Can You Eat Whole-Wheat Pasta on a Low-Carb Diet?

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Whole wheat pasta can be eaten on a low carb diet.
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Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes that a low-carbohydrate diet may help people lose weight more quickly than a low-fat diet, and effectively maintain that loss. So it's only natural to be curious about whole wheat pasta's carb content if you're a pasta fan on the low-carb train.

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Whole-wheat pasta can quickly fill up a low-carb diet's daily carb allotment. However, it provides quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates that make it a option worth consideration.

While the word "pasta" and the term "low-carbohydrate" have about as much in common as night and day, it's key to remember that low-carbohydrate diets aren't zero carbohydrate diets. Because low-carbohydrate diets focus on reducing carbohydrate intake without eliminating it altogether, whole wheat pasta may still have a place on the low-carb plate — in moderation, of course.

What Is Whole-Wheat Pasta?

Even though regular wheat pasta is made from refined flour, as Consumer Reports notes, it's not exactly a nutritionally-empty food. The flour used to make pasta is called durum wheat, also known as semolina, which is a type of wheat flour with a higher protein content than most of its peers.

However, if you're limiting carbohydrate intake, you'll want to maximize the nutritional impact of every carbohydrate you consume. That's where whole-wheat pasta may come in handy. While refined grains lose many of their most nutritious parts during the refining process, whole grains retain all parts of the kernel, including the bran, germ and endosperm.

According to the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at Harvard University, wheat bran packs plenty of fiber, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, antioxidants and zinc, as well as some disease-preventing phytochemicals. Meanwhile, wheat germ brings vitamins E and B, more antioxidants and phytochemicals, and some healthy fats to the table, while the endosperm contains protein, B vitamins and minerals. If you're only eating a limited number of carbohydrates, making sure they are packed with nutritional value helps you maintain a well-balanced diet.

Read more: What and How Much Can You Eat on a Low-Carb Diet to Lose Weight?

Whole-Wheat Pasta Nutrition Facts

As it turns out, pasta's calorie content might cause a little more hullabaloo than it deserves. The USDA reports that a half cup of branded, off-the-shelf, whole-wheat pasta made from organic, whole-wheat semolina, contains about 200 calories.

What about whole wheat pasta and carb content? That same portion contains about 43 grams of carbohydrates. In terms of calories and carbohydrates, this makes whole-wheat pasta pretty similar to regular durum wheat semolina pasta, according to the same USDA source. While individual brands may vary, it's typical for whole-wheat pastas to offer more fiber, more calcium, more iron and more niacin than non-whole-wheat varieties.

Likewise, protein content often remains fairly consistent across both types of pasta. Whole-wheat pasta may contain less sodium than pasta made from refined flour.

Read more: 5 Pasta Recipes That Serve Up Cold-Weather Comfort in Less Than 300 Calories

Pasta and Low-Carb Diets

For a typical 2,000 calorie or 2,500 calorie diet, the Food and Drug Administration recommends a daily carbohydrate load of 300 to 375 grams, respectively. There is no single, hard-line rule for low-carbohydrate diets. A low-carbohydrate diet is basically just what the name says — a diet that reduces the overall intake of carbohydrates. StatPearls roughly defines a spectrum of dietary carbohydrate intake thus:

  • Very low-carbohydrate diet: carbs make up less than 10 percent of daily macronutrient intake, about 20 to 50 grams daily.
  • Low-carbohydrate diet: carbs make up less than 26 percent of daily macronutrient intake, less than 130 grams daily.
  • Moderate-carbohydrate diet: carbs make up about 26 to 44 percent of daily macronutrient intake, 130 to 260 grams daily.

The Mayo Clinic generally agrees here, defining a low-carbohydrate diet as one with a daily limit of about 20 to 60 grams of carbohydrates, and providing about 80 to 240 calories. Based on typical whole-wheat pasta carbohydrate content, then, a single half-cup serving of whole-wheat pasta would generally fulfill your carbohydrate intake for the entire day on a low-carbohydrate eating plan. On a moderate-carbohydrate diet, about a cup will do the same.

Because of their similar carbohydrate and calorie contents, pasta made from refined flour and whole-wheat pasta are theoretically interchangeable in a low-carbohydrate diet, if you're looking at them from a strictly carb-counting perspective. Again, the benefit of replacing regular pasta with whole-wheat pasta is the nutritional value you're adding to those carbs, which is why Harvard recommends whole-wheat pasta as a substitute for pasta made from refined flour.

Read more: How to Make Sure Your Low-Carb Diet Is Actually Healthy

More Whole-Grain Benefits

While low-carbohydrate dieters won't be able to go wild with their whole-wheat pasta portions, the benefits offered by whole grains make them more than worth a second look for meeting daily carbohydrate goals. Pasta is just one way to take advantage of their benefits.

People adopt low-carbohydrate diets to lose weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, and improve cardio-metabolic function, which Harvard confirms that low-carbohydrate diets do effectively. On a similar note, Harvard points out that the bran and fiber present in whole-grain foods help the body slow the breakdown of starch into glucose, which helps maintain steady blood sugar levels.

More than that, the increased fiber often present in whole-wheat and whole-grain options assists in lowering cholesterol, moving waste products through the digestive system, and breaking up the blood clots that may eventually lead to heart complications. The phytochemicals found in the wheat's germ, such as magnesium, selenium and copper, can help prevent certain types of cancer.

If you're being choosy about your carbs, whole-wheat pasta is just one solid option. Harvard recommends unprocessed whole grains such as amaranth, barley, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, bulgur and wild rice, for what it calls the "complete package" of health benefits they offer.

Read more: Get a Low-Fat, Low-Carb Diet Right by Focusing on These Healthy Foods

Low-Carb Pasta Alternatives

Whether you're concerned about whole-wheat pasta's carbohydrate content, want to go gluten-free or have other dietary preferences, you don't have to look far for low-carb pasta alternatives. For instance, the USDA reports that typical chickpea flour, often used in grain-free pasta alternatives, contains only about 58 carbohydrates per 100 grams, compared to the 73 carbs found in an equal amount of whole-wheat flour (also per USDA). Bean- and legume-based pasta alternatives will also pack significantly more protein than grain-based varieties, sometimes up to about three times more per serving.

The USDA also confirms that whole-grain brown rice flour has roughly the same carbohydrate content as whole-wheat flour, with less protein and iron, and more sodium. Soy flour is among the most carb-light flour alternatives for pasta lovers, clocking in at only about 34 carbohydrates per 100 grams, according to the USDA.

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