I've always tried to convince myself that pasta is healthy to justify my frequent consumption of it. It wasn't until I traveled to Italy that I learned that I don't need to pretend and that pasta actually isn't bad for you like we've been taught to believe — when you eat it the right way. Promise! I'm not making a case for living a carb-heavy lifestyle; clearly balance is important. But I am making a case for being comfortable with eating carbs — particularly pasta — and recognizing that there are health benefits to this food group that has been essentially exiled from America's definition of a healthy routine. Indulging in a heavenly plate of cacio e pepe from time to time will not cause you to gain weight, and there's no reason to shame yourself for eating the foods you love.
Don't just take it from me: take it from Italy, where pasta is a central part of the country's cuisine and where it's the norm to eat pasta once a day, if not more. There's a well-known quote from Giada De Laurentiis that I love: "Pasta doesn't make you fat." In a 2013 interview with POPSUGAR, Giada elaborated on the misconception, saying, "I just think that people in America think Italian food equals fat or meatballs and sauce or heavy food. Actually, Italian food is actually quite light." And she's 100 percent right. And I'm here to talk about why we should take note.
Because I've had the fortune of traveling to Italy twice, most recently with Giovanni Rana, I've sat down with plenty of people who live there and have learned the truth about their pasta-eating routines and what Americans get wrong about eating the grain. These conversations have not only enlightened me, but have also reassured me that I shouldn't feel an extreme sense of guilt every time I order the pasta instead of the salad.
The Health Benefits of Pasta
- It's low in sodium and cholesterol free.
- It's high in folic acid.
- It has a low glycemic index.
- It has brain-boosting fuel, which is why people eat it before big races.
- The macronutrient profile — the percentage of carbohydrates, protein, and fat — of dried spaghetti is 83 percent, 14 percent, and 3 percent, respectively. Not only is it rich in protein, but it has 2.5 grams of fiber per serving, too.
To uncover the true health benefits of pasta — and how its ties to the Mediterranean diet make it a recommended food in other countries — I spoke to a couple of registered dietitians who have studied nutrition and lifestyle trends for years. Curious about what nutritionists really have to say about pasta? Let's break it down.
First up is Diane Welland, registered dietitian and nutrition communications manager for the National Pasta Association (yep, that's a real thing, and it's now a goal of mine to be a part of it someday). Diane has participated in research that suggests pasta consumption in adults is associated with overall better diet quality when compared to adults who don't eat pasta.
A separate study conducted by Italian scientists that appeared in the Nutrition and Diabetes Journal found that pasta consumption is associated with a lower BMI, particularly in women. After studying more than 20,000 Italian people over the course of three years, the scientists found that "as a traditional component of MeD [the typical Mediterranean diet], pasta consumption was negatively associated with BMI, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio, and with a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity." That "negative" association association with BMI means those people's body mass indexes decreased.
"Pasta doesn't make you fat. It's the amount you have."
I also spoke to Lisa Eberly, registered dietitian and founder of Nourish, who agrees that you do not need to eliminate carbs from your life. "All carbs are most definitely not bad," said Lisa. "I think pasta, rice, bread, and other carbs should absolutely be incorporated into a healthy diet, especially for someone who loves those foods. The two most important pillars to remember when eating carbs are: whole grains and moderation."
Lisa confirmed that, yes, whole-grain pasta is the smarter choice over traditional pasta if you want to make the healthiest plate. "Whole-wheat pasta is a high-fiber whole grain. The fiber in the complex whole-wheat pasta keeps you fuller longer and promotes reduced inflammation and balanced blood sugars." She's personally a fan of pasta made from whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, and red lentils.
If you're now thinking, "Yay, I can eat a huge plate of cheesy pasta every day as part of a healthy diet," you're not quite on the right track. You can only reap the health benefits of pasta when you treat it the right way — namely, as part of the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet might as well be called the Mediterranean Lifestyle, because that's exactly what it is in Italy. People don't grow up with the idea that they're constantly "on a diet," but instead that they're practicing a heart-healthy mentality that weaves itself into every meal they make. What you won't find Italians eating is a huge plate of spaghetti slathered in jarred alfredo sauce. What you will find them eating is a lot of fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, whole grains, and healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil. At the same time, they don't eat a lot of dairy, red meat, and sugar.
