As a dietitian I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question: Are noodles healthy?
I’ve got good news– all noodles can be “healthy noodles”. Noodles and pasta of all kinds can absolutely be a part of a balanced, healthy diet. Let’s talk about the different kinds of pasta and types of noodles and how they stack up to one another nutritionally.
Are Noodles Unhealthy?
High carbohydrate foods like noodles and pasta have a bad reputation because of our diet culture filled world. It’s easy to assume that carbohydrates are bad when so many fad diets push low carb diets.
But here’s the thing– carbohydrates can and should be eaten as a part of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates (noodles included!) aren’t nutrient-less.
There are tons of nutrient-dense carbs that have nutritional benefits, especially whole food carbohydrate options like whole grains, potatoes, and fruit. And even when you’re choosing “simple carbohydrates”, they can fit just fine into a balance, healthy meal.
With a few tips and tricks, you can learn how to incorporate noodles into your life without guilt. One of those tips includes prioritizing high fiber carbohydrate choices when you’re able to.
Whole Wheat Pasta vs White Pasta
Whole wheat pasta has a higher fiber and nutrient content than refined, white pasta. Here’s why: There are three parts of a grain: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
The bran and the germ contain fiber, healthy fats and vitamins. The endosperm is mostly just starch. When white pasta is made, the bran and germ are removed, leaving just the endosperm.
When whole-wheat noodles are made, the entire grain stays intact, leaving you with a noodle that’s higher in nutrients. The fiber helps you stay fuller, support healthy blood sugar levels, improve your gut health, and can even help to support healthy cholesterol levels.
Getting enough fiber can be a challenge, so choosing whole grain pastas can help you meet your needs. Whole grains also contain B vitamins and iron. Because the whole grain is intact, wheat pasta has a slightly nuttier taste and chewier texture than white pasta.
A 2 oz serving of white pasta has about 3g of fiber and 8g of protein, while a 2 oz serving of whole wheat pasta has about 7g of fiber and 8g of protein. Adding other high fiber foods to your meal, like vegetables, can help up the fiber content when you choose white pasta.
The good news is that B vitamins are often added back to the white flour noodles after processing if they’re removed, but unfortunately the fiber is usually gone for good.
As a Registered Dietitian, I recommend pairing your white or whole wheat pasta with a good protein source and some vegetables– like in this super easy Dump and Bake Meatball Casserole.
The bottom line? There’s nothing wrong with opting for white pasta (especially if it’s a vehicle for other nutritious foods!), but if you like it, whole wheat pasta can offer a few additional health benefits.
Chickpea pasta is made from, you guessed it, chickpeas! One serving of chickpea pasta has an impressive 8g of fiber and around 12g of protein. Compared with whole wheat, it has a similar amount of fiber, but is higher in protein. Due to its high fiber and protein content, you can expect chickpea pasta to keep you fuller and more satisfied for longer than traditional pastas.
Chickpea pasta surprisingly has a great neutral flavor and traditional pasta-like texture. If you’re trying it for the first time, I recommend pairing it with a yummy sauce like in this Ground Turkey Alfredo Pasta with Broccoli.
Chickpea pasta is gluten free too, making it a great choice if you have a gluten allergy, intolerance, or Celiac disease.
Lentil pasta is most similar to chickpea pasta. Because it’s made of lentils, you can expect it to be high in both protein and fiber.
A 2 oz serving of red lentil pasta is packed with 14g of protein and 6g of fiber. The flavor of lentil pasta is a little bit stronger than chickpea pasta, but still fairly neutral– especially when paired with a delish sauce!
My favorite way to use lentil pasta is in mixed dishes so that the pasta can take on flavors of the dish. For an easy high protein/high fiber weeknight meal, add tomato sauce and ground turkey to red lentil pasta and top with parmesan cheese! Serve with a salad on the side for a quick and balanced meal.
Just like chickpea pasta, lentil pasta is gluten free.
The noodles that are commonly referred to as “instant noodles” are brands like Maruchan Ramen Noodles and Cup Noodles. They’re super cheap and easy to prepare. You add hot water, a flavor packet, and within minutes you have a tasty bowl of hot noodles.
But, are instant noodles bad for you?
A serving of the blocks of instant ramen noodles has around 190 calories, 760 mg of sodium, 27g of carbohydrates, 1g of fiber, and 4g of protein. But keep in mind, a “serving” is only half the block. That means that the full block has 1,520 mg of sodium if you’re adding the flavor packet.
Since the recommendation is to stay under 2,300mg of sodium per day, it’s definitely a little high! If you choose to skip the flavor packet and season them yourself, it’s very similar nutritionally to any other refined flour-based noodle, like white pasta.
