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 or fattening,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a dietitian in Consumer Reports’ food lab. Cutting pasta out of your diet isn’t the magical path to a slimmer you. 

Regular dried pasta (not fresh) is made from refined flour. However, that flour is durum wheat (semolina), a variety that has a higher protein content than most other types.

According to researchers at the University of Sydney, the way the carbohydrates and protein in pasta are bound means that pasta is digested more slowly than other refined carbohydrates. Therefore it might keep you full and release blood sugar (glucose) into your body more gradually, which could help with weight loss. Cold pasta is also a source of resistant starch, which may also aid weight loss. 

Nor is there any evidence that cutting out pasta because it contains gluten will help improve your health or drop pounds. Unless you have celiac disease, there’s no reason to avoid gluten.

More on Pasta

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 National 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. It tastes better that way, and overcooking pasta means it will be digested more rapidly.

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, so be sure to compare nutrition facts labels on different brands. For example, Bertolli Tomato & Basil Sauce has 350 mg of sodium per ½ cup. It contains added sugars, too, with 11 grams per ½ cup (some naturally present in the tomatoes). Muir Glenn Organic Tomato Basil Sauce has just 4 grams of sugars (all from the tomatoes) and 310 mg of sodium. You can also 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 in nutrition from brand to brand, and there can be huge differences in taste and texture. (See our recent test of alternative pastas.) Compared with white pasta, whole-wheat has more than twice the fiber. Chickpea pasta can supply four times the fiber and twice the protein.