8 ways to make your pasta dishes healthier, according to dietitians

8 ways to make your pasta dishes healthier, according to dietitians
  • Pasta can be healthy when it's paired with vegetables, protein, and healthy fats.
  • The healthiest types of pasta include whole wheat pasta, as well as bean and vegetable based noodles.
  • Serve a balanced portion of pasta (¼ of your plate) and go easy on the sauce and cheese.

Whether you have an entire kitchen cabinet dedicated to storing boxes of farfalle, rigatoni, and ziti or opt for pasta once in a while, it's important to know how to eat pasta — the healthy way.

Let's get right down to it: Is pasta healthy? It's been said that too many carbs are a no-go, but whipping up your favorite dish can be nutritious if you stick to the recommended serving size and balance your plate with veggies and protein.

In fact, when it comes down to it, eating some pasta can be beneficial as part of a healthy diet. In a large 2016 study of Italians, researchers found that those who ate pasta as part of the Mediterranean diet had a lower body mass index, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio.

For the 411 on everything pasta, Insider spoke with Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, and Mia Syn, MS, RDN to share their top 8 tips for making each type of pasta healthy — from portion control, different ways to cook it, and what to look out for while shopping.

1. Pack on protein, vegetables, and healthy fats

The great thing about pasta is its versatility. While the traditional marinara sauce and parmesan cheese is a hearty option, balancing your dish with adequate protein, a vegetable for fiber and nutrients, and some healthy fat is especially good for maintaining stable blood sugar levels, says Jones.


"The balance of all of these components makes pasta dishes more nutrient-dense and satisfying, eliminating the 'bottomless pit' feeling some people describe when eating just pasta and sauce," she says.

Here are some recipes that Jones recommends:

  • Nut- or avocado-based pesto with sauteed spinach and chicken
  • Pasta salad with mixed vegetables and tuna
  • White beans, broccoli rabe, and garlic oil for a vegetarian option

Additionally, Syn recommends the same trio for a balanced plate, offering that cooking vegetables and protein with unsaturated oil — like avocado or olive oil — is a practice to incorporate healthy fats into your homemade meal. She added that homemade kale pesto combines both the veggie and fat components and will add depth to your pasta dish, too.

2. Pick portions that fit your lifestyle

Generally, a standard 2-ounce serving, as listed on the nutrition facts label, equates to about one cup of cooked pasta. Syn recommends following the ¼ pasta or carbohydrate, ¼ protein, and ½ vegetable guideline for a portion-controlled, healthful plate.

8 ways to make your pasta dishes healthier, according to dietitians
About 1/4 of a healthy plate should consist of carbohydrates like pasta - ideally whole grains.Shayanne Gal/Insider

"It's important to note that serving sizes are standardized to provide nutrition information — not to assume everyone needs to eat the same amount," Jones says. "For my athlete clients, for example, they may need twice or even three times this amount to keep up with their energy needs in a meal."


A 2018 study found consuming about 150 kcal for a 160-pound athlete — roughly the equivalent of one cup of pasta — every 30 minutes for two to four hours can boost metabolism, which is a key factor when performing daily or weekly strenuous exercise.

Athletes should consume 65% more carbohydrates than is normally recommended for the average adult because they burn their energy stores at a quick rate during intense training. A high-carb diet will help athletes avoid burnout and fatigue, Syn adds. And, while you can cook up pasta multiple times per day, Jones recommends switching up the carbohydrates in your diet for more variety.

3. Add variety with pasta substitutions

There's more to pasta than white and whole wheat selections when you're in the grocery aisle. Now, you can choose from lentils, chickpea, white bean, and even zoodle options, for a plant-based alternative.

Here's how different types of pasta stack up for a standard 2-ounce serving:

Pasta typeCaloriesProtein (g)Fiber (g)
Refined (regular)20073
Whole wheat18087
Tricolor 20073
Red lentil200153
Black bean2101210

"Zoodles is a fun option to add to your pasta to bulk up the nutritional content and aid in satiety if you feel you often overeat when enjoying the meal," Jones says. "If looking for a more filling alternative, start with chickpea or red lentil pasta as they have a more palatable texture than other bean pasta, especially if you're used to white pasta."


Syn adds that these alternatives are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals while containing fewer calories per serving compared to regular pasta, though zoodles — and spaghetti squash — will contain minimal carbohydrates and protein. You can, however, add grilled chicken, salmon, shrimp, tomatoes, or additional vegetables to make for a more balanced meal.

