Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.
Q: Now that it’s colder outside, I crave pasta meals. Are there alternatives to regular pasta that won’t add to my waistline?
Many people crave comfort foods, especially pasta, this time of year. It’s thought that eating a carbohydrate-rich meal can improve your mood, at least temporarily, since it increases serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical that’s naturally lower in the winter months.
Mood-boosting aside, if you’re trying to control your weight or blood sugar, you might be inclined to steer away from traditional (semolina wheat) pasta.
Even though one cup of cooked pasta (not including sauce) delivers a modest 170 to 200 calories, some people find it difficult to control their portion size.
If you like large servings of pasta, the following noodle alternatives will save you calories and carbohydrates. They don’t match the taste and texture of the real thing, but if it’s the sauce you love the most – bolognese, arrabbiata, pesto, garlic and olive oil – these substitutes may help satisfy your pasta craving, while adding nutrition to your plate.
These traditional Japanese noodles are made from the flour of an Asian yam called konjac. They have very little flavour on their own, so they blend well with many types of sauces.
Tofu shirataki noodles are made by adding tofu to the konjac flour for a firmer texture.
Shirataki noodles are very low in calories and carbohydrates (they’re 97-per-cent water); they are, though, high in soluble fibre, which helps fill you up. One 210 gram package of NuPasta, for instance, contains 25 calories and 6 g of carbohydrate, all of the carbs as fibre.
They’re sold packaged in water in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, usually near the tofu. To use, drain and rinse under running water to remove the fishy odour (from the konjac).
Remove extra water by blotting with paper towel or heating the noodles in a skillet for a few minutes. Top with your favourite pasta sauce.
Once cooked, the flesh of this squash gets stringy, making it a good stand-in for pasta. And cup for cup, it’s much lower in carbohydrates and calories than regular pasta.
Two cups of cooked spaghetti squash has 84 calories and 20 g of carbohydrates; the same amount of traditional spaghetti, cooked, delivers 390 calories and 76 g of carbohydrate. Spaghetti squash also provides a lot more vitamin A, potassium, calcium and vitamin C than regular noodles.
The mild, sweet taste of spaghetti squash pairs well with many different sauces – marinara, pesto, olive oil, even parmesan cheese and butter.
Using a spiralizer tool, you can turn many different raw vegetables into pasta-like strands. Spiralized vegetables also add fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and protective phytochemicals to your “pasta” meal.
Two cups of spiralized zucchini (about 150 g) provide 25 calories and 4.5 g of carbohydrate along with a decent amount of vitamin C, folate and blood-pressure-regulating potassium. Zucchini is also a good source of lutein, a phytochemical that helps protect your eyes from cataract and macular degeneration.
Spiralized butternut squash is an excellent source of potassium and beta-carotene, an antioxidant thought to guard against heart attack and stroke; it also provides a hefty amount of magnesium.
Beets work, too. Along with plenty of potassium, beets are an exceptional source of betaine, a phytochemical that acts as an antioxidant and helps fight inflammation in the body.
If you don’t want to give up semolina pasta, toss half the amount you’d usually eat with spiralized vegetables to add volume and nutrition to your meal.
Noodles made from black beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamame or split peas aren’t lower in calories than traditional pasta, but they are packed with satiating plant protein and filling fibre, so you might feel satisfied with a smaller portion.
One cup of cooked (56 g dry) bean pasta has 20 to 25 g of protein (the amount found in three ounces of chicken) and 10 to 16 g of fibre.
If it’s carbs you’re counting, one cup of black-bean pasta (Explore Cuisine), for instance, delivers 11 g of net carbohydrates, one-third of what’s in a cup of cooked spaghetti or penne. (Net carbohydrates = grams of total carbohydrate minus grams of fibre.)
Don’t overcook these noodles; test them before the shortest recommended cooking time to avoid mushy pasta. Pair with a bolder flavoured tomato-based sauce.
The real thing
If you crave real pasta, there’s no need to eliminate it from your diet. If you’re watching your weight, stick to one cup of cooked noodles for women, and 1.5 cups for men.
Bulk up your meal by adding lots of vegetables (e.g., bell peppers, onion, mushrooms, zucchini) to the sauce.
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