Despite its vilified status, you don’t have to quit pasta. Everyone needs some carbs — "They're necessary for your brain and muscles to function and can fuel your workout," say The Nutrition Twins. Since pasta feels like a splurge, it may also curb feelings of deprivation that can make you overeat. But certainly too much carbs have been shown to lead to obesity and sugar crashes. The good news is that you can counterbalance these effects with more fiber, veggies, and better sauces. But at the same time, you don’t want to destroy all the work you do to stay fit. We asked top nutritionists for their tips — and are passing on the ones that are up to our culinary snuff (no, we’re not going to ask you to put miso paste on your pasta).
1. Up the fiber. Increase your fiber content by choosing whole-grain pasta or lasagna noodles (e.g. brown rice or whole wheat), suggests plant-based dietitian Julieanna Hever and author of The Vegiterranean Diet. Avoiding simple carbs (i.e., white pasta) will keep you full.
2. Pile on the veggies. You want variety? Vegetables are your answer. “Include as many delicious, nutritious veggies as you can in between layers of lasagna,” says Hever. Sautéed kale, spinach, and roasted butternut squash make solid go-tos for quick weeknight dinners, and if you buy them frozen, they last pretty much forever.
3. Get higher-quality meat. If you can’t bear a meatless lasagna, instead of opting for quantity, look for quality found in ground meat that is "pastured" (has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids) or organic (free of antibiotics), says nutritionist Lisa Hayim.
4. Rethink your cheese. Cheeses like ricotta can be landmines of saturated fat and sodium (packaged cheese is also notorious for slipping in unnatural additives). Try a tofu “ricotta” by crumbling tofu with lemon juice or vinegar, nutritional yeast, and fresh or dried herbs and spices for added nutritional benefits, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and calcium from the tofu, Hever says. Regular tofu has a little more protein than the same amount of part-skim mozzarella, too.
5. Skip white sauces. “Cheese and cream sauces are two of the culprits that give Italian food its bad rap,” says Hayim. Merely choosing marinara over a cream sauce will give your meal a superior nutritional profile, and red sauces have incredible health benefits, too.
6. Give pesto an omega-3 boost. If you can swing it, make your own pesto. Try subbing in hemp seeds for some or all of the pine nuts in pesto for an omega-3 lift, Hever suggests, and a teaspoon or two of flax or chia seeds swirled into the mix goes a long way. If you sprinkle salt on pretty much everything before you even taste it, briny, omega-3-rich anchovies are a nice addition.
7. Try a bean-based pasta. Gluten-free black bean spaghetti is, in fact, a thing. And it's damn tasty. More and more pasta newcomers are landing on grocery store shelves. For instance, Explore Cuisine offers products like adzuki bean spaghetti and green lentil lasagna, with clean ingredients. Try sautéing vegetables in soy sauce and vinegar and then pouring atop the noodles.
8. Stick to marinara in a jar (it’s healthier). You might not think a jarred food is healthier than its fresh counterpart, but tomato sauce has four times the amount of the antioxidant lycopene of regular tomatoes. “Marinara sauce offers lycopene, lutein, and other healthful micronutrients that support heart and eye health as well as immune function,” Hever says. Make sure to look for one with ingredients you can pronounce and low or no added sugar.