Pasta is often considered a favorite (and versatile) dish, but over the years, it has also received an undue reputation as a food that might make you gain weight.
However, pasta can certainly be part of a healthy diet — and is unlikely to cause weight gain when eaten in moderation and paired with other healthy ingredients like lean meat, seafood and vegetables.
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In fact, pasta provides a satiating blend of protein and fiber, and is an excellent source of cell-protective selenium. It also offers essential B vitamins and iron, and can be a good choice for your heart health due to its low levels of sodium and cholesterol. Here are the nutritional benefits and top tips to consider when enjoying your next plate of pasta.
Pasta Nutrition Facts
Although ½ cup of cooked pasta (1 ounce dry) is equal to a serving size of grains, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that 1 cup of cooked pasta (2 ounces dry) is a more common portion size.
One cup of cooked pasta contains:
- Calories: 196
- Total fat: 1.2 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 1.2 mg
- Total carbs: 38.3 g
- Dietary fiber: 2.2 g
- Sugar: 0.7 g
- Added sugar: 0 g
- Protein: 7.2 g
- Total fat: One cup of cooked pasta has 1.2 grams of total fat, which includes 0.4 grams of polyunsaturated fat, 0.1 grams of monounsaturated fat, 0.2 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.
- Carbohydrates: One cup of cooked pasta has 38.3 grams of carbs, which includes 2.2 grams of fiber and 0.7 grams of naturally occurring sugars. The rest is starch.
- Protein: One cup of pasta has 7.2 grams of protein.
Vitamins, Minerals and Other Micronutrients
- Selenium: 60% DV
- Thiamin (B1): 28% DV
- Folate (B9): 23% DV
- Manganese: 17% DV
- Copper: 14% DV
- Riboflavin (B2): 13% DV
- Iron: 9% DV
- Zinc: 6% DV
- Phosphorus: 6% DV
- Magnesium: 5% DV
- Vitamin B6: 4% DV
- Pantothenic acid (B5): 3% DV
- One cup of cooked pasta is not a good source of potassium (1% DV), calcium (1% DV) or choline (1% DV).
How Do Different Types of Pasta Stack Up?
Based on a 1-cup serving
Standard Enriched Pasta
Red Lentil Pasta
Health Benefits of Pasta
Pasta offers several health benefits, whether you opt for standard pasta made with refined flour or more nutritious pasta alternatives like whole-grain or bean-based pasta. This staple food will keep you full, help protect your heart health and provide essential vitamins and minerals.
1. Pasta Provides Satiating Protein and Fiber
Although pasta is typically thought of as being high in carbohydrates, it also packs protein with 7.2 grams per cup of standard pasta. The amount of protein is even higher for pastas made with alternative ingredients, like chickpea pasta (13 grams of protein per cup) or lentil pasta (12 grams).
The same is true for fiber: While standard pasta offers a decent 2.2 grams of fiber, alternative types can offer even more. For instance, whole-wheat pasta contains 4.6 grams of fiber, chickpea pasta contains 5 grams and lentil pasta contains a whopping 10.7 grams.
"Fiber aids in reducing cholesterol, blood sugar control, digestion and keeping you fuller longer," says Ashlee Wright, RD, a dietitian at Orlando Health. "Edamame pasta is another great alternative which is even higher in fiber and protein than chickpea and lentil versions."
When protein and fiber team up in a food like pasta, they provide satiety that will keep your hunger at bay for longer. That's because fiber makes you feel full immediately, and slow-digesting protein helps you stay full for longer, per Harvard Medical School. Prepare your pasta with olive oil, and it'll also provide healthy fats, which work with your body's hormones to tell you when it's time to stop eating.
Protein is important to eat throughout the day, because it makes and repairs your cells and also helps clot blood, keep body fluids balanced, fight infection, build and contract muscles and carry vitamins, minerals and oxygen throughout the body, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Looking for a pasta that's high in protein — and perhaps pairing it with lean protein mix-ins like fish or ground turkey — may even help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. Researchers discovered that weight loss and weight maintenance may depend on the high-protein and not necessarily the "low-carbohydrate" component of a diet, per an October 2012 study in Physiology & Behavior.
