The low-carb diet craze is pretty much over, but misconceptions linger. Take pasta, for example. “Pasta doesn't deserve its bad rap for being unhealthy and fattening,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a dietitian in Consumer Reports’ food lab.

On the plus side, regular pasta is made from durum wheat (semolina), a variety that has a higher protein content than most other types.

It’s also a convenient and inexpensive food. And cutting it out of your diet isn’t the magical path to a slimmer you. An analysis of 48 studies published in JAMA found that low-carb and low-fat diets (which tend to be higher in carbohydrates) were equally effective for weight loss, leading the study authors to conclude that the best diet to lose weight is the diet you’re likely to stick with. Nor is there any evidence that people who do not have celiac disease need to avoid pasta because it contains gluten

Regular white pasta is a refined grain product because the germ and bran of the wheat—where much of the fiber and nutrients are—is removed. It’s not devoid of nutrition, though. In addition to 6 to 7 grams of protein, white pasta has about 2 grams of fiber per cooked cup, and most brands are enriched with B vitamins, such as folic acid, and iron.

Whole grains are the preferred choice, but there is room in your diet for some refined grain products,” Keating says. So celebrate World Pasta Day tonight by cooking up some noodles. Just follow these suggestions for making pasta healthy.  

Use a Measuring Cup

The Nutrition Facts label on a pasta package lists 2 ounces as the serving size, which for most shapes is ½ cup. That’s for dry pasta, which will become about 1 cup when cooked. A cup of pasta may feel a little skimpy for dinner, so if you’re having it as a main course, a 1½- to 2-cup cooked portion is fine. Two cups of cooked spaghetti (loosely packed) has 389 calories, and 2 cups of penne has 336 calories.  

Cook It Al Dente

Italian for “to the tooth,” al dente pasta is cooked all the way through but is still firm when you bite into it. Some studies suggest that it is digested more slowly than mushy pasta and therefore may keep you fuller longer and release blood sugar (glucose) into your body more gradually. And it tastes better that way.

Top It Right

You probably know that cream, cheese, and meat can significantly bump up pasta’s calorie and fat counts. But you don’t always want to be limited to just tomato sauce, which is lower in calories. You can round out a 1-cup serving of pasta and keep the calorie count low by mixing it with a cup of cooked vegetables. Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss with any vegetables you like. In the fall and winter, roasted root vegetables (such as beets, carrots, onions, and parsnips) or winter squashes are a great choice. Asparagus and peas are nice additions in the spring. And in the summer, you can’t go wrong with fresh tomatoes and basil. For a hit of protein, add chicken or beans, such as cannellini or chickpeas. 

Check the Sauce

Jarred tomato sauces tend to be high in sodium and sugars. For example, Bertolli Tomato & Basil Sauce has 460 mg of sodium per ½ cup. It contains added sugars, too, for a total of 12 grams per ½ cup. Victoria Marinara sauce has just 4 grams of sugars (all from the tomatoes) but still has 460 mg of sodium. Instead, make your own quick sauce using canned crushed or diced tomatoes, which usually contain very little or no sodium and no added sugars.

Try Pasta Alternatives

There are many more whole wheat and bean pastas on the market today than there were even just a few years ago. These products vary just a little in nutrition from brand to brand, but there can be huge differences in taste and texture. (Consumer Reports will be testing alternative pastas in the near future.) Compared with white pasta, whole wheat has more than twice the fiber. Chickpea pasta can supply four times the fiber and twice the protein.