you can eat pasta and be healthy. This is what a registered dietitian recommends for the perfect, balanced plate. Plus, her favorite go-to recipe.
It’s safe to say that in our low-carb-obsessed, keto-crazy world, pasta has taken a beating. Well, I’m here to stand up for pasta. Correct. I am a dietitian and I am team pasta. I have the perfect healthy pasta recipe for you to try.
But first, let’s discuss the basic nutrition of pasta. A cup of cooked white pasta has about 200 calories, 7 grams of protein, 42 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fat and 3 grams of fiber, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Let’s talk about that for a second.
For a one-cup serving (which is about a quarter of the portion size served in many restaurants), you’ll get 42 grams of carbohydrates, not very much protein, virtually no fat, and very little fiber. So it’s safe to say that white pasta is mostly carbohydrates. (Here’s why you can eat carbs and still be healthy.)
What Happens When You Eat Pasta?
All carbohydrates contain sugar molecules, according to the journal Research into carbohydrates. When we eat carbohydrates, we break down those sugar molecules into a compound that the body uses for energy: glucose. Are you with me so far?
When glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas is alerted and releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin essentially rules blood sugar. It’s what signals the body’s cells to let in glucose, to use it as energy. Every cell in the body uses glucose – from brain cells that help us think to muscle cells that help us move.
The rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream — and raises blood sugar — can be fast or slow. And it’s affected by a few different things. When we eat foods that are mostly carbohydrates, we digest those carbohydrates quite quickly and blood sugar rises quite quickly. However, when we eat carbohydrates with other nutrients, such as protein, fat and fiber, that digestion process is much slower, according to research, including a study published in a 2018 issue of Starchhas shown.
Think about it: now the work of the body is a little more complicated. Not only does it have to digest the carbohydrates, but it also has to work on the proteins, fats and fiber. This makes the process take a little longer. This then causes a much slower release of glucose into the bloodstream and a much more gradual rise in blood sugar. This is a good thing.
And that’s exactly how we make pasta a healthier option. The key to making a healthy pasta recipe is to include several nutrients to slow the digestion of all those carbs. Well, that and we have to eat it in appropriate portions.
This is how you make pasta healthier
Okay, fiber is a big one. Our body cannot break down and absorb fiber. Instead, fiber serves to slow digestion and keep us regulated. When we combine fiber with carbohydrates, it slows down the digestion of those carbohydrates. Therefore, glucose enters the bloodstream much more slowly.
Do you remember the dramatic drops and spikes in blood sugar that occur when we eat too many carbohydrates ourselves? Combining fiber with carbohydrates prevents that.
There are basically two ways to add fiber to a pasta dish. Number one: add vegetables. Whether you mix them into pasta or serve them on the side, vegetables add a lot of fiber to the meal and help slow down pasta digestion. We’re talking about all non-starchy vegetables (there’s enough starch in the pasta already). So we’re talking broccoli, Brussels sprouts, aubergines, peppers, string beans, spinach, you name it. You have full permission to go vegetarian crazy.
The second way: choose a whole-wheat pasta or a bean-based pasta. Compared to the three grams of fiber in a cup of white pasta, whole-wheat pasta has double that, about 6 grams per serving, per USDA. Three grams extra doesn’t sound like much, but it is! The American Heart Association recommends a total dietary fiber intake of 25 to 30 grams per day. So that extra three grams is about 12 percent of your daily requirement.
I am also a big fan of bean based pasta. One cup of cooked chickpea pasta has about 190 calories, 13 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat and 5 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. Bean-based pasta is a great way to switch things up and increase the fiber and healthy protein content of your pasta dish.
Add healthy fats
Okay, now let’s talk about healthy fats and why they are essential for every meal. They don’t just keep you full; they’re also essential for absorbing all of the fat-soluble vitamins (think vitamins A, D, E, and K). Making sure to include healthy fats in your pasta dish will make it much more nutritious and satiating. Have you ever had a pasta dish that left you hungry an hour later? Chances are it didn’t have enough fat in it.
Combine with protein
Finally, you should pair a lean protein with your pasta dish. Remember, the pasta shouldn’t be the star of the show. The pasta should really only take up a quarter of your plate. I like to follow the plate method: Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of your plate with protein, and a quarter of your plate with starch or grain. This is a great tool for keeping your portions in check.
You need protein with every meal. Protein serves as the building block for almost every cell in the body. We love sources like chicken breast, ground turkey, salmon, and tofu.
Greek Chickpea Pasta Salad
Okay, now I’m sharing my all-time favorite healthy pasta recipe with you: My Greek Chickpea Pasta Salad. Before we get to the recipe, let me tell you why this pasta salad is so amazing.
It has tons of fiber. It uses chickpea paste, which has about five grams of fiber per serving. This recipe is also packed with fiber-rich vegetables, such as eggplant and red pepper. Plus, it’s customizable. This recipe really works with all non-starchy vegetables. Feel free to replace or add your favorites.
Second, this pasta recipe contains a significant amount of protein. The chickpea paste has 13 grams per serving, and the feta cheese adds another 5 grams per serving, according to the USDA. You can add some grilled chicken all over, or pair this salad with a nice salmon fillet for even more protein.
For the pasta salad:
1 eggplant, diced
2 bell peppers, diced
1 red onion, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 box chickpea paste (we used Banza chickpea paste)
4 oz crumbled feta cheese
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Cut all vegetables into equal size and place on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast until tender (about 20 minutes).
Cook pasta according to the instructions on the product box.
Prepare the dressing. Add all ingredients to a small bowl. Beat thoroughly to combine.
When the pasta has finished cooking, strain and add to a large bowl. Add all the roasted vegetables, feta cheese and dressing. Mix to combine thoroughly.
There you have it! This is a delicious and healthy pasta recipe that can be used as a main course, side dish or as a simple meal prep option. It is full of fiber, vegetables and protein. And it gets this dietitian’s approval.