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Even on a low carb diet, pasta can be good for you

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Pasta is quick to cook, handy to keep in the pantry and an easy solution for the times when you’re not sure what to make for dinner. But because pasta is high in carbohydrates — and therefore, some people think, bad for your weight and your health — it often doesn’t make it onto the menu.

“Pasta isn’t serving its reputation as a fattening food,” says Erin Morse, the chief clinical dietitian at UCLA Health Center. Nor are carbohydrates in general. In a 2018 study in the Lancet, researchers projected that a 50-year-old who got half their calories from carbohydrates would live four years longer than someone on a low-carb diet (less than 30 percent of calories) and one year longer than someone on a higher-carb diet (more than 65 percent of calories).

Serving up pasta’s health benefits

Regular pasta is made from refined flour that’s stripped of its fiber-rich outer layers. But the flour (called semolina) comes from durum wheat, which is higher in protein than other varieties. “Many pastas on the market are also enriched with iron and B vitamins,” says Dolores Woods, a registered dietitian at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. A cup of cooked pasta serves up 8 grams of protein and 2.5 grams of fiber, plus 26 percent of the daily value for folate and 10 percent for iron — all for just 220 calories.

Pasta has some important differences from other refined carbs. The starches and protein in durum wheat are bound together, so it takes longer for your body to digest. “Pasta can help you feel fuller than white rice or white bread,” says Mengxi Du, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston. It also has a lower glycemic index, or GI — a measure of how quickly a food raises your blood sugar — than other refined carbs. Blood sugar levels stay steadier, which has benefits for your weight and health.

For example, in a study published in 2016 in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, people who ate pasta as part of a Mediterranean diet had lower body mass indexes and smaller waistlines than those who also followed a Mediterranean diet but did not eat pasta. And a large 2021 study in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Healthy found that women ages 50 to 79 who ate pasta three to four times a week were 16 percent less likely to have a stroke and 9 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who ate it less than once a week.

The BMJ study was partially funded by the pasta industry, which means more research is needed. Nevertheless, pasta can be part of a healthy diet, and it’s better for you than fried potatoes and white bread, so swapping it can benefit your health, Morse says. It’s often paired with healthy foods, too, such as olive oil and vegetables.

Here are some tips for keeping pasta healthy:

Measure portions. A serving of pasta is 2 ounces dry, or about 1 cup cooked. “It depends on the shape of the pasta, so it’s smart to measure it,” Morse says. If you’re eyeballing it, a cup of cooked pasta is roughly the size of a baseball.

Don’t overcook. That breaks the bonds between the protein and starch. They remain intact in firm noodles, called al dente, Du says. This keeps the pasta’s GI low and helps you feel satisfied for longer. Cooking times vary, so check packages.

Add veggies. This increases the fiber and nutrients. “Blend steamed carrots, broccoli, bell peppers or leafy greens into your red sauce,” Morse says. Or try asparagus, peas, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms and a drizzle of olive oil. You can also swap out half the pasta for “noodles” cut from fresh squash or another vegetable, Du says. Or simply warm up frozen vegetables with your sauce and use it to top the pasta.

Toss in some protein filling. Cooked lean meat, poultry, fish, beans or tofu can help make one serving of pasta more satisfying.

Choose a low-sodium sauce. A half-cup of tomato sauce counts as a serving of vegetables in your diet. Jarred sauces are often high in sodium; several of the ones in our 2023 pasta sauce test had 420 mg per serving. That’s 20 percent of the 2,300-mg daily limit. The two top-rated (by Consumer Reports) sauces, the Silver Palate Low Sodium Marinara and Victoria Low Sodium Marinara, have only around 5 percent of the daily limit.

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