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Nontraditional pastas—made with a variety of healthful ingredients and more readily available than ever—are a tasty, nutritious way to enjoy an endurance athlete’s favorite comfort meal.
Pasta has been a long-time pre-race staple for athletes—it’s affordable, easy to make and provides beneficial carbohydrates to stock your muscles with fuel without giving you too much fiber (something that could increase your chances of GI distress).
Most standard pastas you’d buy off of grocery-store shelves also use enriched flour, meaning there’s a host of other nutrients in that box of noodles, says Marni Sumbal, M.S., R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian and Ironman triathlete. “Pasta is a great source of energy and nutrients, such as iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, manganese, selenium and folate,” she says. So with all that going for your pasta, why would you want to switch to something not so traditional?
“Plant-based pasta alternatives offer a health advantage, as they are loaded with plant-based protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals from the main ingredient in the pasta, such as chickpeas, beans, lentils or veggies,” Sumbal says. “Without compromising taste, quality or nutritional value, nontraditional pastas offer a great alternative to traditional pasta as a way to boost your nutrient intake any night of the week.”
But before you start heaping these new pastas onto your plate, make sure you don’t go overboard—or time it incorrectly. “While carbo-loading is a well-established method to increase glycogen stores before a long run or race, I encourage my athletes to increase carb intake in the morning and taper off throughout the day, with a smaller carb meal in the evening, before bed,” Sumbal says. “This strategy provides more time for digestion and helps avoid the typical heavy-gut or lethargic feeling that many athletes experience when ‘loading’ with carbs the night before the race.” Instead of the night before, she suggests enjoying your pasta dinner two nights before a race and then eating a carb-rich breakfast (such as pancakes or French toast with eggs) the day before the race or long run.
Because pasta makes such a quick and easy dinner during the week, Sumbal gives her blessing to enjoy it regularly—just make sure to load up on the veggies and protein you serve with the pasta, and limit your pasta portion to 2 ounces (which is around 1 cup cooked). “But if you’re consuming for a pre-race meal and the goal is to load up on carbs without compromising gut motility,” she says, “I suggest to aim for 1.5–2 cups pasta with marinara sauce, and top with your choice of protein, but easy on the veggies to reduce the fiber.”
These alternative pastas were all put to the family-dinner test.
Explore Cuisine Black Bean Spaghetti, $25 For Six 8-oz. Boxes
There is literally one ingredient in this spaghetti: organic black beans. The dark appearance and smell while cooking might be a little off-putting, but the mild flavor pleasantly surprised testers. Plus, the texture is very similar to spaghetti and isn’t grainy or mushy, like you might expect from a bean-only ingredient list. The flavor, while not strong, isn’t exactly neutral, so we topped our black bean spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, salt and red chili flakes for a light-tasting but satisfying meal. In each 2-ounce serving are a whopping 25 grams of protein, 215 calories, 23 grams of carbs, 12 grams of fiber, plus hefty doses of potassium, calcium and iron. If black beans aren’t your bean of choice, Explore also offers pastas made from lentils, edamame and rice.
Banza, $25 For Six 8-oz. Boxes
It may look like traditional pasta, but Banza is actually an entire line of chickpea-based pastas in all your favorite shapes (pinwheel, anyone?). Each package contains only 8 ounces (so half of a traditional 1-pound pasta package), but testers found you didn’t need nearly as much to fill you up, thanks to its denser texture and higher protein content. The texture is right in line with whole-wheat pasta—slightly chewy—but the flavor and fun shapes made it a hit with both kids and pasta-picky husbands. Because it’s so rich in protein, it makes an easy last-second dinner—just cook it up with whatever marinara-type sauce you have in the cupboard without needing to add extra protein to your meal. In each 2-ounce serving are 14 grams of protein (thanks to both the chickpeas and added pea protein), 190 calories, 32 grams of carbs, 8 grams of fiber and a hefty dose of iron.
Barilla Veggie, $20 For Eight 12-oz. Boxes
If you hate eating veggies (or have a hard time talking your family into them), this line of veggie pastas from Italian pasta powerhouse Barilla is a simple way to sneak them in. The pastas—available in a penne shape made with carrots and tomatoes, and in rotini and spaghetti shapes both made with zucchini and spinach—are 75 percent whole-wheat pasta and 25 percent vegetable puree. In taste tests, the texture of the rotini was surprisingly pleasant (almost identical to normal pasta), and the veggie flavor was undetectable. We liked pairing it with either pesto or a vodka sauce with some chicken sausage. In each 2-ounce serving of the rotini are 200 calories, 8 grams of protein, 41 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals, just like in other enriched whole-wheat pastas.
This post originally appeared on Womensrunning.com.