If you've gone down the pasta aisle recently, you've probably noticed there are a lot of new choices, including pasta from more nutritious ingredients like whole-wheat flour, chickpeas, brown rice and legumes. But are they really healthier?
Traditionally, pasta is made from milled durum wheat, which is a refined flour that has the bran and germ (the healthy parts) removed. What's left is the endosperm, but the fiber and some vitamins are stripped away in the process. This is the case with white bread and rice. In the U.S., many nutrients, including niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, folate and iron, are added back through fortification.
Whole-wheat pasta retains most of the bran and germ. It's a more textured and hearty pasta, with twice the fiber and iron of enriched (regular) pasta. If you're not crazy about the texture and slightly nutty taste, take a baby step and mix your whole-wheat pasta with traditional white pasta.
Those other pastas on the market are made from a mix of flours, such as corn, brown rice, lentils and beans. Pastas from lentil flour can be much higher in protein than white or whole-wheat pastas. Some, like chickpea pasta, can be higher in protein and fiber. Vegetable pastas, such as spinach or tomato, may or may not have a nutrient boost over traditional pasta. And brown rice pasta, while lower in fiber than whole-wheat, may appeal to you if you're wanting a gluten-free pasta.
So, what should you choose? Hands down, whole-wheat pasta with its natural fiber, vitamins and minerals is a great choice. The nonwheat pastas, such as chickpea or lentil, can also be a good choice if you like the taste and texture and if you're looking for a plant-based source of protein. However, if you plan to add a protein to your pasta dish, the extra protein in the chickpea pasta may be overkill.
The bottom line? Choose whatever pasta you prefer, and make your portions reasonable. Then add plenty of vegetables, a healthy protein (shrimp, chicken or beans) and sauces that do not pile on the sodium or fat (think red over white). Pasta of all kinds can certainly fit into a healthy eating plan. The key is keeping to a good serving size (about one cup cooked) and healthy toppings.
Q and A
Q: My friends are cutting out dairy. Should I?
A: If it agrees with you and you have no specific medical reason to avoid dairy, such as being lactose intolerant, then no, keep eating dairy. It is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium. Many people who are lactose intolerant find that they can eat certain types -- often yogurt and hard cheeses -- without problems, so it's worth experimenting. And there is a way to help lactose intolerance: by eating small amounts of milk with meals to build up your tolerance. If you do cut back on dairy, make sure you get enough vitamins, minerals and protein from other sources.