Pasta sure has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Ever since protein-packed, carbohydrate-conserving diets captured the attention of health-conscious Americans, pasta has practically been relegated to junk food status. In an effort to temper blood-sugar levels and control their weight, many people stopped noshing on noodles altogether. That's a shame, considering the merits of this economical, nutritious, versatile and tasty food.

Contrary to popular belief, pasta is actually a low-glycemic index food. This means that it has a more moderate effect on blood glucose and energy levels when digested than high-glycemic index refined foods, such as white rice and white bread. The carbohydrates in high-glycemic index foods are quickly digested, causing a spike in blood glucose (sugar) levels, followed by a sharp dip that can leave you feeling sluggish.

Low-glycemic index foods like pasta provide more sustained energy throughout the day, and they may even help reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, while encouraging healthy weight.

The most common pasta varieties--spaghetti, macaroni, penne and the like--are made with semolina flour, which comes from durum wheat and contains vitamin-E-rich wheat germ. In addition, pasta tends to be low in sodium and fat and enriched with essential B vitamins (thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin), as well as iron.

Of course, not all pasta dishes are created equal. Follow these tips to get more nutritional bang for your buck while avoiding common pasta pitfalls.

1. When at home, do as the Romans do. Moderate pasta's impact on blood sugar for sustained energy by cooking it as the Italians do: al dente, or "to the tooth." Noodles should remain slightly chewy as opposed to mushy. Besides, pasta tends to hold the sauce nicely when cooked to perfection. Follow al dente cooking instructions on the box and sample a noodle or two along the way.

2. Pay attention to portion size. Despite the heaping servings many restaurants dish out, portion control is important. When dining out, consider splitting a pasta entrĂ©e with someone, and order a salad, too. At home, serve pasta in shallow pasta bowls instead of large dinner plates, and dish it up in the kitchen to avoid overindulging at the table. Serve a vegetable, salad or lean meat side dish alongside a pasta dish to boost nutrition and variety.

3. Spoon on a healthy sauce. Alfredo is not your friend. This and other cream-based sauces tend to be high in saturated fat and calories, so opt instead for tomato- and olive-oil-based varieties. You'll get more "good" fats and health-promoting antioxidants while keeping your waistline in check. Liven up sauces up with garlic, onion, sliced olives, fresh herbs, sea salt and pepper. Sprinkle a small amount of finely grated parmesan or other strong-flavored hard cheese on top for added pizzazz.

4. Pile on the veggies. Pasta presents a perfect opportunity to boost your intake of nutrient-rich, low-calorie vegetables. Zucchini, broccoli, roasted red peppers, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant--the sky's the limit.

5. Try something new. The array of pasta options on store shelves continues to expand, with varieties ranging from gluten-free and omega-3-enriched (to up healthy-fat intake) to whole-wheat pastas. The latter provide more fiber than traditional varieties but have a chewier texture that doesn't appeal to everyone. Try a half-and-half combination of whole-wheat with semolina flour. There's no shortage of pasta shapes either, so mix it up to avoid a spaghetti rut.

If you're having trouble thinking of fresh ideas, consider going beyond spaghetti by giving a whole new shape to your pasta dishes. Here are a few favorites:

  • Capellini: Meaning "fine hairs," this slender noodle is also called angel hair pasta and goes best with delicate sauces.
  • Farfalle: Meaning "butterflies," it's also known as bow tie pasta. This is a fun shape for kids and works well with most sauces or soups.
  • Linguine: This means "little tongues," and it's a flat, narrow noodle that compliments a variety of dishes--it's often paired with clam sauce or shrimp marinara.
  • Orecchiette: Meaning "little ears," this small, round shape hold up to chunkier sauces.
  • Ziti: Another word for "bridegrooms," this tube-shaped pasta, like a smooth penne, is great for baked dishes.

Liz Brown

Liz Brown is a health, nutrition and travel writer based in Portland, Ore. She holds a B.S. degree in nutrition and is co-author (with Chris Meletis, N.D.) of the book "Enhancing Fertility: A Couple's Guide to Natural Approaches" (Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004). Brown is also a Spa magazine contributing editor.