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Ranking Pasta Noodles By How Healthy They Are

Whole-Grain? Tri-Color? Edamame (yes, that’s a thing)? Which can I eat the most of without looking like an over-pumped handball?

When it comes to weight gain, few foods have been as overwhelmingly demonized — predominantly by low-carb fanatics — as pasta. But apparently, the hate is unwarranted: Researchers recently performed a systematic review of 30 control trials, where almost 2,500 people ate 3.3 servings of pasta (one serving being about one-half cup) per week instead of other carbohydrates, and they found that these participants actually lost an average of more than one pound after 12 weeks.

“In weighing the evidence, we can now say with some confidence that pasta does not have an adverse effect on body weight outcomes when it is consumed as part of a healthy dietary pattern,” said lead author John Sievenpiper in a press release.

That last part about a “healthy dietary pattern” is extremely important, though. As I mentioned, these people were only eating a little more than three half-cup portions of pasta each week, which is easily less pasta than you might find in a single spaghetti plate from your local Italian-American joint. In other words, as with many things food-and-health-related, portion size is everything when it comes to eating pasta.

Now, even though a half-cup of pasta might seem like, well, a ridiculously small amount of pasta, you can maybe get away with eating more if you pick the right noodles. With that hope as my guiding light, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank common pasta noodles — from healthy to pretty damn unhealthy.

First, let’s look at noodles made from different ingredients, then we’ll touch on specific noodle shapes:

1) Zucchini Noodles: Hunnes says that these are the healthiest noodles, which is unfortunate, since nobody in their right mind prefers zucchini noodles to any other noodles. “These are usually spiralized, or very thinly shredded zucchini,” she explains. “These are also probably the healthiest, and lowest in carbohydrates, since they’re made from an actual vegetable.” And a very healthy vegetable at that: Zucchini contains a wide array of vitamins and minerals, with particularly high levels of vitamin A, which supports vision and the immune system. Additionally, studies show that zucchini helps prevent cancer, reduces digestive inflammation and prevents heart disease. Zucchinis are also high in water, which can help you feel full, and super low in calories — e.g., one cup of zucchini pasta contains only 15 calories. All in all, these are some healthy noods.

2) Legume Noodles: “These are usually gluten-free noodles made from legumes, such as lentils, split peas or even edamame,” Hunnes explains. “I found a great edamame pasta at Costco that’s low in carbohydrates, high in fiber and very high in protein, since it’s made with edamame. This is definitely one of the healthiest ‘pasta’ choices out there.” One cup of cooked edamame contains 188 calories and a whopping 18.5 grams of protein, so you can see how edamame in noodle form could be a good choice.

3) Whole-Grain Noodles: “This is at least a better option than refined pasta,” Hunnes says (we’ll talk about that in a bit). Generally speaking, whole-grain anything is better than the refined version, since it contains parts of the grain (the bran and germ) that are packed with iron, B vitamins and fiber. For instance, when talking about whole-grain bread, nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, told me, “It’s loaded with fiber, healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals and a variety of phytochemicals that help to improve digestion, reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol. Whole-grain bread also contains lactic acid, which promotes the growth of ‘good bacteria’ in the intestines.” The same can be said for whole-grain pasta.

4) Tri-Color Noodles: These are the orange, green and yellow noodles you might find at the grocery store, and apparently, they’re not much healthier than the regular ones. “These are basically white, refined noodles that have some ‘vegetable’ coloring added to them,” Hunnes says. “The amount of vegetable extract in a serving of tri-color pasta is minimal, so don’t substitute these for vegetables.”

5) Refined Noodles: These are the “normal” noodles that we’re all used to buying from the store. “They’re basically white flour with most of the nutrients removed,” Hunnes explains. “The only major constituent left is the white starch, which is a carbohydrate-rich component of the grain.” Basically, these noodles, without anything else on them, are just straight-up carbohydrates with no real nutritional value.

Now, let’s quickly touch on noodle shapes, which I thought might have some impact on their nutritional value — at least in the sense that you might eat more of certain noodle shapes than others. Apparently, that could be the case, but probably not really. “Pasta shape itself has no bearing on the amount of calories, protein or carbohydrates per serving,” Hunnes explains. “However, since you asked about how the shape might affect how much we eat, then yes. It’s likely easier to eat more orzo than it is farfalle, simply because orzo is more tightly packed together, whereas there’s more air between pieces in the bow-ties [that is, farfalle].”

As such, and we’ve already been over this, Hunnes says that portion size is really the most important thing to consider when eating pasta. “Your best bet with any pasta, especially if you’re watching your weight or live with diabetes, is to measure out how much you’re serving yourself,” she says. “Something you can try — and I do this — is fill the bottom half of a bowl with vegetables, add two or three ounces of pasta [about a third of a cup] on top of that, which will look like a mountain of pasta because of all those vegetables, and then whatever sauce you’re eating.”

Speaking of sauce, as I concluded in my analysis of ready-made pasta sauce, the bottles you find at the story really aren’t all that bad. However, if you want to avoid the extra sugar and salt in them, which is never a bad idea, making your own pasta sauce is incredibly simple (and oftentimes, ultra healthy thanks to all the veggies in it):

In the words of one commenter who posted under the above video, “I’m 12 and I just made this with spaghetti for my family and it tasted beautiful thank you.” So yeah — if a 12-year-old can do it, so can you.

Above all, though — and I can’t stress this enough — less is usually more when it comes to noodles, since our idea of a “normal” serving size is crazy big. Unless, of course, those noodles are just stringy pieces of zucchini, in which case, eat like you mean it, baby.