How to Eat Pasta Like a Nutrition Pro

<em>Healthy Pasta Dinners</em>
Healthy Pasta Dinners

Here’s hint: When in Rome…

Despite its reputation for being fattening, studies show that eating pasta the authentic way may actually improve your diet and help you stay slim.

Those who live from Bergamo to Sicily have some of the lowest rates of obesity, yet they enjoy delicious pasta dishes nearly every day. In fact, Italians feast on more than 50 pounds of pasta per person per year, while Americans average about 15.5 pounds per person. And yet, our friends in Europe are significantly slimmer than we are.

In fact, in one study published in Nutrition and Diabetes, the amount of pasta consumed by more than 20,000 Italians did not correlate with an increase in body weight. In fact, the opposite was true: Adults who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet – a primarily plant-based diet with plenty of pasta, produce, seafood, whole grains and healthy oils – were thinner and had smaller waistlines than those who didn’t follow a traditional eating pattern of the region.

Follow these tips to enjoy pasta the Mediterranean way:

Eat It Like an Italian

Consider this: Mac and cheese, alfredo sauce, deep-dish pizza and garlic bread are as Italian as fast food hamburgers and apple pie. They would not be considered “Italian” in Italy. Using national food surveillance data of more than 10,000 U.S. adults, a recent study published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition, reported that only about one in five Americans (17.3 percent), eat pasta the traditional Mediterranean way, which means an eating pattern that’s high in fruits, vegetables, fish, dairy, whole grains and plant-based proteins. However, those who ate pasta in a more traditional Mediterranean way, had overall diet quality scores that were 20 percent higher than those who didn’t eat pasta.

The researchers reported that most pasta eating Americans have low intakes of fruit, fish and whole grains and lower diet quality overall. However, when researchers removed mac and cheese from their analyses, they found study participants’ diets, while higher in sodium, had higher amounts of dietary fiber, folate, iron and potassium than non-pasta consumers.

Cook It Right

Prepare your pasta like they do in the Mediterranean – al dente. Al dente means your pasta is neither too hard nor too soft. When cooked correctly, pasta will have a lower glycemic index (GI) than when it’s cooked to be soft or mushy. The average GI of al dente penne pasta is 50, which is even lower than the GI of oatmeal or most whole grain breakfast cereals. A lower GI can help keep blood sugar levels stable so you will stay fuller, longer.

To cook pasta perfect every time, use a 4- to 6-quart pot, add enough water to fill ¾ full, add salt and bring to a rolling boil. Gently add pasta then follow recommended minutes to cook on the pasta box (cooking time varies depending on its shape and type of pasta). Stir frequently while cooking to prevent clumping or sticking to your pot. There’s also no need to rinse pasta after cooking or add oil to the water.

Perfect Your Portions

One of the key distinguishing characteristics of the way Italians eat pasta is the size of their portions. To most Italians, a serving is what our recommended serving size is, which is two ounces uncooked or one cup cooked (about the size of a baseball). Remember, most boxes of pasta provide eight servings.

So, whether you’re eating at home or away from home, enjoy a reasonable amount (the recommended baseball-sized portion) of pasta and share or save the rest for later.

Keep It Simple

Delicious traditional pasta dishes are easy to make and only require a few quality ingredients. Toss your al dente pasta with in-season veggies, fresh herbs, quality olive oil, beans and lean protein and you can create waistline-friendly, crowd-pleasing meals in minutes. Here are a couple of my faves: Penne with Chicken Sausage and Arugula and Gemelli with Sautéed Mushrooms and Spinach with Goat Cheese.

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