5 easy tricks to make pasta healthier
Pasta lovers, rejoice! You can have your spaghetti and eat it!
When it comes to weight loss, pasta carbs have a bad reputation. But healthy pasta dishes are a thing. A study published in 2017 found that pasta can be part of a healthy and balanced diet — if you dish it up the Mediterranean way.
The Mediterranean diet is a well-balanced way of eating. It doesn’t demonise any food groups. Instead, it focuses on eating every food (like pasta) in moderation. That’s why it’s a great eating plan for people willing to follow a sustainable healthful lifestyle.
So whether you’re trying to feel healthier, lose weight or just revamp your pasta bowl with better-for-you ingredients, these are my five tips for preparing your pasta the Mediterranean way.
1. GO WHOLEWHEAT OR WHOLEGRAIN
There are many varieties of pasta available these days. If you’re looking to increase the nutritional value of your meal, opt for whole-wheat pasta; it contains the bran and germ of the grain, leaving it high in fibre with more vitamins and minerals. Wholegrain spelt pasta is also a good choice: in addition to the extra fibre, spelt pasta is easier to digest as its gluten is water soluble so it is broken down in our digestive tract more easily than gluten from wheat that might be difficult to digest and cause bloating. Wholegrain buckwheat pasta is another great option: it is rich in magnesium (which supports energy production and muscle relaxation), dietary fibre and it is naturally gluten free. Wholegrains are a great nutritious option and staple of the Mediterranean diet.
If you prefer to avoid carbs and would like to maximise your vegetable intake, go for courgetti spaghetti. Spiralised courgettes are extremely versatile and delicious either raw or cooked. The soluble fibre in the skin of courgettes slows down digestion, and so stabilises blood sugar and insulin levels, and they provide useful amounts of immune system-boosting vitamin C. Courgetti work best with an intense and flavoursome sauce like basil pesto. Toss a handful of chopped cherry tomatoes for extra vitamin C and plenty of fragrant fresh basil leaves for extra flavour. You can also spiralise carrots or squash to make low-carb, micronutrient dense spaghetti!
2. THINK OF PASTA AS A SIDE DISH
Chances are the amount of pasta you pile in your bowl is twice what you actually should have (or end up eating). One portion of cooked pasta is about 1 cup of spaghetti — the equivalent of roughly 60g of dried pasta. Don’t think about pasta as your main dish but as a starter or a side dish. Learn from the Italians who have pasta as a starter, not as a main course.
3. PACK IT WITH PROTEIN & VEGGIES
Pasta is a source of complex carbohydrates – which are great - but what’s even better is to balance them by adding protein and vegetables. This is where you can compensate for the smaller serving of pasta. Adding protein and veggies to your pasta will help level your blood sugar and allow you to feel full for longer. Lean cuts of meat are best as you don’t increase the saturated fat content inadvertently. Beans and chickpeas make a great meatless option and are traditionally used in the Mediterranean cuisine: Pasta & ceci - chickpeas in Italian - is a traditional recipe from Southern Italy whilst Pasta & fagioli – beans in Italian – is extremely popular in Tuscany.
When it comes to veggies, add as many as you’d like. The more, the better – either in your pasta or as a side dish. Opt for a variety of brightly coloured vegetables, preferably in season, to really give your meal a boost of vitamins and minerals.
If you opt for a protein-free pasta sauce – like Spaghetti al Pomodoro or Tomato Spaghetti – have a palm size of protein, like chicken or salmon, and 2 cupful of vegetables as a main course.
4. ADD FRESH HERBS
Sprinkle fresh herbs liberally over your pasta dish. Modern science has shown that many herbs carry remarkable health benefits as they contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds, helping to keep ‘bad’ microbes at bay in our gut and supporting a healthy microbiome – the community of bacteria living in our large intestine that play a major role in our overall wellbeing. Herbs also pack a potent punch of powerful flavour, making your pasta dish even tastier.
The Mediterranean diet is packed with herbs such as oregano, basil, sage and rosemary that have plenty of antimicrobial properties. Garlic is also rich in antioxidants and antimicrobials – use generously in your pasta sauces.
Did you know that when cooked pasta is left in the fridge overnight (or for at least 6 hours) and then reheated, your body digests it differently, causing fewer calories to be absorbed and reducing the rise in blood glucose levels by a whopping 50%? Yes, you got this right: the same amount of pasta that can make you put on weight when freshly cooked, is weight-loss promoting after being left overnight in the fridge!
This is because the structure of the cooked starch changes when cooling down, becoming less soluble and thus non-digestible in the small intestine. It is therefore called “resistant starch” as it resists digestion in the small intestine. The benefits are triple – and all wonderful!
a. Resistant starch releases glucose at a slower pace so less insulin is produced, thus preventing weight gain.
b. Resistant starch is harder to break down and fewer calories are absorbed, providing approx. 2 kcal/gram vs. 4 kcal/gram from regular starch.
c. Resistant starch is fermented only in the large intestine, where it feeds friendly gut bacteria, having a positive effect on the type of bacteria as well as their number.
And if this is not enough to persuade you to embrace re-heated pasta, you might be persuaded by its taste. Did you know that re-heated pasta tastes better than freshly cooked pasta? Resting overnight makes the sauce fully seep into the starchy pasta, intensifying and expanding the nuances of flavours.
So, what’s not to love about re-heated pasta?
Here are some tips for storing and re-heating pasta for best results:
Tips for storing pasta: you can store cooked pasta in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months, either naked or dressed. If storing naked pasta, stir through 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil to avoid it sticking together.
If freezing, opt for short pasta shapes rather than spaghetti to minimise sticking and make it easier to defrost.
Just like cooking and cooling, freezing also turns starch into “resistant starch” so you’ll get the same nutritional benefits from frozen pasta as from chilled pasta. It’s always best to store in glass containers to avoid any chemicals leeching into your food.
Tips for re-heating pasta:
The best way to reheat pasta that hasn’t been tossed with sauce is to place it in a metal sieve and dip it into a pot of boiling water until it’s warmed through, about 30-60 seconds. This will not only keep it from drying out, but the quick hit of intense heat will prevent it from getting mushy, too.
If your leftover pasta has already been tossed in a sauce, warm it, covered, in a pan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until hot. Add a couple of tbsps of water if it’s too dry, or put it in a shallow ovenproof dish, cover it with foil, and bake at 180°C for about 20 minutes.
Avoid re-heating in the microwave - a “quick zap in the microwave” will likely return underwhelming, rubbery-and-dry results.
Pasta is part of a healthy Mediterranean style diet when a little thought is put into its preparation, so plan in advance and make sure you have all the ingredients you need for a balanced meal.
And don’t forget the key ingredient of the Mediterranean way of eating: connection with your loved ones. Share your food with your family and friends whilst chatting over a glass of red wine. Yes, a daily glass of red wine with a meal is acceptable, according to the Mediterranean diet. But make sure it is no more than 1 glass a day!