When we’re comparing noodles, instant noodles are definitely not the most nutritious option, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them occasionally. If you want to turn them into a more nutritious, balanced meal, here’s what I recommend:
- Skip the flavor packet (or use less of it) and use your own herbs and spices like ginger, garlic, scallions, or cilantro to add flavor and nutrients to the dish.
- Add a protein like cooked chicken, tofu, or sliced boiled egg to the noodles to make it more filling.
- Add veggies like spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, or bean sprouts. You can quickly saute them or buy frozen veggies that you can quickly cook in the microwave.
Are instant noodles the healthiest noodle choice? Maybe not– but it doesn’t mean they’re off limits. Plus, there are lots of yummy ways you can amp up the nutrients in a ramen noodle-filled dish.
Rice noodles are a popular gluten-free noodle in Asian cuisine made from rice flour and water. They’re typically a bit lower in nutrients than other options. A 2 oz serving of rice noodles only has about 2g of fiber and 3g of protein, which is a bit lower than your standard white pasta.
Although they’re a bit lower in nutrients, they still can be perfectly fine to use in your diet. To incorporate rice noodles into a balanced nutrient-dense meal, pair them with veggies and a good protein source.
Soba noodles are a noodle typical of Japanese cuisine made with buckwheat flour, which is another gluten free grain. This makes soba noodles another great gluten-free option if you need that.
Buckwheat is also a whole grain, so most soba noodles (as long as they’re 100% buckwheat) will have a higher nutrient content. A 2 oz serving of soba noodles contains about 3g of fiber, 7g of protein, iron and B vitamins.
Udon noodles are another noodle that you’ll find often in Asian cuisine. They’re thick wheat noodles that are popular in soups, broths and cold salads.
Nutritionally, they’re super similar to regular white pasta. To incorporate into a balanced meal, add a good protein source and veggies (are you sensing a theme yet?).
It’s also become pretty popular to use veggies as noodles as a lower carbohydrate alternative to traditional pasta. Common veggies to use include zucchini noodles, summer squash, butternut squash, or spaghetti squash.
Even though veggie noodles are a great way to get more vegetables into your diet, keep in mind that they’re probably not going to be quite as satisfying as a regular noodle. This is because they’re low in calories and low in carbohydrates.
Opting for meals that are too low in calories and carbohydrates can leave you feeling unsatisfied, and ultimately you end up eating more.
Since they’re made of veggies, they’re a great source of fiber and important vitamins and minerals to add to your meals. I recommend pairing veggie noodles with a good protein source and a carb source so that you can be satisfied after your meal.
My recommendation? Mix veggie noodles into a dish with regular noodles too. For example, you could use half white pasta and half veggie noodles in a dish so that you get the best of both worlds!
Have you ever seen noodles that are marketed as almost zero calorie? Shirataki noodles are long, translucent noodles made from the konjac plant. They’re low in calories and high in fiber, which makes them appealing to those trying to make healthy diet changes.
A 4 ounce serving of Shirataki noodles only has 10 calories, 3g of carbohydrate and 3g of fiber.
Their high fiber content comes with some potential health benefits, too.
But is it too good to be true? Some people experience adverse effects like bloating, gas and even diarrhea. Shirataki noodles may also reduce the absorption of certain medications, so it’s important to discuss with your doctor.
They also tend to have a slippery, rubbery texture– so you may find them to be very different from other noodle options.
While Shirataki noodles are certainly an option, remember that lowest calorie isn’t always best. To make sure that these noodles actually keep you full and satisfied, you’ll need to eat them as a part of a balanced meal.
Which is the healthiest option?
As you can see, choosing the “healthiest” type of noodle is easier said than done. Each noodle is very different in terms of taste, texture, and nutrients. While nutrition might be on your mind, remember that your preference matters too.
If you’re looking for the most “bang for your buck” nutritionally, I recommend going for whole-wheat pasta or legume-based pastas like chickpea or lentil pasta. They tend to have more grams of protein and fiber to keep you fuller with potential health benefits.
If you’re not a fan of noodles other than the white pasta versions, that’s okay too! The best part about healthy eating is that you don’t need to be perfect, and there are lots of different ways to do it.
Instead of trying to cut out white pasta, work on incorporating it as a part of a balanced meal with a good protein source and veggies. Or, you could try choosing high fiber versions some of the time, and eating regular pasta other times guilt-free. You don’t need to be “perfect”.
All foods can fit into a balanced, healthy diet. What you’re doing and eating most of the time is what matters most. Pasta and noodles can absolutely fit.