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Ask JJ: Gluten-Free Pasta Alternatives?

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Dear JJ: Pasta is a huge staple in our house. Now I've learned that I'm gluten intolerant, so pasta is suddenly out of the picture. Help!

Trust me, I know how convenient and delicious pasta can be. Unfortunately, the empty carbs and gluten in conventional wheat pasta make it a big no-no for fat loss and great health. However, there are plenty of satisfying pasta alternatives, so don't lose hope!

To understand why other options are better, it helps to understand how traditional wheat pasta affects your body.

When you eat pasta and other processed grain products, you're essentially telling your body to stop burning fat. High-carbohydrate foods like noodles and bread raise your insulin, which in turn tells your body to store those excess carbs as fat.

Not only do you put on pounds, you also climb on a roller coaster of blood sugar spikes and crashes that can wreak havoc with your energy levels. That's why you'll often find yourself in a brain fog and hungry again a couple of hours after a big pasta dinner.

But the process doesn't stop there. Insulin also triggers leptin, a hormone that tells your brain you're full. Unfortunately, chronically high insulin from excess carbs means your leptin levels never come down.

Now that sounds like it would be a good thing, right? A signal telling your body you're always full could come in pretty handy! Sadly, that's not how it works...

Have you ever had a boss or relative who is unhappy all the time? Nothing you do pleases them, so eventually you learn to tune out their complaints. The same thing happens with leptin: when your leptin remains elevated, your brain eventually tunes it out. And that means you become "leptin resistant" - you no longer hear the messages meant to curb your hunger.

All of that sets off a chain reaction that leaves your body stubbornly clinging to belly fat, not to mention constantly feeling hungry and craving carbs.

If it sounds like I'm leading up to the advice that you should never eat pasta again, stop worrying. I took a trip to Italy earlier this year, and it wouldn't have been the same without the amazing food! With a few easy tweaks, you can keep your angel hair pasta.

First, check your sauce. Opt for pesto with heart-healthy olive oil and no added sugar. If you prefer tomato sauce, be sure to read the ingredients. Ready-made marinara often contains large amounts of sugar and salt. Some popular brands contain as much 12 grams of sugar in a half-cup of sauce. That's like pouring 2-½ teaspoons of table sugar over your pasta! The best choice is to make your own no-sugar-added marinara. It only takes minutes, and there's an easy recipe for you below.

Second, skip the wheat pasta. And that goes double for whole wheat noodles, which just give you an extra dose of gluten and carbs. (Shame on marketers for telling you it's healthier!) Instead, choose corn-free quinoa pasta. Rice pasta also works - just check the ingredients to confirm it doesn't have gluten or other additives. And remember, portion control still counts. Enjoy your pasta with lean protein and a big salad or other veggies so you don't overindulge.

Third, explore the alternatives. If you're up for something new, try substituting spaghetti squash for noodles. It's packed with fiber and nutrients, plus it's easy to make. (Just steam and serve.) Another fun option is shirataki noodles - look for Miracle Noodles in the store. These tender, translucent beauties are completely free of calories, carbs, and gluten. They're also full of crave-crushing soluble fiber, so you stay fuller longer.

You don't have to give up your pasta - just the energy crashes and extra fat! So what's your favorite healthy pasta tweak? Comment below and keep those great questions coming at askJJ@jjvirgin.com.

Quick & Easy Tomato Sauce

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 (14.5-ounce) can no-salt-added petite diced tomatoes (fire-roasted, if you like)
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ tsp. sea salt
¼ freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, basil, and oregano; cook until onion and garlic soften, about 4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Reduce the heat to medium and let simmer until thickened, stirring often, about 10-12 minutes.

Serve over your favorite quinoa pasta, spaghetti squash, or prepared shirataki noodles.