Rigatoni, macaroni, penne—whatever your shape of choice, pasta night always seems to be the highlight of the week.
From the time you pour your first cup of coffee that morning, you’re already turning over the possibilities in your head. Homemade pesto or rich vodka sauce? Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese? Whole wheat or classic?
A bowl of pasta feels like a moment of forbidden indulgence that we only get a pass for once a week. And the fact that it’s one of the simplest meals to whip up on a busy weeknight makes it feel that much more indulgent. Even simply tossing whole wheat spaghetti in olive oil makes for a delicious main dish—which means less time spent over the stove and more time relaxing after a long day.
But why does pasta have to be designated a once-a-week allowance? Why has it come to be branded as a treat rather than a healthy diet staple?
The stigma around pasta stems from the hefty amount of nutritional baggage that carbs carry around. As celebrities and your best friend trying to drop the extra winter weight commit to eliminating the food group entirely, our beloved spaghetti and meatballs gets a bad rap as unfit for consumption at any time of the year—particularly bikini season. Low-carb diets are constantly being touted on social media as the answer for weight loss, and myriads of bean-based pasta are taking center stage on grocery store shelves, while white and whole wheat varieties are shoved to the back.
Apparently, many people haven’t gotten the memo that carbs aren’t just a key component of pasta, they also appear in vegetables, beans, fruits and sweets. Carbohydrates are macronutrients that, alongside protein and fats, art vital players in delivering energy to the body throughout the day.
Last November, research reported at the Obesity Society’s annual meeting found that adults who consumed pasta were found to have better diet quality overall than those who did not. Using the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, researchers identified four positive nutritional patterns of those who consistently included pasta in their diets:
- They scored higher diet quality scores (according to the USDA Healthy Eating Index).
- They presented with a greater intake of nutrients like folate, iron, magnesium and dietary fiber.
- They consumed a lower daily intake of saturated fat and added sugar.
- They ate more vitamins and minerals overall.
Those sound like some pretty solid benefits to us. It’s worthwhile to mention that the study was conducted by the National Pasta Association, who obviously have a stake in the findings, so we’ll take the research with a grain of salt (pun intended). But we’ve been waiting for a reason to let pasta back into the dinner rotation. But if you’re thinking about diving head first into a bowl of white spaghetti, not so fast. When integrating more pasta-based meals into your daily diet, here are three rules of thumb you should take into consideration:
Avoid Over-Processed Varieties
Although your impulse may be to reach for a box of standard spaghetti, step away from the Barilla. Berkley Wellness suggested scanning the aisle for the variety containing the most whole grains (notice we didn’t say “wheat”). If you come across several options, pick the one containing the most fiber. Don’t be deterred if you don’t fall in love with the texture or flavor immediately; Different brands will produce slightly varying consistencies of whole-grain pasta.
Pro Tip: You may think you’re being healthier by grabbing a box of spinach-flavored pasta, but the quality rarely makes this a healthier option. So if you love the flavor, great! If not, leave it on the shelf.
Don’t Get Overzealous With the Sauce
We all love a good Alfredo, but it’s not exactly the healthiest choice for a weeknight meal (even if you are pairing it with whole-grain pasta). According to Berkley Wellness, your best bet is a whole made, antioxidant rich tomato sauce. Otherwise, you should make sure to pick one with 2-3 of saturated fat per serving, and less than 4 grams of sugar. The majority of store-bought sauces are also incredibly high in sodium, so make sure you opt for one with 450 milligrams or less.
Pro Tip: If you’re using a jar of Prego from your local grocery store, try sprucing your sauce up with some fresh vegetables like zucchini, cauliflower and bell peppers, plus some fresh basil to top it all off.
Watch That Serving Size
While it can be tempting to go back for seconds (and thirds) on pasta night, the USDA recommends limiting yourself to one, 1/2 cup serving (of cooked pasta). When you’re taking a dry measurement, this should be about one ounce. Don’t forget to take the sauce serving-size into consideration as well. Most sauces dictate 1/2 cup for their serving size, but be mindful that cheese-based sauces often suggest consuming 1/4 cup.
Pro Tip: Invest in a one-ounce ramekin explicitly for pasta night. It’s much prettier than a measuring cup, and will give you the satisfaction of filling it to the brim. Or keep your large bowl and consider utilizing the concept behind volumetrics to bulk up your meal without adding hundreds of extra calories: mix your pasta with spiralized zucchini and carrots for a larger serving with minimal extra calories.
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