Pasta is a type of noodle that is made using durum wheat, water, and sometimes, eggs. It’s made into various shapes and is cooked by boiling it. Today, the pasta that you find in most places is made from regular wheat although it may also be made using other grains like rice, barley, or buckwheat.
There are different types of pasta that are commonly consumed. These include spaghetti, tortellini, ravioli, penne, vermicelli, fettuccine, bowtie, orzo, lasagna, linguine, and macaroni. Common toppings for pasta include meat, sauce, cheese, herbs, and vegetables.
There are two common variants of pasta that are available in different shapes and sizes: refined pasta and whole-grain pasta. We’ll look at these in detail below.
Some types of pasta are refined during processing. During this process, the wheat kernel is stripped of the bran and germ which removes so many of the nutrients. Refined pasta may be enriched; this means that nutrients like iron and B vitamins have been added back artificially.
Refined pasta is the most popular type of pasta. It’s higher in calories and lower in fiber. The result is a decreased feeling of fullness after eating as compared to whole-grain pasta which is higher in fiber.
Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive system. It moves through the intestinal tract undigested and so it helps to promote the feeling of fullness. For this reason, refined pasta is not recommended in reducing appetite and cravings.
Whole-grain pasta contains all parts of the wheat kernel which means that all the nutrients remain in the pasta and do not need to be added back. They remain in the pasta along with other beneficial components like fiber. The result is an increased feeling of fullness after eating hence a lowered appetite.
This means that whole-grain pasta is lower in calories and carbohydrates. Eating this type of pasta has been linked to a lower risk of obesity and the associated health risks.
If you haven’t tried whole-grain pasta yet, keep in mind that it has a stronger flavor and a different texture as compared to regular refined pasta. You might end up liking it right away or might need to try a couple more times before you can acquire the taste.
Nutrients in Whole-Grain Pasta Vs. Refined Pasta
Whole-grain pasta is not only high in fiber but also in micronutrients like manganese, selenium, copper, and phosphorous. On the other hand, enriched pasta is higher in iron and B vitamins. For better understanding, here is a comparison table showing the number of nutrients in a cup of cooked whole-grain pasta and a cup of refined pasta.
|Nutrient||Whole-Grain Pasta||Refined Pasta|
|6||Manganese||97% of the RDI||23% of the RDI|
|7||Selenium||52% of the RDI||53% of the RDI|
|8||Copper||12% of the RDI||7% of the RDI|
|9||Phosphorous||12% of the RDI||8% of the RDI|
|10||Magnesium||11% of the RDI||6% of the RDI|
|11||Thiamin (B1)||10% of the RDI||26% of the RDI|
|12||Folate (B9)||2% of the RDI||26% of the RDI|
|13||Niacin (B3)||5% of the RDI||12% of the RDI|
|14||Riboflavin (B2)||4% of the RDI||11% of the RDI|
|15||Iron||8% of the RDI||10% of the RDI|
Vitamins and minerals in pasta
All the present B vitamins are important for turning food into energy. Both types of pasta are good sources of these vitamins but since refined pasta is enriched, it usually has more vitamins than whole-grain pasta.
Regular pasta has more iron but whole-grain pasta has more calcium, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorous so it’s generally a better source of minerals than refined pasta. Calcium is needed for strong bones, you need zinc for proper immune function and healing, magnesium for muscles and nerve function, and lastly phosphorous for creating DNA and storing energy.
Which is better between the two?
Whole-grain pasta is made from the entire wheat kernel and as a result, they’re lower in calories and carbs, higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Refined pasta is made using only the endosperm of the kernel.
Consuming whole-grain pasta is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
However, it’s worth noting that whole-grain pasta is made from whole-wheat flour that has been pulverized. A process that diminishes the beneficial effects of the whole grains found in pasta since grains with smaller particles are digested more rapidly.
Generally speaking, there isn’t much difference in the effects of whole-grain pasta and refined pasta on a person’s health. Studies have also shown that there is no difference in blood sugar levels after eating refined pasta or whole-grain pasta.
Pasta that is made from whole grains is a better choice for people who want to lose weight while refined pasta is a better choice for anyone who wants to gain weight.
Other studies have shown that eating a lot of refined pasta may have negative health effects which include an increased risk of heart disease, blood pressure, blood sugar, bad LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, increased waist circumference, and insulin resistance.
Focusing specifically on the health benefits of refined pasta, it’s clear that the glycemic index of pasta is in the low to medium range, which is a lot lower than that of other processed foods. The glycemic index measures how quickly and significantly particular foods increase blood sugar. Generally, lower-glycemic foods can help a person control their weight and lower their risk of heart disease and type II diabetes.
Pasta is high in Carbohydrates
Pasta is not just “bad” because it’s high in carbs. Our bodies need carbohydrates for energy especially if you lead an active lifestyle. The secret is to make sure that you balance it with other types of food.