Meanwhile, higher fiber intake has been associated with a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, a combination of factors like high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, excess weight and high insulin levels that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
2. It’s an Excellent Source of Protective Selenium
With just one serving of pasta, you'll get more than half your daily value of selenium.
This trace element is nutritionally essential, and makes up proteins that play crucial roles in DNA synthesis, reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism and protection from oxidative damage and infection, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Although selenium deficiency is rare in the United States, it has been associated with male infertility, a certain type of osteoarthritis and the exacerbation of iodine deficiency.
Selenium may play a role in cancer prevention due to its antioxidant properties and effects on DNA repair and the immune system. Blood levels of selenium decline with age, and low concentrations of this element might also be associated with age-related declines in cognitive function, possibly due to decreases in its antioxidant activity, per the NIH.
3. Pasta Offers Essential B Vitamins and Iron
Standard pasta is made with refined flour like wheat flour. Because refined flour is made by stripping the wheat of its germ and bran (where most of the fiber and nutrients are) to improve shelf life and texture, it is usually enriched with B vitamins and iron after processing, per the USDA.
In a cup of standard pasta, you'll find vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6 and B9. In general, B vitamins help form red blood cells and also play a major role in metabolism, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
One serving of pasta also offers 9 percent of your daily value of iron, which is a building block of hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen throughout the body from the lungs, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Young children and people who are pregnant or have periods can be prone to having too little iron, which may lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Alternative pastas that are not made with enriched flour can also be good sources of iron. For example, a serving of chickpea pasta contains 14 percent of the daily value of iron, while lentil pasta offers 19 percent of the daily value.
4. It Can Be Good For Your Heart Health
In addition to providing some heart-healthy fiber, standard pasta made without added salt contains no cholesterol and just 1.2 milligrams of sodium.
It can be beneficial to limit your dietary cholesterol, even though it's not as big of a culprit as it was once believed to be, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Although dietary cholesterol usually has only a small effect on the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood (which plays a role in heart disease risk, particularly when it comes to "bad" LDL cholesterol), some people's blood cholesterol may rise and fall very strongly in relation to the amount of cholesterol consumed.
Right now, there's no way to tell these "responders" apart from non-responders other than by trial and error — but for those sensitive to dietary cholesterol, replacing cholesterol-rich foods with options like pasta can have a big effect on blood cholesterol levels.
Meanwhile, most Americans consume too much sodium, which can elevate blood pressure, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This puts you at higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
Pasta can be a good staple if you’re looking to limit sodium and cholesterol in your diet. However, be mindful of what you pair it with — salty and creamy sauces or certain meats can quickly increase your intake of unhealthy ingredients if not eaten in moderation.
Pasta Health Risks
Millions of Americans are affected by wheat allergy, which causes symptoms like a rash or stomach ache after eating wheat-containing foods such as pasta. People with a family history of allergies or allergic diseases like eczema or asthma generally have a greater risk of developing an allergy to any food (including wheat), per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Wheat allergy symptoms include:
- Hives or skin rash
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting or diarrhea
- Anaphylaxis (a potentially fatal life-threatening reaction that can send the body into shock)
Speak to your doctor or an allergist if you suspect you have a wheat allergy. You may need to have epinephrine available at all times in case of anaphylaxis.
A wheat allergy is different from a gluten intolerance, which might be a symptom of celiac disease, a potentially serious digestive condition that needs to be diagnosed by a gastroenterologist rather than an allergist.
2. Weight Gain
Although it's true that eating pasta in excess — especially when it's paired with high-calorie sauces and other toppings — may lead to weight gain, it can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.
Low-carbohydrate diets are often touted for weight loss, but a February 2018 review in the journal BMJ Open concluded that there's not enough evidence to prove that high-carb diets increase the odds of obesity.
Researchers do note that evidence indicates obesity has climbed during the industrial food era, which has promoted greater intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars, but more research is needed to investigate the effects of refined versus unrefined carbohydrate intake.
