Pasta is one of the world's favorite foods, but when it comes to regular pasta and gnocchi nutrition, they both leave something to be desired. Both versions of pasta are pretty high in carbohydrates and lacking in significant amounts of other nutrients, unless the pastas are enriched.
If you're looking to swap the pasta for something healthy, gnocchi may not be the best option. Go for a protein-enriched pasta choice or a low-carb, gluten-free substitute, like zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash instead.
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What Are Gnocchi and Pasta?
Pasta is a broad term that encompasses everything from spaghetti to ziti to penne to orzo to pierogis to gnocchi. Each type of pasta has a distinctive shape and origin, but typically, when someone refers to "pasta" they're thinking of the basic Italian version, which is made from a combination of wheat flour, water and eggs. Most regular pasta, the type you probably picture when you hear the word, is made specifically from ground durum wheat, which has a high concentration of gluten and a low moisture content.
These specific characteristics make durum wheat ideal for pasta production, because it helps give it shape and texture. It also makes pasta high in carbohydrates, but it doesn't contain much protein.
Gnocchi is similar to pasta, but it's made a little differently. Traditional gnocchi is a small, Italian potato dumpling pasta that's made from a combination of potatoes, wheat flour and eggs. Like regular pasta, gnocchi is really high in carbohydrates, but low in protein.
But, even though both are high in carbohydrates, regular pasta may have less effect on blood sugar levels. According to a report published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases in November 2017, regular pasta doesn't seem to raise blood sugar levels after a meal as much as potato-based meals. It's important to note, though, that this study compared plain potatoes to pasta — not gnocchi, which is made from potato as well as wheat and eggs.
Gnocchi vs. Pasta Nutrition
The exact amount of carbohydrates in regular pasta depends on the type and shape, like whether it's spaghetti or elbow noodles, but an average 2-ounce serving of dry pasta contains about 43 grams of carbohydrates, according to the USDA, and only about 2 grams of those carbohydrates come from fiber. This high-carbohydrate, low-fiber combo classifies pasta as a simple carbohydrate.
The same 2-ounce serving of gnocchi contains around 19 grams of carbohydrates, the USDA reports, but like pasta, almost none of those carbohydrates (or only 0.9 grams) come from fiber. At first look, gnocchi appears lower in carbohydrates, but it's denser than pasta, which means it weighs more. When you put 2-ounce servings of both regular pasta and gnocchi side-by-side, your portion of gnocchi will be smaller.
In addition to being high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, both pasta and gnocchi are also lacking in other nutrients. A 2-ounce serving of pasta contains 211 calories, 7.5 grams of protein and some trace amounts of phosphorus, magnesium and potassium. The calories in gnocchi clock in at around 89 for the 2-ounce size (although your portion for gnocchi will likely be bigger than your pasta portion), with 2.5 grams of protein and almost no other vitamins and minerals, besides 285 grams of sodium.
Read more: The 12 Worst Foods for Appetite Control
High-Carb Diet Downfalls
High-carbohydrate, low-fiber, low nutrient-density foods like pasta and gnocchi get a lot of flak, but maybe that's for good reason. In a report published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism in July 2017, researchers compared the effects of following a calorie-restricted high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet or a calorie-restricted low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet for 12 weeks. Researchers studied 41 participants, and found that, while both groups lost weight, the participants on the low-carb diet also experienced lower glucose and insulin levels, decreased triglyceride levels and increased HDL, or "good," cholesterol levels.
Another study, published in Metabolism in December 2013, also compared 12-week, low-carb, high-fat diets with high-carb, low-fat diets and found that, while participants had similar changes in weight, the ones following the low-carb diet had reduced, widespread inflammation as well as increased HDL and adiponectin, which helps improve insulin sensitivity and contributes to a lower risk of heart disease.
One more study, from a July 2013 issue of the journal Diabetes Care, took a look at high-carbohydrate and high-protein diets. Researchers found that participants who followed a high-protein diet for six months had better beta cell function, improved cardiovascular risk factors and reduced oxidative stress when compared to participants eating a high-carbohydrate diet, even though both groups lost a similar amount of weight.
Considerations for Athletes
Although high-carbohydrate, low-fiber foods are typically not the best foundation of a healthy diet, both gnocchi and pasta may provide some benefit to elite athletes and endurance athletes. According to a report published in The Journal of Physiology in February 2017, high-carbohydrate diets are more successful than low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets at increasing athletic performance during endurance exercise and decreasing feelings of exertion after exercise.
Another small study of six participants published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in March 2013 also looked at the difference between low-carbohydrate and high-carbohydrate diets on exercise performance. Researchers found that eating a high-carbohydrate diet before high-intensity exercise increased stamina and the amount of time that participants were able to exercise before reaching exhaustion, while a low-carbohydrate diet did the opposite. The study also reported that because participants weren't so tired during the exercise on the high-carb diet, they were able to burn about 39 percent more calories than low-carb dieters.
What's the Better Option?
When it comes to gnocchi vs. pasta, neither is really the better option. Regular pasta is higher in protein and has small amounts of some nutrients, while gnocchi is lower in calories and carbohydrates. But because gnocchi is smaller and denser, it's likely that you'd end up eating bigger portions than if you were eating regular pasta.
If you're looking for a healthy alternative to pasta, try spiralized zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash instead. Both of these options are lower in carbohydrates and calories, but they also contain important nutrients. One cup of zucchini contains only 21 calories and just under 4 grams of carbohydrates, but also provides fiber, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A and folate.
A cup of spaghetti squash contains 42 calories and 10 grams of carbohydrates (2.2 grams of which come from fiber) as well as potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. Both zucchini and spaghetti squash also contain antioxidants and phytochemicals that help combat chronic disease and keep you healthy.
- Journal of Food Science and Technology: "Physicochemical and Sensory Characterization of Gnocchi and the Effects of Novel Formulation on in Vitro Digestibility"
- Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases: "A Systematic Review on the Relations Between Pasta Consumption and Cardio-Metabolic Risk Factors"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Potato Gnocchi"
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: "Pasta, Dry, Unenriched"
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: "A 12-Week Low-Carbohydrate, High-Fat Diet Improves Metabolic Health Outcomes Over a Control Diet in a Randomised Controlled Trial With Overweight Defence Force Personnel"
- The Journal of Physiology: "A High Carbohydrate Diet Remains the Evidence-Based Choice for Elite Athletes to Optimise Performance"
- Metabolism: "Consuming a Hypocaloric High-Fat, Low-Carbohydrate Diet for 12 Weeks Lowers C-Reactive Protein, and Raises Serum Adiponectin and High Density Lipoprotein-Cholesterol in Obese Subjects"
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: "Effects of a Low- or a High-Carbohydrate Diet on Performance, Energy System Contribution, and Metabolic Responses During Supramaximal Exercise"
- Diabetes Care: "Effects of High-Protein Versus High-Carbohydrate Diets on Markers of β-Cell Function, Oxidative Stress, Lipid Peroxidation, Proinflammatory Cytokines, and Adipokines in Obese, Premenopausal Women Without Diabetes"
- PBS: "Uncover the History of Pasta"
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Squash, Summer, Zucchini, Includes Skin, Raw
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: "Squash, Winter, Spaghetti, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, or Baked, Without Salt"