This carb-filled favorite meal may not be as bad for your health as you thought

Did you know, according to the National Pasta Association, the average person in the U.S. eats about 20 pounds of pasta a year? Pasta is a staple in many diets around the world, but is it actually healthy? New research published in Frontiers in Nutrition says yes.

Is pasta really healthy for you?

In the study, researchers examined pasta consumption in both adults and children associated with shortfall nutrition intakes and overall diet quality. They found that, compared to those who did not consume pasta, adults and children who ate pasta as a part of their regular diet had a better diet quality and better nutrition intakes.

“Pasta can be an effective building block for good nutrition throughout the lifecycle, as it serves as a perfect delivery system for fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and legumes,” registered dietitian Diane Welland said. “Think of pasta as a canvas from which you can add almost any nutrient-dense, fiber-rich food you and your family like, to create memorable and delicious meals. This analysis underscores the nutritional importance of grains, such as pasta, as consistent with a healthy diet. It shows that pasta eaters have better quality diets than those who don’t eat pasta.”

And while pasta is healthiest when paired with other nutrient-rich foods, it has a few health benefits of its own, according to Welland.

Pasta is rich in folic acid, which helps your body maintain and produce new cells. This has also been shown to prevent colon and cervical cancers. Not only that, but pasta breaks down into glucose, fueling your body to keep you energized. It also has a low glycemic index (GI), which helps to regulate your blood sugar levels. In fact, studies have shown that people on a low GI diet still lose weight while consuming pasta regularly.

The study also found that pasta consumption was associated with higher intakes of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, dietary fiber, and vitamin E, as well as lower intakes of saturated fat.

However, this doesn’t mean you should be eating pasta all the time. Moderation and balance are key to any diet. And studies also show that the type of pasta you eat and what you pair it with make a huge difference.

Refined pasta is what most people buy from their local grocery store in a box. However, the process of refining pasta strips the wheat kernel of the bran and germ, which removes many of the nutrients.

Enriched pasta has some nutrients added back in, such as B vitamins and iron. However, whole-grain pasta may be the better option if you want a nutrient-dense pasta.

Whole-grain pasta contains all parts of the wheat kernel and is high in fiber, manganese, selenium, copper, and phosphorus. It is also lower in calories than refined pasta but will keep you full longer.

Eating whole grains also offers additional benefits, with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Some studies have shown that eating refined carbs has the opposite effect, actually increasing the risk of heart disease, so this is an important distinction to make when choosing your pasta.

There are also lots of pasta alternatives available that are made without gluten, however, studies show that there are really no benefits for eating a gluten-free diet, unless a person has gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. In fact, gluten-free products are often more expensive and offer fewer health benefits than their gluten-containing counterparts.

The takeaway

The bottom line is this: pasta is a normal and healthy part of a balanced diet, but you should still be considerate of what kind of pasta you eat. Go for whole-grain pasta if you can and choose toppings that offer more nutritional value. Smothering your pasta in rich, creamy alfredo sauce and bacon bits may be delicious and comforting, but probably isn’t offering you the maximum health benefits.

MedicalNewsToday suggests these tips when preparing a healthy pasta-based meal:

  • Add plenty of vegetables
  • Use lean proteins
  • Make sauces at home instead of buying pre-made ones
  • Limit the amount of oil to 1–2 tablespoons
  • Replace cheese with nutritional yeast
  • Use whole-grain, bean-based, or lentil-based pasta