Whether you’re trying to lose weight or just eat healthfully, pasta tends to be seen as off-limits. But you don’t have to ban pasta entirely or even relegate it to “cheat meal” status; in fact, an Italian study published in July 2016 in Nutrition & Diabetes has found that eating pasta is associated with a reduced likelihood of obesity.
But before you start piling on the pasta, remember that the portions Italians eat are much smaller than what’s seen on a dinner plate in the United States. And while the 23,000 study participants who ate pasta regularly were more likely to have a healthy body weight, they also followed a healthy Mediterranean diet.
The good news is that if you’re following a healthy diet to begin with, then spaghetti and meatballs, penne primavera, and even lasagna can all be healthy options to add to your dinner rotation. The key is to choose the most wholesome ingredients — and employing a few of the following tricks can help you lower calories and fat without losing any of the flavor!
1. Choose the Right Pasta
Let’s start with the basics: the pasta itself. The one key factor to remember is that you should choose pasta made from whole grains.
Pasta is naturally low in fat and high in carbohydrates. Whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta includes the nutritious layers of the grain that add heart-healthy fiber to your dish (these grains have been removed from regular white pasta). Because of this, whole-grain pasta is digested more slowly, which helps to maintain a steady level of glucose in the blood and keeps you feeling fuller longer.
Always check the ingredients list when you’re buying pasta, and look for whole-wheat flour listed as the first ingredient. And remember that even though whole-grain pasta is healthier, you still need to watch your portion sizes. Uncooked pasta has about 100 calories per ounce; this equals about ½ cup when cooked. A big, hearty bowl can add up to hundreds of calories, so be sure to determine the right portion size for your daily calorie allotment, and serve accordingly.
2. Make the Veggie Swap
One way to enjoy a larger helping of your favorite pasta dishes — without the calorie overload — is to swap flour-based pasta for veggie noodles. Using a spiralizer or veggie peeler, cut vegetables into “noodles,” sauté for a few minutes, and top with the sauce of your choice. Zucchini, carrots, parsnips, and butternut squash all work well in pasta dishes.
3. Volumize With Vegetables
Just can’t give up your pasta noodles? That’s okay. You can enjoy flour-based pasta while keeping calories in check (and packing in nutrition) by using vegetables to increase the volume of your meal. Start with a healthy base of whole-grain pasta, and then pile on veggies like spinach, onions, peppers, squash, zucchini, eggplant, peas, mushrooms, and broccoli.
You can lightly sauté or steam vegetables that have been cut into chunks or strips, and then toss them in after you cook pasta or add them to homemade sauce.
4. Pack in Protein
Now that you’ve got pasta and fresh vegetables covered, it’s time to add lean protein. Skinless chicken (grilled, baked, or sautéed) instantly turns pasta into a filling main course. Steamed, grilled, or sautéed shrimp is another delicious choice to top off your noodles.
Even meatballs can be a healthy pasta topper when made with lean ground chicken or turkey. Or go vegetarian by using nuts and legumes as the base, like in this recipe for meatless meatballs.
5. Pasta Sauce Matters
The final step is saucing up your bowl. Before you pour on a generous serving, beware: Sauce can quickly take a pasta dish from healthy to fat-laden. If it’s coming from a jar, read the label to check the fat and sodium content. As a general rule of thumb, select a variety that has no more than 75 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 150 milligrams of sodium per serving. Cream-based sauces like Alfredo or carbonara tend to be high in fat and calories, so sticking with a basic tomato sauce is usually a safe bet.
You can also get creative and go homemade, which is a smart way to control the amount of sodium in your dish. Simply combine low-sodium canned or diced tomatoes with fresh herbs like basil and oregano, and simmer in a pot on the stove. Or toss pasta with a bit of olive oil, minced garlic, and a squeeze of lemon or lime juice for a light, fresh taste. If a craving for a heavier sauce hits, going homemade can also allow you to lighten up a recipe without losing the comfort-food flavor. Give it a try with this Fettuccine Faux-Fredo that utilizes beans for a creamy texture while cutting back on fat.