Sad, but true: I can't remember the last time I ordered pasta when I was out to eat. It's not because I don't love the stuff. Give me a plate of penne à la vodka any day and I'm a happy, happy girl. But with simple carbs (read: white pasta) getting slammed by dietitians and doctors alike in recent years, I've trained myself to pass right over the noodle offerings on restaurant menus and head straight for protein.
I'm not alone. There's been a steady decline in pasta consumption in the United States, dropping from a $2 billion industry in 1997 to $1.4 billion in 2000. According to a survey commissioned by the America Bakers Association and the Wheat Foods Council, a whopping 50% of consumers believe that pasta is fattening, up from 40% in 1998 and just 11% in 1995. Heck, even Italians seem to be losing their taste for pasta, with consumption dropping 23% in the last decade in Italy due to the perception that floury noodles are unhealthy.
But it doesn't have to be this way, says Michael J. Glickert, MD, a functional medicine practitioner in St. Louis, MO. "There are ways to have pasta as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet," he says. "As a general rule, avoid pasta dishes served in heavy cream sauces and stick with an oil-based sauce instead—olive oil is especially great." (OK, so it turns out I'm on to something by forgoing that creamy vodka sauce.) Also, don't be afraid to order extra veggies and load up your pasta dish with a lot more combinations of fiber-rich produce than might typically come in the entree, says Glickert.
Want even more guidance to help you decide what to order at some of your favorite sit-down restaurants around the country? Here, the healthiest pasta dishes at five popular spots:
1. Olive Garden
First, you've got to tame your urge to go overboard on the unlimited breadsticks. (Hint: Load up on salad instead.) Then, order the Linguine alla Marinara. With just 6 grams of fat—only 1 gram of which is saturated fat—and 430 calories, this is one of the lower-cal pasta options you'll find at any restaurant.
2. True Food Kitchen
It's not a huge surprise that Andrew Weil's restaurant chain, which boasts a menu full of anti-inflammatory options, includes a dish called Quinoa Tagliatelle. This protein-packed pasta is served with a smoked tomato broth, corn, peas, spinach, asparagus (remember what Glickert said about loading up on veggies?), and Grana Padano. Tons of taste—minus the excessive fat and calories.
3. Lyfe Kitchen
Order the Chicken, Mushroom & Spinach Penne at this health-minded, globally-inspired fast-casual chain. With whole-grain pasta, green onions, lemon zest, parmesan, and heart-healthy cashew cream sauce, you get all the taste you crave in a rich pasta dish, but only 570 calories and a fraction of the saturated fat of most noodle entrees.
4. Seasons 52
If you're going to splurge, you might as well opt for the highest-quality ingredients you can get, which is why the house-made pasta in this Lobster Pappardelle (pictured above) is a great choice. Topped with Maine lobster, seasonal veggies and a sherry-lobster sauce, this dish is high in protein, fiber and taste, and comes in at a reasonable 770 calories.
5. Uno Chicago Grill
Skip the deep-dish pizza and order the Tomato Vegetable Curry instead. It contains only 440 calories and is filled with fiber-rich whole grain penne, seasonal veggies, and white beans in a tomato curry sauce.
By Meghan Rabbitt