A cup serving of cooked pasta contains about 37 to 43 grams of carbohydrates. Carbs are quickly broken down into glucose resulting in an increase in blood sugar. Since pasta has more carbs, it’s digested quickly leading to increased hunger and a higher risk of overeating. It’s for this reason that people with diabetes are advised to consume high-carb foods in moderation and, instead, go for foods rich in fiber. This slows down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream and helps to maintain steady blood sugar levels.
High-carb diets are linked to a couple of health conditions including:
Taking in high-carb diets is associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes
Eating foods with a high glycemic index is associated with more bodyweight
- Metabolic syndrome
People who eat foods with high amounts of carbs are twice as likely to develop metabolic syndrome which refers to a group of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease.
If you are following a strict low-carb diet, it can be quite challenging for you to fit pasta into your meal plan. Pasta is, however, perfect for a balanced diet and fits comfortably into low-fat diets as long as you keep the toppings light.
People with diabetes or blood sugar problems find that any type or amount of pasta can have an enormous impact on blood glucose levels.
Gluten in pasta
Gluten is a type of protein that is found in grains such as wheat and barley. It is one of the top food allergens for both children and adults. Traditionally, pasta contains gluten although there are some gluten-free varieties in the market. While some people are gluten insensitive, gluten in pasta may cause problems for other people.
People with celiac disease are supposed to avoid eating foods with gluten entirely as they may trigger an immune response causing damage to the cells of the small intestines. Other symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, and in some cases headaches and rashes.
People who are sensitive to gluten may also experience digestive issues and so they should limit their gluten intake.
If you experience any negative symptoms after eating pasta, you’re advised to go for gluten-free whole grains like brown rice. Gluten-free pasta is still high in carbohydrates and has about the same number of calories. Nutritionally speaking, it is not any better or worse than regular pasta. Not unless a person is suffering from gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, there’s a need to eliminate pasta from the diet in a bid to reduce his/her gluten intake. There’s no solid evidence that a gluten-free diet offers any health benefits.
As a matter of fact, gluten-free pasta is usually more expensive than the non-gluten-free equivalent. They’re also less healthy since they are lower in fiber and protein yet they’re higher in sugar and fat.
Generally speaking, is pasta healthy or not?
Pasta is enormously popular and is a great addition to any meal. It’s also very convenient and filling although it can easily become a base for too many calories. There are some types of pasta that only provide empty carbs meaning that they offer very little nutritional value alongside the calories. The amount of pasta consumed and whatever you put on top of the pasta is probably what makes it healthy or not.
When eaten in moderation, pasta can be a very healthy diet. Whole-grain pasta is a better choice compared to refined pasta because it’s lower in calories and carbs but higher in fiber and nutrients.
Whole-grain pasta is one of the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet which is a nutritional approach that dietitians recommend for weight control as well as a lower risk of disease.
All in all, it’s very essential to watch the portion of the size of pasta. Aim to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables and just a quarter of the plate with carbs like pasta.
Tips for making healthier pasta-based meals
While pasta is quite healthy on its own, it’s still possible to make healthier meals out of it. For example, using whole-grain pasta and vegetables can make a nutritionally rich pasta-based meal. In addition to the type of pasta that you choose, what you top it up with is also very important.
To optimize the nutritional value of your pasta, load up on toppings like proteins, heart-healthy fats, and vegetables. Pasta in itself is not a fattening food; it is what people put on top of pasta and the large servings that lead to lots of weight gain.
Avoid creams as these are high in fat, saturated fats, and calories. Some of the healthiest toppings are vegetables either in chopped or pureed form. These go a long way in increasing the essential vitamins and minerals.
Here’s what to include if you’re looking to make healthy pasta-based meals:
- Add plenty of fresh herbs and veggies like broccoli ad bell peppers for additional fiber
- Use lean proteins such as fish and chicken
- Add common accompaniments such as garlic bread
- Use home-made sauces instead of buying pre-made ones. Avoid cream-based sauces
- Limit the amount of oil to about one to two teaspoons – preferably olive oil
- Replace cheeses with natural yeast
- Add mushrooms for flavor and bulk
- Opt for whole-grain, bean-based, or lentil-based pasta
What are the alternatives to pasta?
Some alternatives to pasta include:
- Brown or wild rice
- Sprouted grains
- Whole-wheat couscous
- Buckwheat noodles also called soba noodles
- Zucchini, spaghetti squash, and other vegetables
The bottom line
Pasta is a complex carbohydrate that contains many important nutrients. Around the world, pasta is a dietary staple that thanks to the fact that it’s fairly neutral diet-wise and can also be a good source of fiber. However, it’s high in carbs and such foods tend to raise blood sugar levels. This has been associated with some negative effects on a person’s health as they cause diseases.
At the end of the day, moderation is key when it comes to pasta. You should only enjoy it on occasion and ensure that you keep portion sizes in check. Again, you should always pick healthy toppings for your pasta to make sure that you’re eating an overall healthy diet.