Pasta rarely makes anyone’s list of healthiest foods. That’s because most store-bought pasta is high in carbs, low in fiber and relatively devoid of nutrition. A cup of cooked, white pasta has around 200 calories and as much as 45 grams of carbs with very little fiber to slow down its absorption. That means it can wreak havoc with your blood sugars if you’re a diabetic and make it easier to store fat even if you’re not – because of its effects on blood sugar and insulin.
So what are your options if pasta is your favorite food and one you’re not about to forsake? Fortunately, there are ways to make pasta less of a dietary liability so you can enjoy a piping hot bowl of pasta without guilt. Here are some tips for making healthy pasta dishes.
Healthy Pasta: Choose a Lower Carb Pasta
The biggest problem with pasta is it’s high in rapidly-absorbed carbs. You may or may not be familiar with a line of pasta called Dreamfield Pasta. Dreamfield is made with semolina flour in a way that slows down how rapidly it’s absorbed from your digestive tract when you eat it. This should reduce the impact it has on your blood sugar and make it less unhealthy. If you look at the package, you’ll see it has around 40 grams of carbohydrates per serving but only about 5 digestible carbs, meaning you’re only absorbing 5 grams. Sounds like a good alternative, doesn’t it?
The problem is people don’t always react in the same way to Dreamfield Pasta. Some people DO get a significant rise in blood sugar when they eat it while others don’t. In small study carried out at the University of Minnesota involving ten people, participants had a similar blood sugar response to Dreamfield pasta as they did to regular pasta. The only way to really know whether Dreamfield pasta “works” for you is to test your blood sugar after eating it. That’s why we’re not so quick to sing the virtues of Dreamfield Pasta at this point.
Another low-carb pasta option that truly is low in carbs is tofu shirataki noodles. You can find these noodles at many natural food markets. Some Asian markets carry them too. They’re made from a fiber called glucomannan and have added tofu to improve their texture. The natural food co-op we have in our area carries them. The good news is they only have around 3 grams of carbs per serving and around 20 calories.
You can also find plain shirataki noodles made from glucomannan without the tofu. Neither of these noodles has have any real taste. They simply take on the taste of whatever sauce you put on them. Of the two, I prefer the tofu version. If you give them a try, rinse them well in cold water. They have a slightly odd aroma fresh out of the package. This should disappear after you wash, dry and cook them.
Cook Pasta a la Dente
If tofu shirataki pasta doesn’t appeal to you, choose the highest fiber pasta you can find. Trader Joe’s, which we don’t have around here, makes their own version of high-fiber penne and high-fiber spaghetti that has 6 grams of fiber per serving. If you don’t have access to a Trader Joe’s, choose a high-fiber, whole-wheat pasta. Cook it a la dente until it’s firm, not soft. The glycemic index is lower when you don’t cook it until it’s soft and sticky, When you prepare your final dish, increase the ratio of vegetables to pasta and add a source of protein. This will slow down how fast you absorb and digest the pasta.
Try These Pasta Substitutes
There are lots of healthy substitutes for pasta. When it’s time for spaghetti, I use spaghetti squash in place of pasta noodles. Here’s a video on how to prepare spaghetti squash:
Other options are to cut zucchini into ribbons, cook them and put pasta sauce and other enhancements on top of it. You can also use mung bean threads, a bed of spinach or thinly sliced eggplant slithers as a pasta substitute.
How about placing pasta sauce, vegetables and a protein source over beans instead of pasta? When you’re craving ravioli, make your own using wonton wrappers to lower the carb count. If you have a mandolin vegetable slicer, it comes in handy for turning squash and other vegetables into pasta “noodles.”
Use a Small Amount of Pasta as a Bed for Vegetables
Certain pasta dishes would be healthy in the absence of the pasta itself. Marinara sauce is loaded with heart-healthy lycopenes and when you add vegetables to a pasta dish you’re getting antioxidants and fiber. If you don’t want to give up pasta, cut the amount of pasta in half and double up on the vegetables. Choose a tomato-based sauce and stay away from the rich, creamy and cheesy pasta toppings. If a pasta recipe calls for cheese, sprinkle it on top instead to reduce the amount you eat. If you do eat a bowl of pasta, skip the bread.
The Bottom Line?
A pasta dish can be yummy and still reasonably healthy. Give these tips a try. If you have any of your own, share them with us. We’re all ears.