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Friend or Foe?

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Pastas can be a part of a healthy diet, but not all are created equally

October is National Pasta Month! So what’s the skinny on this seemingly indulgent dish? Friend or just plain fattening? There are ways we can enjoy pasta simply by making the right choices. Plus, it’s naturally low in fat and sodium, and easy to prepare!

Many have left pasta off their plates while on trendy carbohydrate-restrictive diets. This is unfortunate for those of us who are counting calories but love this dish. The truth is, our bodies require carbohydrates for energy. Carbs are converted into glucose, which is the body’s main fuel source, and the brain’s only fuel source. Inadequate intake may leave you feeling physically and mentally lethargic. In addition, our bodies need a variety of nutrients for many different functions. Too many calories from any type of food (protein, fat or carbohydrates) will be stored as fat.

Enjoying everything in moderation can fit suitably into any lifestyle. Portion control is key, especially because a restaurant portion can typically serve a party of four! An appropriate cooked portion of pasta is approximately half a cup for females and one cup for males. It’s a good idea to measure at home a few times so that you are able to control portions when dining out.

All pastas are not created equally. The healthiest are whole grain varieties that provide at least three grams of fiber per serving. Look for the first ingredient to be some type of whole grain (whole wheat, oats, etc.). Fortunately, there are several whole grain or durum semolina varieties made with whole wheat available at supermarkets. Fiber, also referred to as a complex carbohydrate, is beneficial for digestive health and may help lower cholesterol. In addition, fiber takes the body longer to break down and digest, stabilizing blood sugar levels while sustaining energy. This keeps us fuller for longer and may prevent overeating.

There are particular brands of pasta on the market that contain good sources of protein in the ingredients. Protein, like fiber, helps sustain energy levels and keeps hunger at bay. Protein also helps the body heal and build muscle. Barilla Plus is a great example, providing seven grams of fiber and 17 grams of protein per uncooked cup. This brand uses lentils and egg whites in the multigrain flour mix to provide extra protein. In addition, for those who simply cannot substitute whole wheat for white pasta, this one tastes and looks most like traditional white pasta.

What about brands that use “spinach” or “vegetable” in the name? Again, it is necessary to read ingredients. Some use spinach or vegetable “powders” to add flavor and color. This is not harmful, but it does not necessarily provide what you may expect according to the label. Just because it reads “spinach noodles,” does not always mean it contains spinach.

If weight loss is your goal, limit or avoid any starchy carbohydrates at night. While whole wheat is a healthier choice, the caloric content is the same as conventional white pastas. Carbohydrates provide the energy and fuel for our bodies that are necessary for daily activities. At night, save this extra source of calories and don’t “fuel up” to go to bed. Enjoy pasta with lunch, allowing those calories and carbohydrates to be utilized during the day.

Bottom line: Think outside the spaghetti box and grab whole wheat versions packed with nutrients and fiber. Remember to pair with flavorful, low-fat sauces, such as red sauce or a small amount of olive oil. Avoid cream and cheese sauces or heavy gravies. Add plenty of fresh ingredients like herbs, spices, garlic and vegetables. Limit portions to appropriate sizes as a side item, served with a lean protein, vegetable or salad.

Indulge wisely and guilt-free!