Pasta lovers, rejoice! You can have your noodles and eat them too.
When it comes to weight loss, pasta carbs get a bad rep. But healthy pasta dishes are a thing. A study published in 2017 found that pasta can be part of a healthful diet — if you dish them up the Mediterranean way.
“The Mediterranean diet is a well-balanced way of eating. It doesn’t demonize any food groups. Instead, it focuses on eating every food (like pasta) in moderation. That’s why it’s a great eating plan for people looking for sustainability,” says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, certified yoga instructor and owner of Keri Gans Nutrition.
So whether you’re trying to lose weight, feel healthier, or just reinvent your pasta bowl with better-for-you ingredients, Gans shares five tips for prepping your pasta the Mediterranean way.
1. Don’t forget the protein
One serving of pasta isn’t particularly high in calories — usually around 250 to 300 calories — but it’s the starch that can result in a rush of insulin and a rapid increase in blood sugar. When blood sugar levels rise quickly, they tend to crash just as quickly, explains Gans. This usually causes cravings for more refined carbohydrates.
The good news is you can mitigate the spike in blood sugar and carb cravings by prepping the pasta with some protein, fat, and fiber.
Protein should fill 1/4 of your plate or bowl, says Gans. If you’re trying to lose weight, this is extra important. Protein can help you retain more of your lean muscle as you lose fat, and lead to more calories burned each day.
Toss in some seafood — because it’s not called the “Mediterranean” diet for nothing. Fresh fish like salmon and shrimp also serve up some essential brain and body boosting omega-3’s. But if salmon, tuna, mussels, shrimp, and even lobster don’t get you going, add in 3-4 ounces of lean chicken.
Vegetarian? Pasta and legumes go together like Ben & Jerry’s or Dolce & Gabbana… better together. White beans will add fiber, protein, and a smooth creamy texture, while lentils will pack in protein and add a hearty meat-like flavor.
2. Don’t fear fat
Healthy fats take longer than carbs to digest and they stick around in your stomach to help you feel more satisfied. While fats, like pasta, have been positioned as a weight-watcher enemy, they can be healthy.
Use 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and your preferred amount of salt, pepper, and other spices to season and dress your dish. If you’re watching your calories, just be sure to measure out the olive oil instead of pouring it straight from the bottle. A single tablespoon of olive oil has about 119 calories and you don’t want to accidentally triple that.
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, add avocado straight into the pan or blend it with basil for an avocado pesto sauce. This recipe by Eating Well features dairy-free avocado pesto.
3. Bulk up with veggies
When we think of pasta dishes, “the vegetables should be the main attraction,” Gans says. “The pasta is just the co-star. And what your bowl looks like should portray that.” A good rule of thumb is to always include 2-3 servings of vegetables every time you whip up a pasta dish, which will load your meal with fiber, she says.
Most women need 25 grams of fiber a day but are only getting on average 15-22 grams, according to the Institute of Medicine. For men, they recommend 38 grams of fiber per day, but are averaged at only 20-26 grams. This is probably why more than 42 million U.S. people are affected by constipation.
Lucky for you pasta lovers, you don’t have to eat a boring salad to get your fiber fix. “Add any vegetables you like to your meal. No vegetable is any better than another!” she says.
Need a recommendation? Gans’ go-to is a mean green dish with artichoke hearts, peas, broccoli, and zucchini. But cooked tomatoes, onions, and spinach are a tasty combo, too.
4. Pick pale, if it’s your preference
White bread and pasta have become bad-for-you public evil number one. But Gans says that doesn’t have to be the case.
The biggest difference between white and whole grain pasta is that whole grain products are made out of the bran (the outer layers), germ (the innermost part), and endosperm (the starchy part). White bread and pasta is made up of just the starchy portion. When the bran is stripped away, it loses a lot of its nutrients, including:
- vitamin B-6
- vitamin E
Any one food won’t cause weight gain (or make you less healthy), just like any one food won’t cause weight loss or health issues, says Gans. Your health and weight is more a reflection of the eating habits and patterns you have the majority of the time.
White bread and pasta do have less fiber and nutrients when compared to whole grains. However, if you prefer white pasta, focus on ways to make the dish more nutritious by adding protein and veggies and being mindful of your pasta portions. This will help deter the overeating of foods that aren’t as nutrient dense, while also adding nutritional value to the meal. “The Mediterranean diet doesn’t ban any food groups, after all,” she adds.
5. Pour yourself a glass of wine
If being able to eat pasta isn’t reason enough to eat like a Mediterranean, maybe this will be: You can have red wine! “If you’re not someone who enjoys drinking, you don’t need to start to reap the benefits of the Med diet,” says Gans. But, if you do enjoy drinking, go ahead and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.
Just remember, one serving is only 5 ounces — not 7 or 9 like the size most wine glasses would have you believe.
Drink and enjoy in moderation! “No, you can’t save up your glasses of wine,” says Gans. “If you don’t drink on Monday-Thursday, you haven’t ‘earned’ an extra four glasses on Friday night. There’s no cumulative effect!” she adds.
Some pastas should be avoided…
Chocked full with superfoods like olive oil, tree nuts, lean meats, and fresh fruits and veggies, we already had a hunch that the Mediterranean diet was healthy — it was tied for the top overall diet by U.S. News And World Report afterall. But this doesn’t mean all pasta is created equal.
In fact, the same study that found that pasta was healthy the Mediterranean way, also found that mac and cheese eaters were less healthy than non-pasta eaters — and significantly less healthy than those who ate it the Med way. The researchers also saw that mac and cheese munchers consumed on average 14 percent less fiber and 5 percent less potassium in their diet.
That’s not to say mac and cheese should be eradicated from your diet. But incorporating more greens and protein into your diet, like Gans says, could benefit your health. Knowing when to twirl your fork is key, because more than anything, the ingredients matter in making everyone’s favorite comfort food healthy.
Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal, all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.