Fresh vegetables should never be far beyond when you're preparing your pot of salted boiling water for pasta. Diane commented on Giada's famous quote, adding, "Pasta doesn't make you fat. It's the amount that you have. Pasta is a perfect vehicle for fresh vegetables and lean meats, really healthy items. It's so easy to pair pasta with vegetables to up your consumption of vegetables."
Along this same line of thinking, Lisa suggests breaking up your plate in the following way: "vegetables should make up half your dish and complex carbs should make one-quarter of your dish, with the last quarter going to protein." The key takeaway with pasta is to always double the amount of vegetables on your plate. If you're having half a cup of pasta, be sure to pair it with at least a cup of veggies.
Still not convinced that pasta can be a part of a healthy lifestyle? Another Italian's point of view I've learned from is Lorenzo Boni, executive chef of Barilla America. In addition to his advice about what type of chicken you shouldn't add to pasta, he let me in on a little secret: "I ate pasta 14 times a week in Italy." Fourteen times a week! But the reason he was able to get away with that is that he paid close attention to portion size. Recognizing that your body benefits from carbohydrates but that there's a right way to consume them is crucial to understanding the best way to eat pasta.
Diane elaborated on portion size by saying, "People like me with an Italian background, we eat it two times a week easily; pretty regularly. Every Sunday meal and then leftovers during the week. From a quantity perspective, our recipes generally use about two ounces of dry pasta for four servings, which comes to about a half cup of pasta for a serving size. And that is usually combined with a lot of really healthy foods, like vegetables, beans, and legumes (like pasta fazul)."
Once you get a grasp on portion size, you'll realize there's no need to cut carbs entirely out of your life. "You don't want to eliminate carbs from your diet," Diane reassured. "Your body needs carbohydrates. It's one of your major nutrients. You need it for a number of reasons, but particularly it's important for your brain — [it] needs a certain amount of carbs to function. Also need[s] them in order to have energy, feel good, and be able to have enough energy throughout the day. You want to have a balanced amount of carbs, proteins, and fats."
Measures of Success For Healthy Pasta-Eating Habits
- Watch your portion size. The appropriate portion size is one cup of cooked pasta (about the size of a baseball). A helpful trick is to measure your spaghetti using the hole of a pasta spoon.
- Stretch the pasta by adding plenty of vegetables and/or lean meat. You can add vitamins, minerals, and fiber by bulking up a pasta dish with your favorite vegetables and proteins. A few easy recipes to try out are vegetable pasta primavera, spaghetti and chicken parmesan meatballs, and broccoli chicken fettuccine alfredo.
- Use olive oil instead of butter or heavy cream. Some pasta dishes (like authentic Italian alfredo) need butter to do them justice, but plenty of dishes don't. Avoid unnecessary fat from butter and use heart-healthy, high-quality olive oil instead.
All of these "rules" for eating pasta are commonplace in Italy, and many people in Italy recognize that Americans don't always eat it the "right" way. While chatting over a pasta dinner in Verona with a woman who has lived in Italy her whole life, she let me know how she really feels: "Americans put way too much crap on their pasta," she said.
Instead of reaching into the pantry for premade ingredients to add to pasta (not that there's anything wrong with spaghetti aglio e olio in a pinch), it's best to use produce and fresh ingredients as the foundation of a pasta meal. Diane points out that, "Pasta is very easily eaten seasonally, whether it be dried or fresh. Dried pasta is very much considered healthy; it's just as healthy as fresh." So it doesn't make a difference if you're eating fresh pasta from the refrigerator section or dried pasta from a box — it's what you pair with it that counts. Pay attention to what's in season, and add things like fresh tomatoes, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, or brussels sprouts to your pasta.
I say all of this as a person who truly has an undying love for pasta and could not imagine depriving myself of it. And if you feel the same, I want you to know you should stop feeling guilty about eating something you love — life is way too short for that. The next time you're considering if you should order the pasta for dinner and your friend says, "I'll have the salad," think about what the Italians might do. They'd probably order both.
Travel and expenses for the author and photographer were provided by Giovanni Rana for the purpose of writing this story.