4. Be mindful of fiber content

If you have diabetes or are concerned about your blood sugar levels, Syn advises avoiding refined pasta and choosing whole wheat, or another fiber-rich option, instead.

Though refined pasta has been enriched with vitamins and minerals — therefore, tending to be rich in iron and B vitamins — it doesn't have nearly as much fiber, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike.

A 2018 study found that intaking fiber significantly reduced the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Men should aim for about 38 grams of fiber per day, while women should target about 25.

Jones says it's difficult to put a hard number on how much fiber to look for in pasta, since whole wheat pasta has seven grams while chickpea pasta has five. That said, aiming for a balanced portion of pasta and veggies totaling about 10 grams of fiber is recommended.


Moreover, if you have a gluten allergy or intolerance, don't fret. Syn has a solution: opt for a bean pasta like lemon parmesan kale chickpea or roasted red bell pepper chickpea, or go for zoodles with added protein.

But if you are craving refined pasta, you might want to go for leftovers. In 2014, nutrition scientist Denise Robertson showed that cooled then reheated pasta turned into resistant starch, causing a lower rise in blood sugar levels when eaten. What's more, your body treats resistant starch more like fiber, so you'll feel fuller after your meal.

5. Add cheese in moderation

There's a healthy way to add cheese to your pasta, so you can enjoy the sprinkle of flavor without deprivation or guilt-ridden feelings.

Syn recommends switching from whole milk mozzarella to part-skim, and from regular Parmesan cheese to fat-free to cut back on calories and saturated fats, as is commonly found in cheeses like cheddar.

The following cheeses are lower in saturated fats:

  • Parmesan
  • Feta
  • Part-skim mozzarella
  • Ricotta

"Parmigiano Reggiano contains 11 grams of protein per one-ounce serving, so when paired with a cup of pasta and a green vegetable, your meal can hit 20 grams with ease," Jones adds. "However, it tends to be higher in salt, so those with hypertension want to be sure to stick to a serving."

Note: Use a measuring spoon or cup to portion cheese accordingly, preferably a sprinkle or a teaspoon amount per serving.

6. Try a cheese alternative

For a healthier, yet still creamy, alternative try replacing creamy alfredo sauces with cashew cream sauces instead, Jones says.

To make the dish, she soaks cashews in water overnight before draining and blending in a food processor and adding in a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt, black pepper, and enough non-dairy milk until you attain your desired texture.

Syn advises combining one part olive oil and two parts of plain soy milk for a heavy cream substitution. She loves making a puree of cauliflower, plain almond milk, olive oil, and preferred seasonings (i.e. garlic, salt, pepper, onion) for a flavorful blend, too.


7. Make sauces at home

While bolognese and harvest blend jars at the supermarket may look so good, Jones and Syn recommend making your own at home. Cream-based sauces may contain many unhealthy additives and stabilizers, while others may have a high sodium or fat content and added sugars.

Syn recommends whipping up a simple herb blend of oregano, basil, thyme, and garlic instead of heavily salting up your sauce of choice. Pureeing vegetables is a wonderful option, too.

If you're in a pinch and don't have time to stir up a pot of sauce, make sure to check the nutrition labels for sodium and sugar content and reach for pesto in the refrigerated section to ensure freshness.

8. Don't overcook your pasta

Pasta is healthiest when you follow the recommended cook time on the box — after all, it's there for a reason.

"When overcooked, the starch component of pasta absorbs too much water, which leads to swelling and its nutrients are eventually released in the cooking water," Syn says.


Overcooking pasta can also reduce the amount of nutrients, such as folate, that the pasta was originally fortified with.

According to an industry study, the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin leached out most during processing and cooking, leaving 40% of the original riboflavin and 60% of the original added thiamine. Luckily, cooking didn't affect folate levels as much, with 80% remaining in the final cooked product.

Insider's takeaway

While some may link pasta with a "bad carb," it's not at all unhealthy if consumed in RD-recommended ways.

Jones concludes that restricting pasta from your diet, especially if it's one of your favorite meals, can lead to increased cravings and a higher chance of overeating the next time you cave in.

This can lead to dangerous binge eating cycles, too, so she recommends enjoying a homemade dish of semolina pasta with marinara sauce every once in a while — just like your grandmother may have made.