I'm trying to lose weight, but I really love pasta. Are there any types of pasta that I can eat guilt-free?
Many people cutting carbs to lose weight avoid eating pasta, thinking that a high-carbohydrate meal delivers too many calories and squeezes out muscle-sparing protein. But providing you pick the right noodle – and manage your portion size – a pasta meal doesn't have to undermine your diet, or your weight.
With a rising number of alternative products hitting the pasta aisle – from spelt and quinoa to red lentil and edamame – there's a noodle for every diet. And many have a lot going on in the nutrition department.
You don't need to banish traditional pasta from your menu, though (unless you're avoiding wheat or gluten).
Pasta made from semolina, a flour made from durum wheat, delivers carbohydrates that score low on the glycemic index scale. That means that, unlike white bread, eating spaghetti (white or whole wheat) won't cause your blood sugar and insulin to spike.
Whole-wheat noodles, made from the entire grain including the nutrient-rich germ and bran, deliver more minerals and twice as much fibre as pasta made from refined semolina flour.
One cup of cooked whole-wheat spaghetti provides 6 grams of fibre, 82 milligrams of blood-sugar-regulating magnesium (adults need 400 mg daily) and a full day's worth of selenium, a mineral that combats harmful free radicals and helps the thyroid function properly.
Whole-wheat pasta isn't the only healthy choice. There are plenty of other nutritious pastas to choose from, ones that can help boost your intake of heart-healthy fibre and plant protein.
Here's a quick guide to alternative pastas – what they're made from, their redeeming nutrient qualities and other helpful tips.
Noodles made from whole-grain spelt flour, an ancient cousin of modern wheat, are a nuttier, more flavourful option than regular whole-wheat pasta. They're also thought to be easier to digest than modern wheat since the gluten in spelt is highly soluble.
Whole-grain spelt pasta is high in protein, fibre and magnesium. One cup of cooked pasta (55 g dry) supplies 7 g of protein, 5 g fibre and 25 per cent of your daily magnesium. It's also a good source of niacin and thiamin, B vitamins the body uses to convert food into energy.
Some brands are made from refined spelt flour, so read labels to choose whole grain.
Also called Khorasan wheat, kamut is an ancient grain that's related to spelt. Pasta made from whole-grain kamut flour is packed with protein and fibre – 10 g and 6 g per cup cooked, respectively – and is a decent source of B vitamins, magnesium and iron.
Like spelt, kamut may be easier to digest for wheat-sensitive people.
Pair nutty-tasting whole-grain pastas with bold flavoured sauces such as spicy tomato sauce, garlicky olive oil, or pesto made with spinach, herbs and nuts.
Despite its "superfood" status, noodles made from quinoa are not as nutrient packed as you might think. That's because most quinoa pastas are made with a blend of flours, such as white rice flour or corn flour.
GoGo Quinoa's Quinoa Spaghetti, for example, lists white rice flour as the first ingredient. One serving (1 cup cooked) has 5 g of protein (refined and whole-wheat pasta have 7 g) and 1 g of fibre. Corn/quinoa blends have more fibre.
Quinoa pasta has a mild taste and is firmer than other gluten-free pastas, so it works well in salads.
Brown rice pasta
This gluten-free pasta provides 4 to 5 g of protein, 1 to 2 g of fibre and a smattering of vitamins and minerals per cup, cooked. Brown rice pasta can be on the mushy side, so don't overcook it.
Noodles made from black beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamame and/or split peas are another offering for gluten-intolerant people. Anyone wanting to eat more plant protein and fibre should give these nutrient powerhouses a try.
One serving (56 g dry; 1 cup cooked) of Explore Cuisine's Black Bean Spaghetti serves up 25 g of protein – the amount found in four ounces of cooked salmon – and 12 g of fibre. And a hefty amount of iron.
Don't overcook these noodles. Test before the shortest recommended cooking time to avoid mushy pasta. Bean pastas pair well with bolder flavoured sauces or salad dressings.
If you're making a meal out of pasta, stick to one cup of cooked noodles for women and 1.5 cups for men. Increase the volume and satiety factor of your meal by adding plenty of chopped vegetables to the sauce.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.