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Is pasta healthy or unhealthy?

A look at pasta and whether it is good or bad for you.

Pasta is a staple in many households around the world. However, people often wonder whether it's healthy or unhealthy.

Evidence-based
This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
We look at both sides of the argument and strive to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
Last updated on September 10, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on August 20, 2022.

Pasta is high in carbs, which can be bad for you when consumed in large amounts. It also contains gluten, a type of protein that causes issues for gluten-sensitive people.

On the other hand, pasta can provide some essential nutrients for health.

This article looks at the evidence and determines whether pasta is good or bad for you.

What is pasta?

Pasta is a type of noodle traditionally made from durum wheat, water, or eggs. It is formed into different noodle shapes and then cooked in boiling water.

Nowadays, most products sold as pasta are made from common wheat. However, similar noodles can be made from other grains, such as rice, barley, or buckwheat.

Some types of pasta are refined during processing, stripping the wheat kernel of the bran and germ and removing many of the nutrients.

Sometimes refined pasta is enriched, meaning it has some nutrients, such as B vitamins and iron, added back in.

Whole-grain pasta is also available, containing all wheat kernel parts.

A few examples of commonly consumed types of pasta include:

Typical toppings for pasta include meat, sauce, cheese, vegetables, and herbs.

Summary: Pasta is made from durum wheat and water, though noodles can be made from other grains. Refined, enriched, and whole-grain pasta are available.

Refined pasta is the most commonly consumed pasta

Most people prefer refined pasta, meaning that the wheat kernel has been stripped of the germ and bran along with many of the nutrients it contains.

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Refined pasta is higher in calories and lower in fiber. This may result in decreased feelings of fullness after eating it, compared to high-fiber, whole-grain pasta.

One study found that whole-grain pasta lowered appetite and increased fullness more than refined pasta.

However, other studies have found mixed results regarding the benefits of whole-grain pasta. A study including 16 participants found no difference in blood sugar levels after eating refined or whole-grain pasta.

Still, many studies have found that eating lots of refined carbs may have adverse health effects.

For example, a study including 117,366 people found that high carb intake, especially refined grains, was linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

Another study of 2,042 people also found that higher refined grain consumption was associated with increased waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar, bad LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, and insulin resistance.

However, more studies that focus specifically on the health effects of refined pasta are needed.

It should also be noted that the glycemic index of pasta is in the low to medium range, which is lower than that of many other processed foods.

Summary: Refined pasta is the most popular pasta. Eating refined carbs has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood sugar, and insulin resistance.

Nutrients in whole-grain vs. refined pasta

Whole-grain pasta is typically high in fiber, manganese, selenium, copper, and phosphorus, while refined, enriched pasta tends to be higher in iron and B vitamins.

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Whole-grain pasta is also lower in calories and higher in fiber and certain micronutrients than refined pasta.

Fiber moves through the gastrointestinal tract undigested and helps promote fullness. For this reason, whole-grain pasta may be more effective than refined pasta in reducing appetite and cravings.

For comparison, here are the nutrients found in one cup of cooked, whole-wheat spaghetti versus one cup of cooked spaghetti that has been refined and enriched:

Nutrients facts of whole-wheat spaghetti

Nutrients facts of refined/enriched spaghetti

Summary: Whole-grain pasta contains a good amount of fiber, manganese, and selenium. Refined pasta is higher in calories, carbs, B vitamins, and iron but lower in fiber and most other micronutrients.

Pasta is high in carbs

Pasta is high in carbs, with a one-cup serving of cooked spaghetti containing between 37–43 grams, depending on whether it is refined or whole-grain.

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Carbs are broken down quickly into glucose in the bloodstream, which results in a sharp rise in blood sugar. Refined pasta, in particular, is higher in carbs and lower in fiber than whole-grain pasta.

Additionally, simple carbs like refined pasta are digested very quickly, leading to increased hunger and a higher risk of overeating.

For this reason, those with diabetes are advised to keep carb intake in moderation and eat plenty of fiber. Making these changes slows the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream and helps maintain steady blood sugar levels.

High-carb diets have also been linked to numerous health conditions, including:

However, all these studies are observational, meaning they only show an association.

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Further research is needed to determine how much of a role carb intake may have on these conditions versus other factors.

Summary: Pasta is high in carbs. High-carb diets can raise blood sugar levels and may be associated with an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

Gluten in pasta may cause problems for some people

While there are special gluten-free pasta varieties available, traditional pasta contains gluten.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For most people, gluten is well-tolerated and does not cause any problems.

However, for those with celiac disease, eating foods with gluten can trigger an immune response and cause damage to the cells of the small intestine.

Some people may also be sensitive to gluten and may experience digestive issues from eating gluten-containing foods.

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These individuals should avoid eating pasta made from wheat to prevent negative symptoms. Instead, opt for gluten-free whole grains like brown rice or quinoa.

For those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the gluten found in pasta can safely be consumed without problems.

Summary: Many types of pasta contain gluten, a protein that can cause adverse reactions in those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Is whole-grain pasta a better option?

Whole grains are made from the entire wheat kernel. As a result, they’re higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains, which contain only the endosperm of the wheat kernel.

Eating whole grains has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

However, remember that whole-grain pasta is made from whole-wheat flour that has been pulverized.

This process diminishes the beneficial effects of the whole grains found in pasta since grains with smaller particles are digested more rapidly, leading to more significant increases in blood sugar.

Therefore, the benefits of pasta made from whole grains are not comparable to those of intact whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, or quinoa.

Still, while there is little difference in the effects of refined and whole-grain pasta on health, pasta made from whole grains may be a better choice if you want to lose weight. It is lower in calories and higher in satiety-boosting fiber than refined pasta.

Whole-grain pasta also contains a higher amount of most micronutrients besides B vitamins, which are added back into enriched pasta during processing.

Summary: Whole-grain pasta is made from wheat flour that has been pulverized, diminishing most of the beneficial effects of the whole grains. However, pasta made from whole grains is lower in calories and carbs and higher in fiber and most micronutrients.

How to make pasta healthier

When eaten in moderation, pasta can be part of a healthy diet. Whole-grain pasta may be a better choice for many, as it is lower in calories and carbs but higher in fiber and nutrients.

However, in addition to the type of pasta you pick, what you top it with is just as important.

Calories can stack up fast when adding high-fat, high-calorie toppings like cream-based sauces and cheeses. If you are watching your weight, go for a drizzle of heart-healthy olive oil, some fresh herbs, or a few of your favorite veggies instead.

You can also add your choice of protein to your pasta to turn it into a balanced meal.

For instance, fish and chicken can add extra protein to keep you feeling full and satisfied, while broccoli, bell peppers, or tomatoes can provide nutrients and additional fiber.

Here are a few other ideas for healthy pasta dishes:

Summary: To optimize the nutritional value of your pasta dish, load up on toppings like proteins, heart-healthy fats, and vegetables. Limit high-calorie sauces and cheeses.

Summary

Pasta is a dietary staple around the world, and it does contain some essential nutrients.

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However, pasta is high in carbs. High-carb diets may raise blood sugar levels and have been associated with some adverse effects on health.

For this reason, it’s important to keep portion sizes in check and pick healthy toppings for your pasta, such as vegetables, healthy fats, and protein.

In the end, moderation is crucial when it comes to pasta.

While you can enjoy it occasionally, it’s essential to pair it with other nutritious foods and ensure it is just one component of an overall healthy diet.

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