Back in the day, options for pasta were pretty much limited to elbows or shells, spaghetti or fettuccini.
Those are far from ideal nutritionally. They are essentially like eating a big ol’ bowl of white bread. And at many restaurants, pasta dishes can pack in 150-plus grams of carbohydrate – that’s the carb equivalent of 10 slices of white bread.
Here’s how I guide my clients: If you truly love pasta, then have it — on occasion. Start thinking of traditional white pasta as a side dish rather than the main event, to help keep calories and processed, starchy carbs in check.
Start exploring the many pasta alternatives. From spiralized zucchini to fiber-rich black bean pasta to relatively straightforward whole wheat pasta, better-for-you pasta options continue to get better.
If it is really the sauces and toppings that you’re craving more than the pasta itself, these pasta swaps can be the perfect answer: a lower-calorie, lower-carb vehicle for your Italian cravings.
No. 1 Best Bet: Real Veggies
Not only do they help us slash calories and carbs, vegetable-based pasta swaps immediately boost veggie intake for the day. Plus, they’re naturally gluten-free.
Eggplant is an easy, low-carb solution for dishes like manicotti, cannelloni or lasagna. Spaghetti squash is a popular spaghetti stand-in, with about 80 percent fewer carbs and calories than pasta. Simply roast the squash in the oven (or even steam it in the microwave), then rake a fork through it to form spaghetti-like strands.
Zucchini is another low-calorie spaghetti alternative. Use a spiralizer, a mandolin or even a cheese grater to create skinny zucchini ribbons.
And a spiralizer can turn all types of vegetables into “pasta” – from turnips to beets, parsnips to butternut squash, the options are many.
Other low-carb, low-calorie plant-based pasta substitutes include House Foods Tofu Shirataki noodles, a blend of soybeans and yam flour with just 20 calories per cup. Look for these in the refrigerated section of grocery stores, often near the tofu or in the produce department.
No 2: Legume Pasta
When it comes to fiber and protein, legume-based pastas edge out all the others. Naturally gluten free and available in stores ranging from Walmart to Rouses Markets to Whole Foods Market, these legume pastas are high enough in protein to pull double duty as the main protein source, making it easier than ever to serve a well-rounded, protein-rich plant-based meal.
Legume pastas include black bean, lentil, edamame and chickpea pasta, now growing in popularity and recognizable on shelves from brands like Banza.
Black bean and edamame pastas tie for the win for most nutrient-rich pasta. Each provides 24 grams of protein per 2-ounce serving (about three times more than traditional pasta), along with more than five times more fiber than white pasta.
Chickpea pasta is next, with 14 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per serving, followed by lentil pasta, also with 14 grams of protein and about 3 grams of fiber per serving. Chickpea and lentil pasta, specifically yellow lentil pasta, also score extra points as the bean pasta most likely to be mistaken for traditional white pasta, making these an even bigger crowd-pleaser.
No. 3: 100 Percent Whole Wheat Pasta
To confuse matters, pasta labeled “whole wheat” isn’t guaranteed to be entirely whole grain. In fact, roughly half of it can still be white flour.
Truly whole wheat pasta will list 100 percent durum whole wheat flour as the main ingredient. Some of the more common brands that offer 100 percent whole wheat pasta options include Hodgson Mills and DeBoles, and even store brands like Great Value at Walmart.
These 100 percent whole wheat pastas typically provide about 6 grams of fiber per serving, though with an average of 200 calories and 40 grams of carbohydrate per serving, it’s important to note that whole wheat pasta isn’t any lower in calories or carbohydrates than white pasta.
Tip: If you’ve tried whole wheat pasta before and couldn’t get past the mealy, gritty texture, give it another try. They have come a long way. You may find that you prefer a thinner pasta like whole wheat angel hair, which can be perceived as less chewy and dense.
It’s also OK to go half-and-half for a while, gradually increasing the ratio of whole wheat to white pasta.
No. 4: Brown Rice Pasta
Brown rice pasta is fine, but not great. It’s far from the nutritional powerhouses that we get with black bean pasta or spiralized beets, in that it’s not particularly high in fiber, protein, or antioxidants, vitamins or minerals. Still high in calories and carbs, it’s better than white pasta, but that’s about all.
No. 5: Blended pasta
Barilla is one of the more recognizable pasta brands that offers blended pasta options, often a blend of white flour with whole grain or legume flours.
Turn over a box of Barilla’s “white fiber” pasta, for example, and you’ll see that it’s made with semolina (white flour), durum wheat flour (also white flour) and whole durum wheat flour.
And their ProteinPlus pasta lists semolina (white flour) as the first ingredient, just like regular white pasta. But the second ingredient is a “grain and legume flour blend,” consisting of lentils, chickpeas, flaxseed, barley, spelt and oats. With 4 grams of fiber per serving, this is still a pretty decent option for pasta fans.
While these pasta blends contain white flour, they can help to ease the transition to 100 percent whole grain pasta.
No. 6: White pasta and “veggie” pasta
The “veggie” pasta fake-outs are even worse than traditional white pasta. That’s because they trick us into thinking we’re doing something better for our bodies.
The reality, however, is that they’re essentially white pasta with vegetable powders and extracts added for coloring. The result: “veggie” pasta that’s low-fiber, high-calorie, and high in starchy carbs, just like regular white pasta. Read the labels so you won’t be taken in.
The bottom line: If you love regular pasta, then have it from time to time, but start to think of it as an accompaniment to your meal, not the main event.
Editor’s note: Registered dietitian Molly Kimball offers brand-name products as a consumer guide; she does not solicit product samples nor is paid to recommend items.
Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment and read more atNOLA.com/eat-drink. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, @MollyKimballRD.