"Pasta gets a bad rap because carbohydrates often get a bad rap, but I don't think it deserves it," Wright says. "Just choose healthier types of pasta the majority of the time, and watch your portion size. Think of pasta as a side dish rather than the main meal, and keep it to ¼ of your plate."
3. Drug Interactions
If you're eating a high-fiber diet (which might include certain types of pasta, like lentil pasta), it may prevent your body from absorbing thyroid drugs like levothyroxine (Levothroid, Levoxyl, Synthroid), per Consumer Reports.
In this case, it may be best to take your medication later in the evening: Research has found that the drugs are better absorbed at bedtime rather than when taken a half-hour before breakfast, as is commonly advised.
However, check with your doctor before making any changes to your medication or when you take it.
Pasta Preparation and Helpful Tips
When eaten in moderation and with other nutritious ingredients, pasta can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. Follow these tips to get more out of your pasta dishes.
Pair pasta with healthy ingredients: The nutritional value of your pasta will be largely based on what you pair it with. While many pasta dishes feature heavy, creamy sauces or plenty of red meat, you can avoid a significant amount of sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol by opting for vegetables, lean meats and healthy oil-based sauces instead.
“Use cold-pressed or cold-extracted olive oil to prepare a sauce with garlic and vegetables, but be mindful of the amount of olive oil because the calories can add up quickly,” Wright says. “Rather than using a jarred tomato sauce, try making your own simple sauce with diced or crushed tomatoes.”
Think of pasta as a way to deliver high-fiber and high-protein ingredients, rather than as the star of your meal. What you mix into your pasta is just important as the sauce and the pasta itself in determining the nutritional value of your plate.
"Always think about bulking up the pasta with extra vegetables," Wright says. "One of my favorite dishes is shrimp, broccoli and mushrooms in olive oil and garlic with whole-grain linguine."
Look for more nutritious pastas: Today, there are a variety of healthy pasta options that may have more satiating fiber and protein than standard pasta made with refined flour.
For example, your local supermarket may have whole-grain pasta or bean-based varieties such as chickpea, lentil, black bean or edamame pastas.
"If you're not used to whole-grain pasta, start with a thin spaghetti so the wheat flavor is not as pungent," Wright says. "The only ingredient in your whole-grain pasta should be whole-grain durum wheat flour. You can also find whole-grain pasta that is made with quinoa or brown rice for gluten-free choices."
Store pasta correctly: You can store dry pasta almost indefinitely if it's kept in a covered container or tightly-sealed package in a cool, dry place, per the Clemson Cooperative Extension.
Cooked pasta should be drained and rinsed thoroughly with cold water if it won't be eaten immediately, since it'll become too soft if left in water. Once cool, drain and toss the pasta lightly with oil so it doesn't stick and dry out, then cover tightly and refrigerate or freeze (store the pasta sauce in the refrigerator separately).
Alternatives to Pasta
Spiralizers and pre-packaged veggie "noodles" make it easy to enjoy several types of vegetables in lieu of pasta.
"Veggie spirals, such as those made with zucchini or even spaghetti squash are great alternatives if you're looking for a lower-calorie, lower-carb substitute for traditional pasta," Wright says.
Shirataki noodles, made from plant fiber, are also a low-carbohydrate alternative to traditional pasta.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "All about the Grains Group"
- My Food Data: "Pasta Cooked Enriched Without Added Salt"
- My Food Data: "Organic Fusilli Chickpea Pasta"
- My Food Data: "Organic Red Lentil Pasta"
- My Food Data: "Whole Wheat Pasta"
- Harvard Medical School: "Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How Much Protein Should I Eat?"
- Physiology & Behavior: "Relatively high-protein or 'low-carb' energy-restricted diets for body weight loss and body weight maintenance?"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fiber"
- National Institutes of Health: "Selenium"
- Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center: "Selenium"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "B Vitamins"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Iron"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Cholesterol"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Sodium"
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Wheat Allergy"
- BMJ Open: "Does high-carbohydrate intake lead to increased risk of obesity? A systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Consumer Reports: "Food and Drug Interactions You Need to Know About"
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: "Selecting & Storing Cereals & Grains"
- My Food Data: "Shirataki Noodles"