By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
I just love healthy pasta dinners, whether at home or in authentic Italian restaurants. Delicious food that really hits the spot, rich cultural traditions, and the warmth of friends and family—together, a recipe for good times.
Admittedly, I’m biased…Growing up in a half-Sicilian household, I learned early on that Italian food is the best in the world. I also learned from my father and grandfather how to prepare some amazing dishes. To this day, one of my fondest boyhood memories is helping them gather tomatoes from our garden to make sauce.
The fact that the Italian way of eating—which is representative of the Mediterranean Diet—is also among the healthiest on Earth is just icing on the cake.
Research continues to validate the Mediterranean Diet’s ability to support longevity. Residents in several regions of Italy continue living vibrantly into their 90s and even 100s. In one village, Acciaroli, one in every 10 people has passed the century mark.
Credit no doubt goes to their lifelong consumption of olive oil, fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, pasta, and other Mediterranean diet staples.
Yes, Pasta Can Be Part of a Healthy, Non-Inflammatory Diet
Nutrition experts—including myself—have come down hard on pasta and other refined carbohydrates because they can significantly raise blood sugar and insulin levels. Many have even suggested it’s healthiest to cut pasta out of the diet altogether.
My view is, don’t take an all-or-nothing approach. Like other carbohydrates, pasta can be enjoyed (and healthy) as long as it’s balanced with other types of food. Simply follow these rules:
Healthy Pasta Rule #1: Combine Pasta with Foods High In Protein, Fat and Fiber
A pasta dinner usually means exactly that—a big bowl or plate full of pasta, maybe with a ladleful of sauce, some grated cheese, and bread on the side (more carbs!). Unfortunately, this is the worst way to eat pasta.
With pasta, I recommend applying the same principal as building healthy breakfasts – pair it with healthy fats, fiber, and protein to slow the insulin response. These extras also provide additional nutrients that you won’t get with most pastas alone.
Lasagna is a great way to add meats and cheese—or even roasted vegetables. Go organic and high fiber as much as possible. I also like meatballs, as long as the beef is grass fed.
Pasta salad is another option. Toss a hearty, less-refined pasta with extra virgin olive oil or pesto with your choice of add-ons: fresh mozzarella, organic cheddar cheese, grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, onions and/or lightly steamed vegetables such as broccoli or green beans. Voila – a one dish meal that won’t spike your blood sugar.
Healthy Pasta Rule #2: Add a Healthy Pasta Sauce
Another way to make pasta healthy is to dress it up with sauce made with nutrient-rich vegetables and herbs.
Red sauce, made from tomatoes, is rich in lycopene. In addition to making tomatoes red, this carotenoid has powerful antioxidant properties and has been linked with lower cardiovascular and cancer risk (prostate cancer, in particular). Vary it up with different vegetables, herbs and spices. Onions, zucchini, peppers, basil, oregano, garlic, thyme or parsley are awesome additions; my father especially liked to add asparagus (and pork chops) to our sauces. If you like it spicy, don’t be shy with the crushed red pepper; when I’m in the mood for a kick of spice, I add a pinch or 2 of my olive oil dipping blend.
Pesto sauce is another Italian staple. Its signature green color comes from herbs basil and parsley, but the sauce also delivers the anti-inflammatory health benefits of olive oil and garlic, and contains healthy fats from nuts (pine or walnut) too.
A lot of people shy away from making their own healthy pasta sauce because they think it will be difficult or time consuming. In reality, it’s surprisingly simple. Many recipes can be made in 1–2 hours or less and don’t require lengthy ingredient lists. Search online for one that suits your taste, or feel free to try one of my own recipes for tomato sauce or pesto.
Another sauce option is to simply drizzle extra virgin olive oil over pasta, to increase fat content and blunt insulin response. Use olive oil plain or infused with rosemary, garlic, or other healthy herbs and spices. Fresh grated Parmesan cheese can be a nice finishing touch.
Healthy Pasta Rule #3: Choose Whole-Grain Products
In addition to making sure your pasta is organic and non-GMO, look for products made from minimally refined legumes or whole grains.
Most of the pastas you’ll find at the grocery store are highly processed and made using only the grain’s starchy center. Whole grain pastas, on the other hand, include the grain’s germ and hard outer layer—both of which increase the pasta’s fiber and protein content.
A newer option is pastas that are made from novel grains or legumes, such as lentils or rice. Many of these products contain more fiber and protein than wheat-based options, and they also work for anyone on a gluten-free diet.
One caveat for those of you going gluten-free: many gluten-free pastas are made with corn, and most corn produced in the US is GMO, so you want to make sure you go organic with gluten-free pasta.
Healthy Pasta Rule #4: Eat Like an Italian
In Italy, pasta is traditionally served as an appetizer-sized first course (called “primi”), followed by a larger second course consisting of meat, fish, and many fresh seasonal vegetables. That’s a far cry from our very American way of doing it, which usually involves a hubcap-sized plate or bowl as the main meal.
If you want to live as long as the Italians, it’s best to moderate portion size and remember that pasta is not intended to be the meal’s main focus.
We also can take a cue from the way in which Italians eat. Meals follow a much more relaxed pace and are a time to share with friends and family. They’re not fit in between errands and appointments, or eaten alone in front of the TV. Instead, they’re an opportunity to share a glass of wine, connect, and build the kind of vital relationships that are known to support longevity.
In fact, this is just one aspect of the Italian lifestyle that we could take a page from. While our hard-driving, always-on, achievement-oriented culture creates disease, their frequent vacations, family time, and daily siesta time help them lead some of the longest lives in the world.
How to Make Healthy Pasta Dinners for Kids
Before I wrap up, I want to touch on one more topic: kids.
Generally, kids like spaghetti—but don’t let them have only that. Try adding some vegetables (you never know) to increase fiber content, and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top to add fat. If you can get them to eat a red sauce, even better.
Beyond spaghetti, every parent and grandparent knows that kids’ pasta dish of choice usually is macaroni and cheese. Again, just look for healthy ways to prepare it.
Homemade is best. Quality organic ingredients allow you to increase the protein and fiber content to offset the insulin response. Limit portion size, as well, serving it as a side dish—not a meal—along with a salad or veggies.
Some kids will ask for boxed varieties, which often are cut in shapes that kids find interesting. Don’t give in to those requests. Most boxed mac and cheese contains highly refined pasta and powdered cheese mixtures with unhealthy additives. If you’re in a pinch and have to resort to the box, there are several organic varieties available.
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